When I was invited to speak at a “Women in Tech” panel discussion hosted by Conversant and Tech Nexus in Chicago, my internal reaction was “ah hell no!” as I fit in nicely with the 90% of the population who hate public speaking. However, it took almost no convincing for me to accept the invitation because I know how important these events are for women working in the tech industry.
While college seems forever ago, I’ll never forget walking into my first computer programming class and wondering where all the girls were. Four years later, I graduated with less than a handful of women who were ready to take on the male-dominated world of coding. Throughout my career in tech, I’ve grown accustomed to colleagues, co-workers, conference speakers and attendees, and mentors and leaders being predominantly male. Whenever I want to engage in technical conversations, I typically find myself among a group of men.
Why was this such a memorable moment for me? If you Google “top 10 tech leaders,” you’ll repeatedly see names like Bill Gates and Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Jony Ive (Apple), Travis Kalanick (Uber), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Jack Ma (Alibaba), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Paul Eremenko (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Elon Musk (Tesla). Seeing a pattern here? Men in tech are ubiquitous. This is why I’m never surprised when I attend tech conferences and get asked if I’m a recruiter or an event planner. No one assumes I’m there to learn alongside the boys. One conference I attended gave us a code challenge as a hands-on way of learning, and I won. When I went to collect my prize, the sponsors apologized because the prize options were all geared towards men. Looking around the room, I couldn’t fault them. However, it was still disappointing, and again, raised the question: why?
There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. More recently, you may have heard one such theory from an engineer at Google who wrote a 10-page manifesto about women being biologically unfit to handle the programmatic nature of the tech world. He thought he was uncovering the “real” problem facing women in tech — that being our own DNA. What he didn’t realize is that he is the problem — culture and attitude.
As a young woman, it’s hard to gain the courage and confidence to enter a field in which this mindset is pervasive. A large cultural shift must happen globally in order to increase women’s interest and confidence in contributing to STEM fields, and it has to start early on. Young girls should be handed building blocks as frequently as they’re given toy makeup kits and Barbie dolls. Young boys should be insensitive to girls playing in their space and raised to view them as equals. It shouldn’t be demoralizing or menacing for boys to lose to a girl, or run like a girl, or throw like a girl. We need to re-condition our youth to think differently. The lack of female interest in male-dominated industries like tech will endure if women continue to get pushed out from the start. The “girls versus boys” mentality begins with children and transfers into adulthood, and that’s how you end up with a manifesto circulating the internet about women’s inabilities to code at pace with men, even in 2017.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people what I do for a living (as well as for fun) and receive a look of surprise in response. Immediate follow-up questions often turn inappropriate. All these verbal and nonverbal messages contribute to a feeling that women don’t belong or shouldn’t want to belong in a field where men rule. It’s no wonder girls shy away from pursuing STEM career paths or rarely consider one to begin with — we’ve been told our whole lives, at least subliminally, that it’s not for us. Even for the minority who break away from the mold, when you’re in a room full of smart men talking about a subject that they sort of “own” by societal standards, you need a lot of confidence to make your voice heard. The more women are seen as leaders in tech, the less of a struggle it will be over time.
It’s difficult for a millennial like me to talk about challenges women face in the working world today knowing that in recent history, women weren’t even allowed to study or take on leadership positions in STEM, or any field for that matter. Women before me fought some serious battles to earn respect. They were denied by universities, forced to give credit, patents, and awards to their male colleagues, and often had to disguise themselves with male names. The mindset and obstacles women faced only a few generations ago are unfathomable to me. Their perseverance afforded modern-day women the opportunities we have today and highlights the importance of pushing for change.
The problems created by the gender gap in tech don’t just affect women; they also hurt companies and the industry at large. The reality is, technology is life for most of us. Sure, there are some who could go without checking their cell phones longer than others, but that hardly scratches the surface of how much technology has infiltrated our daily lives and has become ingrained in our society. Women make up at least 50 percent of the audience that consumes technology and influences purchasing decisions. Think of the benefits businesses stand to gain by putting women in the equation of building technology-driven solutions — a host of ideas and implementation strategies for solving problems that women can uniquely identify and understand. Additionally, as more and more companies step into the digital age, they will undoubtedly need a broader, more diverse pool of talent, and they cannot afford to leave women out.
I’d like to wrap up by reiterating that the scarcity of women in tech is not due to a lack of intelligence or ability, and there are no flaws in our DNA. It’s a lack of interest for the reasons aforementioned and more; but we can change that! To all the young girls and women out there who aren’t considering technology as a career choice, take it from someone who lives it daily: it’s not too geeky, it’s not over your head, you’re smart enough to compete and excel, and we need you. I realize that keeping up with the latest devices, software releases, web trends, programming languages, etc., could seem overwhelming, and it can be; but trust me, it’s equally as energizing. Whether I’m at work or at home, much of how I learn technology is by being brave enough to experiment and break things with the confidence and determination to figure out how to fix them. That, in itself, is incredibly empowering and rewarding. And at the rate technology is growing, you’ll get to relive those feelings of accomplishment over and over again. If entering a male-dominated field deters you, fear not because we live in a time where there are plenty of companies, including Conversant, who support and encourage growth, learning, and leadership, regardless of gender.
I hope every woman reading this is little more inspired to play an active role in technology, even in small ways. Should you choose not to make it your career path, that’s perfectly okay, but don’t count yourself out as a contributor. You can simply challenge yourself to learn more, become an early adopter for consuming new technology, listen and participate in technical discussions, and above all, make it known that tech isn’t just for the boys.