Women in Tech and Men in Nursing

I recently read an article in the The New York Times discussing the lack of women in technology, and especially running technology start-ups. According to the article, women account for 22% of software engineers in high-tech companies, and run around 8% of venture-backed tech start-ups.

I am an engineer and I worked for a decade as a programmer, so these numbers don’t surprise me. My office was one of the few places where you’d be more likely to see a line-up for the men’s washroom than the women’s. I entered engineering school in 1994, and over my 16 years in school and in the field, the gender divide more or less held steady. But raising the issue begs the question – so what?

Engineers and scientists and programmers create the things we use every day, and sometimes men don’t understand what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman. For example, I once talked with a colleague who was working on a product that would be worn on a clip on a pants pocket. When I asked him where you would put it if you didn’t have a pants pocket, he looked a little flummoxed. He had never worn a dress or a skirt. But I had, so I could immediately see an issue he’d overlooked. If women are involved in product design, they can spot issues that affect women more than they affect men. That’s a good thing, because who wants to be frustrated when their ability to use basic tools is compromised?

Beyond design issues, there are basic questions of how we structure society. Women are chronically underrepresented in technology, on corporate boards and in government. When we exclude, explicitly or otherwise, a whole gender from certain roles we really ought to ask why that is. Ideally, anyone should be able to pursue any occupation without regards for gender, with a few possible exceptions. My husband would not make a good surrogate mother, and I will concede that my total lack of upper body strength might be detrimental in certain jobs. But if you’re talking about wrestling bureaucracy or working at a desk, no such differences exist.

While can readily point out issues with gender imbalances in tech companies, the one-sidedness of this discussion concerns me. For instance, I can’t recall reading articles about how we need more male nurses or elementary school teachers. According to Wikipedia, only 5.4% of registered nurses in the US are men. And in elementary school classrooms in the US the number of male teachers is in decline, with the latest figure being around 9%. Wouldn’t our children benefit from both male and female perspectives in schools? And wouldn’t the health care system benefit if genders were more evenly represented in all roles?

Focusing on increasing the number of women in traditionally male roles, without also encouraging men to pursue traditionally female roles, betrays a sexism all its own. In a nudge-nudge wink-wink way, we are made to understand that real men shouldn’t want to work in the nurturing fields. It supposes that male-dominated fields are more desirable or important and that everyone should prefer them. We acknowledge that they aren’t family-friendly, but we say that we need women to enter the fields to bring change. Why should women want to make that sacrifice? Why should we want to work in male-dominated workplaces, if men would never dream of working in female-dominated ones?

I don’t want to see women held back from holding government office, running companies or writing computer software on the basis of their gender. I wrote software and I think it was a great thing for me. But if we really want society to change we need to take a broader view. We need to consider why women aren’t pursuing those avenues and correct the inequities that exist up front. And we need to lose the pink collar stigma. We will never have true equity as long as “women’s work” isn’t valued or viewed as important and worthy enough for anyone to pursue.

What do you think? Do you think that we should focus more on encouraging women to pursue traditionally male roles because of past inequity? Do you see any problems with the lack of men in nursing or teaching? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Just a quick reminder about April’s Crafting my Life series link up this coming Thursday. To participate, write a post on dealing with negativity anytime in April, or track down a post you’ve written on the subject sometime in the past, and add yourself to the list. Then read everyone else’s posts and be inspired! Check out the link-ups from January, February and March to get a feel for how it works.

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  1. Hi Amber,

    The point you raise is an interesting one only I don’t see how the teaching and nursing are considered “women’s work.” The article you linked regarding the number of male teachers being on the decline points out the reasons for the decline, one of them being that the role is more of a nurturing role but also that the starting salary is lower than the average salary for someone starting a career out of University. I guess the business world pays better for the same education than our schools do -to which points to another inequality – how much our teachers in general are valued. My opinion is that the teaching career is more dominated by women because of the summers off! Why not stay home with the kids every summer and save the cost of daycare? And don’t we expect men to be the bread winners in the family? The article also points out that the National Education Association is doing many things to encurage furture male participation in the field and also points out the value of having more men in the field. I don’t see women being held back by anything other than the fact that we naturally have to take a break from work to have babies – which is ultimately our decision in life. The nursing article you linked points out that more men are joining the profession and although they themselves feel discriminated against it’s really the women in the profession that are being overlooked for raises or advancement. It also outlines this fact: female nurses were 10 times more likely to have taken a career break for babies. This field (according to the article you linked) shows a greater discrimination towards women eventhough it is more dominated by women which I find very interesting. Great thought provoking post – thank you.
    .-= Tanya´s last post ..My house =-.

  2. Amen to that!
    .-= Sarah´s last post ..This Moment … =-.

  3. I work in a science related field in the technology field and there are lots of women here….I think the tide is turning a bit because it seems there are more younger technical woman coming out of school.

  4. Great post, Amber. Great point about nobody whining that there are not enough male nurses or male teachers.
    .-= AmberDusick´s last post ..Bay Area Road Trip Quick Recap =-.

  5. My husband is an elementary teacher and finds the endless femaleness of the environment difficult to take at times. Slagging husbands and men is a popular topic around the water cooler, and he understandably finds this offensive. There is NO reason for elementary teaching to be dominated by women. We need more Yin:Yang out there. That said, I worked in high tech and found the Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons environment equally hard to take 😉 complex issues.
    .-= harriet Fancott´s last post ..Blindsided again =-.

  6. I think letting children follow their passions without labeling jobs as boy or girl jobs will help girls feel more comfortable about seeking more traditionally male jobs if they are attracted to them. Of course it’s society that needs changing more than anything. At the same time I would never dissuade my daughters from seeking traditionally female jobs if they were interested in them.
    .-= Melodie´s last post ..Missing: Long Lost Love =-.

  7. There are SO many points in your post that I agree with. If women don’t have or don’t choose to give themselves a voice in the major tools that we all use, we end up with tools that don’t work so well. If Facebook had a female founder, how likely is it that we’d need to protest the banning of breastfeeding pictures? Would Apple have selected the name iPad?

    And on the other side, male teachers in elementary school would be such good role models. As a mother of boys, I worry that their relative squirminess compared to girls of the same age will get them into trouble. A diversity of perspectives is valuable to the whole population.
    .-= Lady M´s last post ..The iGraham =-.

  8. A real change of society would start at home, and whereas I firmly believe we should encourage anyone to pursue the career they wish disregarding their gender, the truth is that in many families daddy pursues a career while mommy stays at home at least part of the time, and jiggles house, young children, and her own dreams and aspirations. I once took my boys to the birthday party of a danish friend: the father stayed at home with a bunch of wild little kids and ran the show, while the mother and I drove to the city to go shopping for the whole afternoon. It was a Saturday, his day to be a full time father at home.
    .-= Francesca´s last post ..Red! =-.

  9. When I quit my last job they hired a man to do my role. He had 5 years less experience than me but got a company car, a higher base salary plus a higher commission. The guy didn’t deliver.

    On the other hand I know a bloke who wanted to become a midwife. To no avail. So unless women can accept men in female roles too, not much can change.
    .-= Mel´s last post ..Gut feeling and the ideal customer =-.

  10. I’ve told you this before but I’m trained as a surveyor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the representation of women in the surveying field was even lower than engineering or software development. I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with having male dominated or female dominated fields. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with a man or woman pursuing any career option they fancy. Go for it!

    The reason I don’t think we should spend so much time on evening out gender imbalance is that men and women are different. I know I don’t think anything like my husband or any other man I’ve been with. Sure we have similarities of course but quite often men and women think and process things differently. It seems only natural that there would be an inbalance for some careers. I’m alright with it.

    That said being the lone woman working for multiple survey companies was horrible. The sheer volume of sexist and disgusting remarks that were sent my way was the the reason I left the field. I don’t care if I’m working with 99% men but I don’t think that should allow them to act like pigs and I think that’s where the issue with gender imbalance often is.
    .-= Marilyn (A Lot of Loves)´s last post ..Afternoon Tea: Wednesday of Few Words =-.

  11. I’m torn on the subject. When I was in high school I remember feeling a fair bit of pressure to go into science and technology. From about grade 9 to grade 11 I was sure I wanted to be an engineer like my older brothers, and I certainly received plenty of encouragement from family and teachers to pursue that goal. It wasn’t until grade 12 that I realised I didn’t actually enjoy maths and sciences as much as I enjoyed english and history, so I ended up doing a B.A. For a while there I felt kind of like I was letting down the cause, like by choosing to go into arts I was somehow letting down womankind (I was, after all, the sort of kid who felt like the weight of the world was rested squarely on my shoulders).

    I don’t think the issue is so much that we need to balance out the numbers as that we need to create a welcoming environment for those women that do want to go into male-dominated fields and for men who want to go into female-dominated fields.
    .-= Mary Lynn´s last post ..Seven years plus a day =-.

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