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.