Compared with other industries, the proportion of women in technology-related fields tends to be much lower. But identifying the reasons behind this disparity is more difficult. Do efforts to get more girls and women interested in science and technology (STEM) truly represent a desire to promote opportunity for all, or are they simply politically motivated social-engineering schemes? Here are a few perspectives to consider.
Lies, Damned Lies And…
Statistics. They are only as truthful as the narrative that surrounds them. Advocates for increasing the representation of women in STEM fields invariably trot out numbers showing how men dominate fields like computer science, physics, engineering and so on. At Computerworld, for instance, Jonny Evans opines, “When it comes to the lack of women in technology, we must eradicate [institutionalized sexism] in order to ensure that the industry is truly representative of the planet it is changing.”
But the critical (and unasked) question is what constitutes equitable representation? Assume for the moment that for the sake of numerical simplicity, the world’s population breaks down to 50% men and 50% women. Does that mean that the representation of men and women in each and every industry should be 1:1? No one consistently advocates such a policy; by this standard, men are underrepresented in a variety of areas.
- Women far outweigh men in elementary education. Since education is a perennial hot topic, one might question why men constitute less than 20% of elementary- and middle-school teachers, as well as less than a measly 2% of preschool and kindergarten teachers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Given the (roughly) equal representation of male and female students, shouldn’t teachers have a similar breakdown? You’ve probably read precious few articles, books and other publications that bemoan this disparity in teaching young citizens at their most impressionable ages. (That is, the industry is not “truly representative of the planet it is changing.”)
- Women earn most post-secondary degrees. As Mark J. Perry summarizes at the American Enterprise Institute website, “No commencement speaker will mention the huge gender college degree gap for the class of 2013 favoring women.” Estimates for 2013 indicate that women earn nearly two-thirds of all associate’s degrees, as well as almost 57% of bachelor’s degrees and about 60% of master’s degrees. Even for doctoral degrees women beat mean, earning almost 52% of them. That means, particularly if you ignore STEM areas where men dominate, women are hugely overrepresented in degree awards.
- Women have longer life expectancies. What could be more unfair than that? Worldwide, women live an average of almost five more years than men. Were the Title IX approach to the problem enacted in this case, older women would be euthanized in the name of fairness. Thankfully, no one is advocating such hideous measures.
These facts simply show that 1:1 representation is not pursued on principle; it is simply a convenient tool that is employed when needed (often for politically motivated purposes) and then tossed aside when “fixing” the problem would be undesirable. So, a lack of 1:1 representation of men to women in technology is not necessarily an injustice that requires a remedy. Nor does it mean that barriers to women entering the field are nonexistent. It simply means that underrepresentation doesn’t always imply injustice.
Fairness or Social Engineering?
Fairness is a slippery and, often, insidious concept. It’s employed equally by those who want to see justice and those who want to justify mischief. Obviously, the idea of men systematically excluding women from certain opportunities for biological reasons unrelated to the job is odious. But equally distasteful are attempts to herd people into roles they don’t want in order to fulfill political goals (the defining characteristic of central planners).
Evans notes, “Research by Maria Klaw at Harvey Mudd College shows young women don’t think technology is interesting.” His conclusion? “That’s ridiculous. We’re talking about a lively industry that touches almost every part of human experience, that rewards its workers with above-average salaries, and that has jobs going begging.” In other words, there’s no consideration that maybe (some) women really don’t find technology and other STEM fields to be appealing career paths. Instead, they are effectively told that they don’t know what’s good for them. Granted, Evans may be appealing only to those who are turned off by other factors (which can indeed lead to disinterest), but he offers no evidence as to how often this actually occurs as opposed to how often it is genuine personal preference.
The notion that STEM is fun and exciting—after all, look at these cool gadgets like iPhones and medical equipment and robots and on and on—ignores the tedium that many workers actually face. Seldom is an individual involved in the overall engineering of a device; instead, many focus on minute problems that fail to provide a sense of working on an important project with real application. Graduate-level research is another area where this phenomenon is rampant.
So, to dismiss claims by women that they find technology careers uninteresting as simply the result of male oppression is to impose a preconceived notion: precisely the sort of thinking that is characteristic of social engineering. Yes, girls and women who have talent and/or interest in technology should be encouraged and enabled to pursue it. Yes, men who impose barriers against women in STEM fields are jerks that companies should censure. But lest we begin to look on women as inferior individuals who need coddling throughout their lives, it’s important to note that everyone deals with unfairness and barriers in life. And indeed, it’s the challenges that enable each of us to build character. Fighting injustice is one thing, but it should avoid railroading individuals to meet political goals.
Perhaps Women Are Smarter Than Men
Technology careers pay more. Almost everybody uses gadgets. The technology industry is a relative bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy. Technology jobs are readily available (a debatable point). These reasons are typically cited by those decrying the comparative absence of women from technology education and careers. But they seldom bring up the dark sides of technology:
- Technology can dehumanize people. Look at an even mildly controversial article online, then check out a few of the comments. How often do you see that level of vitriol in face-to-face interactions?
- Technology can be a treadmill. Imagine all the effort that goes into creating the latest iPhone model. Now imagine how that model will be old news in a year. The endless pursuit of novelty over timelessness can be exhausting and downright boring.
- Technology doesn’t address the most important parts of life. Yes, technology can enable many remarkable feats. Yes, it provides benefits despite its downsides. But when it comes to the timeless questions of life (what is right/wrong, “why am I here?” and so on), technology is but a bauble. Other fields, like art, history, medicine, music and so on can be just as important, if not more so, than technology. (What's greater, the iPod or the music it plays?)
- Technology can cut off human interaction. Restaurants today are filled with people whose faces glow with the light from their smartphones. For all its amazing capabilities, technology can separate people who are sitting right next to each other.
And on and on. Perhaps women simply recognize the downsides of technology more than men and wish to instead pursue other careers. Maura Charette, an eighth grader, says at IEEE Spectrum, “Working as an engineer for a utility company or as a biologist specializing in fungi may be fascinating to some people, but that’s not how I want to spend my life. And to pursue and succeed in those one-dimensional jobs, you have to study very hard and get good grades in the most difficult subjects. I don’t mind working hard, but I also want a career that allows me to pursue my full range of interests—like writing, art, and history, as well as STEM topics. I don’t know what that career is yet, but I know what it isn’t.”
Women now dominate the university and even outnumber men in the workforce, yet they are supposedly incapable of making any headway in technology without the paternalistic assistance of social engineers. Some barriers probably do exist to women pursuing technology careers—perhaps not unlike those that probably exist to men pursuing careers in elementary education. But to claim that these barriers are the sole—or even overriding—reason for the disparity is to oversimplify a nuanced subject.
Image courtesy of Anita Borg Institute