Perhaps the greatest irony of the matter of women in IT (and other technology-related fields) is the almost incessant calls for what amounts to social engineering. A desire to allow women to pursue careers in IT without hassles or roadblocks simply because they are women has given way to a drive to all but con women into technology careers in order to satisfy western egalitarian sensibilities. So what’s the irony? A paternalistic upper class that looks not at individuals (women or men), but at groups.
The Technology Problem Is the Problem—Or Is It?
A recent article at Forbes.com (“Here's the Real Reason There Are Not More Women in Technology”) illustrates quite well the ironic attitude toward this topic. The article starts out promising enough—we’re going to find out what really causes women to be so relatively scarce in technology—but it fizzles with its climactic statement: “It turns out there are multiple reasons, but it boils down to a quantity problem. We simply do not have enough women choosing tech careers.”
An initial observation might be that the article is simply restating the problem (i.e., begging the question). One might also question exactly who the “we” is (“Brainwashing Starts With This Two-Letter Word”), what precisely defines “enough” and why, and what actions (if any) are warranted by this statement (assuming it is factual).
Before going any further, owing to the politically charged nature of discussions of this sort, I must point out that I am not against women in technology. I have written before on the matter of women in IT (“Women in the Data Center”), suggesting that a balanced view is in order: each individual woman (and man, for that matter) should be allowed to pursue any career she wants, and even encouraged in her talents and interests, but she should not be herded like cattle so the political Excel spreadsheet is kept tidy. “Balance is required: you’re just as likely to cause harm by being a zealot for equality as you are being a male chauvinist. Remember the law of unintended consequences!”
How Many More Centuries Do You Need?
Government-run mass-manufacturing-style schooling has been the norm for well over a century (arguably two), yet even though girls and boys go through essentially the exact same curriculum in government schools, women are still somehow unenlightened about their career options. The Forbes.com article cites Microsoft Small and Medium Sized Business VP Cindy Bates: “‘We need to do a better job of exposing women to technology related jobs.’” So, somehow, despite going through the same (lousy) schools and being the majority in universities, girls and women somehow are too hard headed to see the same opportunities that boys and men see.
When one speaks in terms of groups of people, this kind of language doesn’t seem so bad. But apply it to an individual, and it reeks of paternalism and condescension: You don’t know what your options are (or, at best, you’re not choosing what’s best for you), and we need to educate you. Ouch. And the problem is not so much that private groups and individuals are trying to encourage women to take an interest in technology; the problem is that these sentiments almost invariably end up as laws, regulations and government programs that end up restricting the freedom of some in the name of opportunity for others.
Groups or Individuals?
The Forbes.com article also cites Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd, as stating that the reasons women avoid technology careers are a lack of interest, a lack of perceived ability and a negative perception of workplace relations those in the field. But, according to the article’s author, “in today’s world, those views are officially over. Technology careers are interesting, women are great at it, and they get to work alongside extraordinary men and women.” But groups are not the same as individuals. Just because one person finds something interesting doesn’t mean another is wrong for finding it extraordinarily boring. Some women are good at technology-related jobs, some aren’t (just as with men). This kind of overgeneralization is exactly what leads to blockheaded politicians passing rules that really end up hurting both men and women. Certainly many women are uninterested in technology careers simply because they’d rather be artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, athletes, carpenters or any number of other productive, worthy roles. And it doesn’t always have to do with a lack of talent—some people could do well at any number of things, yet for practical reasons, they choose one or the other.
Forbes.com also cites statistics regarding teenage girls’ consideration of technology careers: “According to research by Penn Schoen and Berland (PSB), nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of teens have never considered a career in engineering. In another research study by Girl Scouts of America, only 13% of female teens say a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related career would be their first choice...From the research results, PSB found that 74% of teens that considered engineering did so only after being explained the economic benefits and impact they can have on the world.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that if you dangle money and recognition in front of someone (man or woman), he or she will consider your proposal, even if it’s something that is otherwise uninteresting. A more impressive statistic would have been a sharp increase in interest when teen girls are shown more closely what a technology career involves day to day.
Social Engineering: Paternalism at Its Finest
The ironic thing about calls to action over a relative dearth of women in IT and other technology fields is that they almost always involve a program of paternalism (or call it maternalism—whatever your preference). Maybe women are less interested in technology careers than men, but that can hardly be attributed to a lack of exposure to technology. Smartphones and other mobile devices, as well as other more traditional computers, are by no means the exclusive (or anywhere near it) province of men. Girls are just as glued at the eyes as boys to their devices to enable social networking, games, music and video, and so on.
“BUT we must strive to ensure that both sexes are rigorously pursuing technology careers.” Not prevent unjust exclusion of women from opportunities—women must (one would presume) be forced, or just convinced against their own innate interests, to pursue these careers. No, that’s probably not what the author of the article means, but is it such a leap? “In the final analysis, we all must be held accountable. If we fail to act, then we all suffer from the underutilization of talent.” Perhaps it’s not such a leap.
Women who want to pursue a career in technology should by all means be encouraged to do so—and that encouragement should come from parents, friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors and others in an individual’s life. Not from pundits of egalitarianism and social engineering, who are almost invariably unconcerned about individuals. Assume for a moment that it just so happens that far fewer women than men want to pursue technology careers; does that mean we need to reprogram women, or should we just accept that different groups of people will have different broad tendencies?
No doubt, some women have been held back in technology careers because they are women. But the answer is to deal with the problem individually—clear the barriers hindering those who want to pursue success in a given area, but don’t make a new mold that everyone must fit into.