Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why So Few Women in the Computer Field? A message for the guys

A lot of paper, hot air, and numerous bits and bytes have been used in the last few years to discuss why more women aren't going into computer-related fields. Scholarly papers, NY Times articles, science magazines, blog posts, and online forums have all discussed the problem.

Some articles claim it's because women aren't as technically-savvy or as interested in technology as men. Nonsense. Some articles say that women are too smart to go into a field where all the jobs are moving to India. Nonsense. Women are smart (and practical about supporting their families), but all the jobs aren't moving to India. This is especially true for network engineering. Someone has to be back here in the US to make sure the pointy-haired managers and marketing dweebs can communicate with the software sweat shops in India. Just kidding!

There's lots of work to be done and we need the women. It's crazy to tap into only 50% of the population. We face enormous challenges with digital video, virtual reality, neural prosthetics, bioinformatics, IPv4 running out addresses, BGP scalability, network security, online privacy, medical records management, energy grid modernization, and getting the inter-galactic Internet up and running.

Most of the scholarly papers, NY Times articles, etc., don't talk about the elephant in the room: the computer field hosts many men who discriminate against women. In addition, many men in the field communicate in bizarre Mars-like ways that are confusing to those of us from Venus. The field has many nice men too, of course, and many highly intelligent, hard-working and ethical men who have social skills and good grooming techniques, but it can't be denied that there's much room for improvement in the male nerd population.

I would like to give some advice to men in the computer field, especially those who say they would like to see more women in the field:

  • Please bathe every day. Yes, every day. :-)
  • Doing laundry can be fun. Do it early and often. Bring entertainment so it's not so boring. iPhones are good for this.
  • It's OK to say "I don't know" when you don't know something.
  • Don't puff yourself up into a big balloon. A lot of us women simply can't help ourselves -- we will prick the balloon and it won't be pretty.
  • Don't hire your male cronies when more qualified women have inquired about the job.
  • It's not OK to say, "The department would hire a woman if they could find a qualified one with nice boobs." (A colleague told me that, though he used a different word than boobs. This was in 2008, by the way. I'm not talking about the 70s here.)
  • It's OK to occasionally compliment a woman on her clothes. It's not OK to comment on her clothes, hair, or earrings every single day.
  • Please give us eye contact when talking to us.
  • An occasional glance at the boobs is probably normal. I admit that, especially when I'm nervous, I occasionally glance below the belt. Staring is not OK, however.
  • It's illegal and unethical to hire your auto mechanic buddy because you "want to give him a chance" when a qualified female engineer is vying for the work.
  • It's not OK to say that women will never get ahead because too many decisions are made in the men's room. A colleague told me that. He'd be surprised at all the decisions that are made in the women's room, including the one where the women engineers decided that he's an idiot.
  • Try to listen to what we say and then comment based on what you heard.
  • Don't spend the entire time we're talking figuring out how you're going to refute what we said. Once in a while we actually say something right and useful.
  • Please comment your code.
  • We aren't competing for your job (usually). Give us a break. There's enough work to go around.
  • If we ask a question, it means we are interested in having a technical discussion. Please don't reply with patronizing attempts to "help the little lady understand."
  • Equal employment opportunity -- it's the law.
  • Don't ask women who are in the computer field why there aren't more women. We can't explain someone else's point of view. Ask the women who aren't going into the field.
  • Recruit those women who aren't going into computer fields. A lot of very smart women go into biology, chemistry, medicine, library science, criminology, and the law. Recruit them!
  • It's not OK to say, "She got the job because she has sex appeal." (A colleague told me that in reference to a recent female hire who had a 4.0 grade-point average from one of the best colleges in the world, with a major in physics and a minor in computer science. He, by the way, never finished college.)
  • Give credit where credit is due. You'll do a lot of your own work and it will be good. You don't need to make it look like your female colleague's work is yours.
  • Please don't wear cologne. Deodorant, on the other hand, is a good thing.
  • And finally, please work out at the gym. We like to look at buff guys fixing our computers. Just kidding!


  1. The photo, by the way, was taken by a terrific German engineer who took a class I taught in London. He took a number of fantastic photos. I like this one because I look like such a nerd. :-) Note that I'm so focused on the mechanics of the London Eye that I'm missing the beautiful, ancient sights of London.

  2. The problem I'm running into at my current job is that there are men who really don't want me there because of my gender. They don't come out and say, "Ew, you're a girl," but they might as well. The ways they show it are subtle but effective.

    1. They remove me from email threads. If my team members don't pay close attention and add me back into the threads, I often get taken out of the loop and later look like an idiot in meetings when I have no idea what's been going on.
    2. They go to my boss and tell him I'm not qualified to do my job. They've done this twice now, citing things like a typo in a password file I never touched and saying that it is an example of my incompetence. Or not knowing about an obscure proprietary script they use all the time.

    I've also had conversations with men who won't talk directly to me. When I contribute something, they look at one of the other men in the group and respond to my statements while looking at the other men. It's crazy making.

    One common response when I tell people this stuff is, go to a different company where they don't treat you this way. I've had several jobs over the past 12 years and they all have idiots like the ones in these examples. I think the real solution is to focus on the ones who are willing to work with me and the rest be damned.

  3. Thanks for the comment, nancorbett! I've had similar experiences, especially the one where men don't talk directly to me. Isn't that weird that they do that?

    Because we women are so often an extreme minority in IT work environments, we often end up being the only woman in technical discussions or discussions about how to move forward to solve a problem. Like you, I have had the experience where everything I say is seemingly ignored. But it's not really ignored because often one of the guys will say it's a good idea but attribute it to one of the other guys! Or one of the guys will repeat what I said and everyone will nod and act like he's had a brilliant idea (even though it was my idea). It's frustrating.

    I don't know if men know that they do this. I suspect that a lot of them don't. Some of them simply can't let go of their stereotypes and prejudice long enough to see their women colleagues as just "one of the guys" so to speak.

    Once again, I would mention that there are many men in the field (especially younger ones) who don't do this kind of crap, but it's prevalent enough that most of us women have experienced it.

  4. You go, Priscilla! I'm so proud of you for being specific and saying what things are not okay. "Your silence will not protect you" and "Well-behaved women never make history" both come to mind.

    Blessings from your sister-in-law,
    Liz Opp(enheimer), The Good Raised Up

    P.S. I'm going to put a link to this post on my Facebook page!

  5. Priscilla, I could not agree with you more! OK, I'm gay so my feminine side comments on my code while the masculine doesn't make comments based on what I heard! I really like what you said, especially about giving "Joe Blow" mechanic the same job in which a female would be qualified for. What has to change in todays world is the male dominated board room. Look at our economy and the battles that have been fought... all men CEO's, all men bravado macho crap. I served in the military with some very astute women; very knowledgeable and very smart. In a battle in which I needed some tactical intel and/or calm decision making, I would rather have a woman... or a great looking man.... just kidding. Thanks for this! I am now a follower of this blog!

    Matthias David Moore - Greenville, SC

  6. Priscilla, I would like to first apologize for all of those curmudgeons young an old. I'm about 27 (and a half) and I for one would like to see more women in the tech industry. Besides the fact that I would like to be able to talk about remote triggered black-hole routing on a date. (just once) I think it is an incredible waste to have something so integral to the evolution of our society be maintained by one half of the population. Women think differently. (a bit of a double edged sword...) They will often be able to come up with different ways of doing things based on this and their life experiences. The IT industry among others is in dire need of a female touch. I'd like to add a list of rules for women. If I may be so bold... :)

    1. We are not all out to get you.
    I'm guilty of alot of the egoism and bravado that makes this industry what it is. Agreed.. Still we are not all pigs. Some us know we're better off with a little help from the fairer sex and have been waiting for you.

    2. Do not give us too many things to do or think about at once. It is a scientific fact that men cannot multitask as well as women. We can switch between different tasks quickly but that is still different than what a woman is capable of at "full-tilt".

    3. We cannot communicate as well as you guys do.
    It's not because we're all cave men. Our frontal lobes are smaller. Most of the time we mean well. We average about 7,000 words per day and use most of them to talk to ourselves. You average about 20,000 and actually talk to others. Sometimes you have to find us and ask for information that we probably should have just communicated. Unless the guys an ass it's probably not intentional.

    4. You don't always have to take crap from the guys. Not every woman is guilty of this, but still you don't always have to put up with the nonsense. Too often I see women decide not to say anything because this is a "male dominated" industry. Nothing is ever going to change if no-one held accountable for what's wrong.

    5. If you are in a position of power don't hire another women simply to give her a chance. Yes I know men do it 10 times as much. However, if women do the same it kind of validates that point of view. This goes for other minorities in he office place as well (people of color, republicans, those with under-achieving family members)

    I can probably think of a few more but I hear my soapbox cracking. Here's to all the chauvinists (male and female) who have no idea what they're missing. Great blog Pricilla. I finally read TDND by the way.


  7. The laundry and bathing stuff? I'm not the hygiene police. You wanna smell? Knock yourself out.

    But don't be a sexist ass. Seriously. That's what drove me out.

  8. "We are not all out to get you."

    Helpful hint: you are part of the problem.

    "Do not give us too many things to do or think about at once[...]We cannot communicate as well as you guys do."

    This isn't about men, our expectations of men or men using their privilage to define how we must interact with men. We've learned to navigate a misogynistic, ego-filled technical world in order to succeed; you could learn how to communicate.

    "You don't always have to take crap from the guys."

    I want to spend my days writing code. What I don't want to do is spend all my days combating sexist assumptions, fighting back against every little, snide comment or alienating the men I have to work with tomorrow and the next day and the next day by telling them I'm not available for oogling. I've had extreme sexual harassment, and even then it took enormous courage to speak up and I still got piles of crap from other people for saying anything at all.

    "If you are in a position of power don't hire another women simply to give her a chance. Yes I know men do it 10 times as much. However, if women do the same it kind of validates that point of view."


  9. Bethany, maybe I am part of the problem. I've never made snide remarks at my female coworkers. My ogling is relegated to short glances most of which have stopped due to genuine friendships. I'm still a guy but I am trying to be more aware of my actions. I wasn't trying to use any privilege to define anything. Besides, I'm a 27 year-old black guy. I know I have it easier than most women, but I'm still one rung up from the bottom. I merely was trying to point out that we are different and give some friendly advice for dealing with the guys who mean well. I'm sorry for whatever you went through. I honestly am suprised that stuff like this still happens. I think you did the right thing by speaking up. And I probably wasn't talking to you with that particular point. If we would have been friends I would have tried to help where appropriate. Not that I'm some kind of saint, just that that's the good side of being one rung up from the bottom. I guess I was trying to be helpful. Whenever there is an honest account from women about their male co-workers it always extremely negative especially in this industry. I for one have been trying to be respectful and fair and I thought my input would be welcome here. We're not all the same..

  10. I think it must have been luck of the draw, but I'm 38 and have been in numerous jobs throughout my life and I've never worked in an environment that discriminated against women. I've had women in authority positions at every job I've had, in a few different industries. Since I've moved to the technical side of things, I've worked with many, many women. At my current job, I'd guess that about 2/5ths of the employees in our IT department are women and only one is attractive enough to have gotten the job from looks alone. :) (just kidding...)

    I think my experience has left me insulated from a lot of this. None of the people I have worked with in the past would put up with this sort of discrimination. Even the most overtly piggish of guys that I've worked with would not stand for actual discrimination.

  11. John, as a man, you don't have to notice the experiences of women. It's part of your privilege. That women haven't told you doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And having women supervisors doesn't mean that sexism doesn't exist in your workplace.

    So as a woman, I'd appreciate you never, ever say that the places you work don't discriminate against women.

    IT is the ONLY industry where the percentage of women working in the field has gone down over time.

  12. I, too, work in a field historically dominated by men. As a professional solar installer, I find myself lumped into 'construction industry.' The discrimination I often face is not always overt -- things like an obvious condescending tone when I am being spoken to, raised eyebrows and a chuckle of surprise when I enter the permitting office and show my general contractor's license, 'macho' rudeness when I go to a supply warehouse. Most times I forge ahead and earn my own respect; sometimes I vow to find another place to do business with. But the fact that I have to earn respect when others have it when they walk in the door, that is discrimination too. I vote for another blog entry, Priscilla!