HESP September 1, 2017

Women are drastically underrepresented in STEM fields, technology being one of the biggest offenders. According to a 2015 report by the National Science Foundation, even though the number of general science degrees awarded to women has risen, there has been a drop in undergraduate Computer Science degrees awarded to women since 2002 (the number of women earning post-graduate degrees, however, has risen slightly). Despite the fact that technology is one of the fastest growing employment sectors of the last twenty-five years (some estimates put the US STEM workforce size at well over 8 million by 2018), and despite an explosive growth in the number of women who have become members of the workforce, science and engineering remains an overwhelmingly male world – eighty-four percent of these jobs are currently held by primarily white males. So why aren’t women entering the technology field?

*****

It was time for the school science fair and, as a student of the gifted program, I was required to enter a project. I was a world-class procrastinator, and I had hastily tacked the necessary components to my cardboard display at the last minute in my science classroom during lunch break. Mrs. Reynolds, a tall, freckled woman with a long shock of frizzy red hair, looked over at me every few minutes, raised her eyebrows and shook her head in an absent-minded fashion – all of my teachers knew that if a big project was due, I could be relied upon to wait until the very last minute, making a rushed mess out of what could have been a solid A effort. I ignored her light admonishment and continued pasting.

The gymnasium, where all of the projects were to be displayed and later judged, was abuzz with students clamoring to set up in a prime spot and struggling to position their small potted plants or tin foil contraptions in the least precarious way on the wobbly fold-up tables. Projects were entered into categories – Life Sciences, Environment, Physics – and each category was designated a specific area for student displays. Some areas were already becoming over-crowded, and the teachers tasked with keeping an eye on the throng of adolescent scientists became mediators in a battle for space.

“You’re going to have to scoot your board over a bit, there needs to be room for everyone.”

“But Johnny took up half of the table with his…whatever that is! Why does he get more space than me?”

Many eye rolls and exasperated sighs later, compromise was found, and tempers cooled.

I walked to a nearly empty set of tables at the back of the gym, the dot matrix printed banner proclaiming “COMPUTER SCIENCE”. The category was relatively new – after all, in 1991, the closest thing to a computer that was found in most households was an Atari, or maybe a VHS player. Our science classroom had one Apple IIe that was mostly used to play Oregon Trail, a supposedly educational game where the real draw was the ability to die of dysentery. But I had used it to create my science project, one that I was immensely proud of.

I placed my board upright on the table, and reached into my cluttered backpack to pull out a large stack of printed computer paper. I left the paper feed holes attached, and the paper connected, so that if I grabbed the top of the first page and walked away, a large accordion-like paper Loch Ness monster would have chased behind me. I didn’t do this, however, as amusing as it might have been. I needed these papers to be readable, clean, almost professional.

For my science project, I had written a 1200 line program in BASIC that taught users the names and patterns of constellations – one of my very favorite subjects at the time. I tested the students of my seventh grade gifted science class on their prior knowledge during class (with Mrs. Reynolds’ permission, of course). I had each person use the program I had written, and then tested them to see if the program had improved their grasp of the subject. The program had been a success, showing a marked improvement in knowledge of constellations, and it confirmed my hypothesis beautifully. Given the slight competition in the Computer Science category, I assumed that I would win the day.

I excitedly returned to my project, already beaming with pride. When I arrived at the table, where the ribbons denoting place were haphazardly tacked to the winning projects, my heart sank. In a category that had seen only a handful of entries, my project had taken second place. Second? I scrambled through the crowd that lazily snaked through the rows of display boards toward the “COMPUTERS” section. The winner of first prize was a project on whether or not magnets erased floppy disks. My face turned red and tears welled in my eyes. Are you stupid? Of course magnets erase floppy disks. DUH. Afraid that tears would escape my eyes and tip everyone off to my lack of good-sportsmanship, I ran out of the gym and into a near-empty hallway.

I let the tears go, angrily wiping them from my cheeks as soon as they fell, hoping that no one would see me being a baby. After a few minutes alone, a figure slid up beside me.

“Hey, are you okay?”

It was Mrs. Reynolds, and I was mortified. But it was too late now, so I spilled the beans.

“I got second. How did I get second? I worked so hard. Did you see the project that won? Ugh!” the words tumbling out around sobs seemed to calm my nerves a bit, and I wiped the last of the hot tears from my face in a swipe of defiance.

“I know. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?” my teacher said, her tone revealing that she wasn’t just comforting me, this was something that bothered her, even if in a small, just-what-I-expected sort of way.

“Why? Why didn’t I win? I don’t get it.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” Mrs. Reynolds sighed. “The judges didn’t think that you did the programing yourself. They thought that you must have had help.”

“But I didn’t have help!” I seethed. All those hours…all those lines, my hard work, dismissed by some judges who didn’t even know me. I felt the threat of tears come on again.

“I know you didn’t have help, but sometimes, that’s just what happens.”

Too full of anger and self-pity to continue rehashing the situation, I said goodbye to Mrs. Reynolds and walked back into the gymnasium, where parents and students were taking their seats on the bleachers. The awards ceremony was about to start.

That evening, as I stood on the stage next to the boy who smiled as he grasped his first place trophy, I couldn’t bring myself to be proud. I didn’t understand the greater context at that moment and what it meant for my future, but I knew one thing for sure.

Something was definitely rotten here.

*****

One common place to lay blame for the lack of gender diversity in the technology field is societal gender stereotypes. Boys are encouraged at a young age, either subtly or overtly, to do “boy things” – building, fixing things, science experiments, sports, making robots. Girls, on the other hand, often spend their childhoods drowning in a sea of pink, encouraged to play with baby dolls, plastic cookware, and dress up like princesses.  All one must do is search “boy toys” or “girl toys” on Google, and find link after link of statements on the desirable hobbies expected of each sex. Video games marketed to girls are few and far between, and focus on traditionally “girl” subject matter – Hello Kitty, Barbie’s Dreamhouse – while boys’ video games are endless and include comic book heroes, complicated puzzles, sports games, and fights against aliens and monsters.

Today, marketing to children has become incredibly easy, and infects every aspect of kids’ lives from the moment that their parents first sit them in front of the Disney Channel so they can grab a few minutes of adult time. Marketers have become amazingly savvy at convincing consumers, children included, that the products they consume say something about who they are. Are girls hearing the message, from a young age, that STEM fields just aren’t for them?

I grew up in a household where women and work went hand-in-hand. My mother worked full time for the local hospital as a billing supervisor, and had chosen to start a family rather late – she married at 21, but held off on having children until she was 28. I was the first born of three girls.

My father was a Muzak installation tech in my early years, and I loved accompanying him to work, where I got to watch VHS tapes of music videos and fiddle with broken electronics. After I brought a few supposedly broken pieces of equipment back from the dead, my dad realized I had a knack, and would bring me broken handheld tape recorders, Walkmans, and keyboards, with the enticement that if I could fix it, it was mine. Every time a tape deck came humming back to life, my dad would smile and say, “You did it again! You definitely have the magic touch,” and I would beam with pride.

In my family, gender roles were loosely defined, and there were no rules on what was considered a toy or activity that was appropriate for one sex or the other. I would often mingle my She-Ra play set with my Thundercats dolls, choreographing epic battles in my grandparents’ living room during summers off from school. My grandmother, a witty and wise woman who never wore makeup or dresses but loved a nice perfume, was one of my early and constant mentors, and my grandfather taught me how to use a video camera to make movies ranging from love stories to cowboy shoot-em-ups. When Christmas rolled around, the papered boxes contained the full gamut of possible holiday requests – in the same year I was given a Jem doll, I also received a telescope.

I was fortunate to have the freedom to be interested in whatever I wanted, without any gender-based limits to confine me. Although the incident at the science fair had temporarily taken the wind from my sails, I knew that I had worked hard on that project. I knew that being a girl had nothing to do with being good with computers, and that I could choose any career path I liked. Growing up in such an open family meant that I was flush with excitement and possibilities, and never questioned my ability to succeed. But it also left me thoroughly unprepared for reality, blind to the sometimes hostile environment that women face when entering the technology field.

*****

In 1999, I took a huge leap and moved to San Diego, California, finding employment at a large trade show exhibit house as a contracts administrator. The company was in a transition period, their lone remote IT department struggling with the weight of bringing their eight disparate locations into the twenty-first century. When a rumor started that the top brass were considering adding a full time IT position to the roster, I saw my chance to strike – this was the type of opportunity I had been waiting for. I made myself the obvious choice for the role – if a printer was down, I fixed it. If a laptop needed to be wiped and reimaged, no need to send it back to headquarters – I could take care of it. I had already been studying for my MCSE, a systems engineering certification administered by Microsoft that was (at the time) highly regarded among tech pros, and I was excited for the chance to break into my desired field.

I tentatively got the position, pending a meeting with the head honcho of the IT department, Brian, in Philadelphia. Reveling in my victory, I could hardly contain my excitement. At 19 years old, the concept of going away on a business trip seemed as good as a three-foot-high gold plated trophy with the words, “You’ve made it!” embossed on the name plate. I bought what I considered to be mature, respectable business attire and a nice leather jacket, packed my things, and boarded a plan to Philly.

The Philadelphia office was a long, gray-brown building with few windows, nothing like the bright, airy San Diego location. I rushed from my yellow cab through the cold winter air, and into the front lobby, winded but smiling.

“Hello, Kate Flanigan to see Brian,” I cheerily addressed the small lady behind the enormous semi-circular receiving desk. Adding, when my pride overflowed into my brain and out of my mouth, “I’m the new IT manager for the West Coast.”

“Just a second,” she said politely, and picked up her phone, waited a few minutes, quickly announced my presence, and hung up.

“He’ll be right up to get you.”

Brian was a stereotypical IT guy – skinny, pale, and bespectacled, wearing the unofficial male uniform of the profession: a denim dress shirt and khaki pants. His demeanor was also no shock to the system – quiet, with a rarely changing look of permanent skepticism on his face. I took inventory of Brian, deciding that once we got to know each other, everything would be fine. I had a whole group of techie friends in San Diego, many of whom greatly resembled Brian in manner and look. We all got along like gangbusters – regularly clogging up a table at the local Gordon Biersch, or throwing Thanksgiving LAN parties where we brought our own PCs and competed against each other at Ultima over IPX/SPX.

He launched into a barrage of questions.

“Name the color order of a straight-through Cat 5 cable.”

That was an easy one. “White/orange, orange, white/green, blue, white/blue, green, white/brown, then brown.” I smiled at Brian. His skeptic’s scowl didn’t budge.

“And how would one go about setting up a RAID 5 array?”

“Well, RAID 5 requires three disks, so the blocks can be written across them, with a parity block written every fourth…”

“Yes, but how do you configure the array? I know how RAID 5 works. Everyone does.”

I took a sharp breath in, and gave a more detailed answer, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Brian seemed intent on proving that I did not know what I was doing, and didn’t deserve the position. He was different than my friends, a fact that became alarmingly clear as he began asking more obscure questions and imagining rarely-seen, complicated theoretical scenarios designed to sniff out my weak spots. With every correct answer I gave to his endless list of networking hypotheticals, he came up with three more questions, suppressing a smirk every time he succeeded in exposing my lack of relevant knowledge.

My excitement at the prospect of being a bona fide IT professional morphed into panic. The pride that had swelled in my chest hours earlier melted into a deep puddle of imposter syndrome fear at my feet, silently whispering to me: you don’t know what you are doing…he knows it…he is laughing at you…what a joke…you are an absolute fucking joke. Overwhelmed and defeated, I began to make rookie mistakes as my brain struggled to respond to his endless testing and resolve whether or not I was even qualified to do the job I had been sent to learn. At the end of the day, I returned to the hotel, ordered room service, watched a terrible movie, and cried.

That IT position never materialized. I continued to act as the stand-in tech for the three California offices while I remained at that company – good enough to do the work, but just shy of the standards set for a woman who dares to step foot in the boys’ clubhouse.

*****

I came to realize, after that ill-fated first business trip, that this mentality toward women in the IT field – the need for some men to “quiz” a woman, requiring her to prove herself where a man would not need to – is incredibly common. It is one of the many cultural issues within the tech industry that may be contributing to the dearth of female tech employees. Even if a woman gets the degree and snags that coveted coding position, she may not choose to stay very long. According to Harvard Business Review, women in science and technology jobs are 45 percent more likely to leave their position – and the industry as a whole – within a year, as a result of a hostile work environment.

And that environment can get pretty hostile. Women who work in technology often face an incredible amount of sexism. From guys at work functions assuming that they are the secretary or the wife of a coder rather than the actual programmer, to men actively propositioning them for sex during startup investment meetings, the stories are so common that one can look up “women tech horror stories” and find themselves quickly overwhelmed with the amount of negativity aimed at female tech workers. In an industry where one can expect to have their legitimacy questioned one minute, and the next minute find themselves being groped in the open bar line at an event, is there any wonder why only 17 percent of tech workers are female?

A woman, Grace Hopper, pioneered modern computer programming, so how did we end up, decades later, with an industry that repels and/or rejects women? The “brogrammer” culture that has arisen in the last 15 years – the rebranding of coding from the glasses-tape and pocket protector nerd-fest of yesteryear to the cool-kid hoodies and beer Mark Zuckerberg era – has definitely had a hand in this culture shift. Suddenly, it became a good thing to be a nerd, and “geek” became a badge of honor instead of an insult hurled as a group of jocks shoved a glasses-clad skinny kid into his locker (again). Female participation in computer science began to decline as the chest-thumping bro culture ramped up, and many Silicon Valley startups were virtually indistinguishable from frat houses.

During the tech boom of the late nineties, investors were throwing money at every startup with an original idea, and startups chose to sink a large chunk of that money into procuring (and retaining) dedicated, confident tech workers who fit their company culture. They were willing to provide onsite fitness facilities, and after-hours beer pong, if you were willing to give your talent and time. All of your time.

In 1999, one of my roommates, Matt, a lanky kid with a shock of unruly curls on his head who drove a Volkswagen bus, complete with a crushed velvet interior and a sticker proclaiming, “Home Honey, I’m High!”, was a junior coder at MP3.com. He regaled me with tales of their work environment – a volleyball net was stretched over their workspaces, and they often batted a beach ball back and forth over it during the work day. There was professional catering, organic of course, an on-site masseuse, and a beer fridge for use during late-night overtime. It sounded like geek heaven, but all of the great perks came at a price. Matt and his fellow employees worked almost around the clock – they started their day at a respectable nine am, but often didn’t leave until the clock had ticked back over into morning again.

This environment naturally lent itself to a particular type of person – one who was young, male, and unencumbered, one who didn’t mind his every waking minute belonging to the company, one who didn’t mind sleeping under his desk for a couple of hours and starting work again in the morning, sans shower. One who was single, or whose wife didn’t mind watching the Late Show alone with a pint of ice cream for the third time that week while he spent another night at the office. Travel was last minute, or based around out-of-state tech trade shows, so a commitment-free lifestyle was optimal. The female representation at tech trade shows consisted mainly of “booth babes” – the tech industry became a gold mine for young, single, white guys who made insane amounts of money and whose only experience of women in technology were bikini-clad models who were paid to flirt mercilessly with them, in the hopes of landing a new client.

Many women didn’t easily fit into this corporate culture – employees who felt the need to break free for personal care or outside socialization were branded as “lacking dedication” by their coworkers and superiors, and were often the first to go when layoffs were needed, if they survived that long.  The old-school men who laid the groundwork for modern corporate tech culture found that the lack of social interaction that many endured as a liability in their pasts could now be reimagined as an asset – instead of lacking a significant other because they were too shy or awkward, they were forgoing a serious relationship out of dedication to the company. Employees who voiced any displeasure with the environment – sexist jokes that were batted around like the beach balls, inappropriate advances or comments, and of course, the booth babes – were shunned, and often encouraged to find the door. I was once told, while managing a group of foreign programmers, to change my Skype display name to indicate that I was male, because “the guys aren’t going to do what you tell them, if they know you’re a woman.” Tech isn’t really about tech anymore – it is a big, overgrown frat house with a hand-written sign: “No Girls Allowed”.

Despite the persistence of this mentality, there have recently been initiatives aimed at increasing the number and visibility of female tech workers. There are online coding classes specifically aimed at girls of every age range, and new girl-focused video games are being introduced all the time. A career-focused coding bootcamp, named after Grace Hopper, admits only women into their ranks. While attempting to entice girls and women to become interested in technology via the “girl-ification” of the subject may generate some interest, it softens the reality of what life in the tech world is really like. If a girl learns to code as a result of a pink-princess introduction, is she going to want to keep coding once she steps into the boys’ club? If a woman goes to an all-female tech school, is she going to be woefully unprepared for working in the male-dominated, often misogynistic tech field? The problem is not necessarily getting girls interested in computers and programming, but creating a working environment in which they will continue to thrive.

So how do we fix this complicated, multi-faceted, and multi-layered issue and move toward a tech industry that is inclusive – one that attracts women rather than sending them running in the opposite direction? Change needs to come from the top. All employees, male or female, should be encouraged to take time for themselves outside of the office. True decompression from a stressful work day requires disconnecting from the server and hitting the reset button. If companies focused on the wellbeing of their employees, as well as their levels of productivity – instituting limits on daily work hours, instead of encouraging all-nighters, for example – they would find that the benefits far outweigh the sacrifice of a few extra man-hours.

Corporate executives also need to model behavior that shows respect for female employees, and refuse to accept anything less from their male employees. I recently read that the CEO of large component company, who was at a professional meeting raffling off an expensive and coveted graphics processor, scoffed when a young female AI worker won the prize. “You probably don’t even know what a GPU is, huh?” he said to her, sparking a round of backlash from tech writers around the world. If the guys who are in charge, the ones who set the pace and the tone, are publicly assuming that women don’t know what they are doing, how can we expect the rest of the industry to act any differently?

The solution to this problem is likely a combination of many efforts, championed by all levels of the tech industry machine. But let’s make no mistake – the issues faced by female members of the computing industry are real and prevalent. Sexism in the tech industry is not an issue of women’s hypersensitivity, and exposing these problems is not the master plan of man-hating feminazis. Sexism is everyone’s problem, and it can’t be willed away by the collective selective ignorance of those in power. Whether you code, manage databases, build servers, or design inter-continental cable runs, it’s not easy to be a woman in tech.

But it should be.

 

 

This essay was written as an assignment in Introduction to Creative Nonfiction with Yascha Mounk.

 

  1. https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15311/digest/nsf15311-digest.pdf

 

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