The New York Times had an article today about the loss of women in the science and technology fields as they hit their 30s and beyond. It cites a report that blames a macho culture intrinsic to those fields. But it’s possible that readers in the […]

The New York Times had an article today about the loss of women in the science and technology fields as they hit their 30s and beyond. It cites a report that blames a macho culture intrinsic to those fields. But it’s possible that readers in the tech field missed it as it only ran in the Style section of the paper’s web site rather than the Technology section. Because apparently the loss of female programming and engineering talent has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the latest swimsuits. An article on the Wii Fit however, was deemed worthy of appearing in both sections.

I actually think the “macho culture” inherent to these fields has less to do with the lack of women sticking around than the persistent assumption that’s behind the NYTimes confining the article to the Style pages. The assumption is that work-life balance is a female issue. Aside from tales of overt sexual harassment, the main trends that emerge in the report are that women need to “act like a man” to succeed (code for working a lot and not talking about family), and that the hours are not conducive for working mothers.

Women aren’t less capable of doing math and science, but they do tend to be less available when it comes to working long hours after having a child, unless they have a husband with a 9-5 job. Those all-night programming sessions or the week-long visits to foreign fabs to make sure a chip design is implemented correctly are costly to families. For the type of competitive person who ends up in the technology field, deciding between giving 110 percent to solving a technological problem and giving 90 or even 100 percent when junior is sick, is too frustrating. So they back off, because if the game is rigged so you can’t win, smart people pick a new game.

These women aren’t dumb, but their employers might be. The Silicon Valley startup culture demands a person give 110 percent and can be gruelingly inflexible. Academia and research labs are similar. But after a child –or maybe a heart attack — people tend to look at the rigged game and decline to play. So either the culture in technology will be forced to change, or it will continue to feed on canon fodder in the form of youth and single men. Regardless, it’s not just a female problem.

  1. Perfectly, brilliantly, succinctly stated. Nothing more to add. Except, perhaps, a word of thanks to Stacey for *understanding* what so many articles and researchers and men and companies fail to understand… I’ll be bookmarking this post. :)

  2. I think male or female, both have their advantages and disadvantages


  3. ditto. Good article in wrong section. More reason for the good work done by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology.

  4. Great article making a point that gets overlooked far too often.

  5. [...] Read the rest of this post Print all_things_di220:http://voices.allthingsd.com/20080516/woman-troubles-in-technology/ Sphere Comment Tagged: Wii Fit, Stacey Higginbotham, New York Times, GigaOm, Voices | permalink [...]

  6. Even with companies like Google, you get “puff” pieces in The Wall Street Journal focusing and highlighting Marissa Mayer and fashion, sending mixed messages if you ask me (why not also a piece on Larry & Sergey…)

    Glamour at Google
    Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female engineer and current vice president, talks about her personal style philosophy, and what’s in her wardrobe.
    The Wall Street Journal. May 1, 2008

  7. I’d add this is the whole world general tendency. Some say there are no women at work after 40.

  8. I actually don’t agree with time balance being a male/female issue. As a woman over 40 in technology – I know that even with 3 kids, I’ve worked 100 hours/ week for as long as I can remember. I just incorporate my kids into my life (work or otherwise) as much as possible (and have a husband with a flexible schedule). I don’t really have a line between “work” and “play”. As a result my oldest son is starting college in the fall and majoring in New Media and Interactive Design…I’ve taken him with me to so many trade shows, E3s, etc. With my daughters I am doing the same. Interestingly, most women I know who don’t have the luxury I do choose to work less hours/spend time at home and end up working MORE hours to compensate, they just getting “part time” money.

    The “Macho Club” – I find that much more of a real issue. Men don’t seem to draw such a hard line between business and play either – but nobody invites a woman to be one of a foursome for golf and then have drinks in the “mens grill” afterward. There are many places that women are not included, period.
    My comments here may apply more to the Northeast part of the US than it would to the West Coast, not sure.

  9. I couldn’t agree more! (I am a mother of 2 small children working full time for a Venture Capital company)
    This is so correct and it is not only true in the Valley but here in Europe as well!

  10. I do wonder how many people, men and women, leave companies that require them to put in so many hours doing stupid tasks, putting up with office politics. By focusing only on women, the Times is missing a bigger story: that more people – men and women – are leaving traditional work places. When I say traditional, I don’t mean old line businesses like steel mills. I mean, companies where you put in “face time” where the boss is autocratic and office politics reigns supreme. A lot of men and women don’t quit these types of companies to sit at home; they set up their own businesses. Has anyone tried to measure that — how many people quit and started their own firms? In Silicon Valley, that’s what a lot of men (and women) do. Check out the 37 Signals blog — they always talk about “nontraditional” styles of working, like taking Friday afternoons off. 37 Signals is a small firm that’s doing well.

    1. I just retired after 27 years in technology (programmer, systems analyst, database administrator.) On my first big project (with an oil and gas company in Texas, not exactly a bastion of equal opportunity in 1981) about a third of my peers and a quarter of the project leaders/system managers were women. I’ve watched those number drop continuously across the industry ever since.

      ComputerWorld Magazine had an article about this phenomenon several years ago. There was the usual argle-bargle about women being afraid of technology and, like Barbie, finding math hard which I found difficult to believe to be truer in 2006 than in 1981. One respondent summed up the problem more accurately when he described women in technology as the canaries in the coal mine: the ones who were leaving the field first because it’s such a crappy way to make a living.

      Between the expectation that you will be available 24 by 7 by forever at a moment’s notice, the implied threat of losing your job to outsourcing and the constant pressure to get something (anything) out in the quickest possible time at the lowest possible price, who needs it? You work horrendous hours to produce junk so you don’t even get the personal satisfaction of creating good work. Entire mission-critical systems are held together with spit, baling wire and unpaid overtime.


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