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Woman Troubles in Technology

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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.

27 Responses to “Woman Troubles in Technology”

  1. “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.”

    The NY Times is playing that typical sexist game where they can say they are supporting women because of running these stories but being sneaky about it by placing them in sections where the people in power won’t see them.

    From my experience managers would rather have a failed project than enlist the help of a woman who will outperform the guys.

  2. Amen, amen, a-freaking-men!

    I have dealt with blatant sexism in my career only a few times. The real difficulty is being a (single!) mom and having jobs expect me to work 16 hour days. For a long time I dealt with it by refusing to work as an employee and declaring my own hours and work space. For three years I left tech completely. At my current job, pre-employment negotiations involved a grueling process of settling exactly what my hours were and laying out that if they wanted over time out of me it was going to be at my house, not in their office.

    If programming wasn’t the only skill I have that makes a living wage in this country (Israel) I would probably be doing something else.

  3. Thank you for the post Stacey. F

    or the past year or so, after I finally realized how having kids had impacted my chosen career path (I am a toxicologist) I began asking for essays about family and career written by other science moms – eventually gathering essays from 33 women, whose careers span the 1970s-through current graduate students – which fill the pages of Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory: women science speak out, released this month by Cornell University Press.

    This is a topic that lurks in the background but which isn’t always discussed – at least not by those in the trenches, except to those they consider “safe” (friends acquaintances) – for fear of looking unprofessional or loosing credibility.

    I’d asked contributors how they keep their science alive while tending to family needs. Many wrote about alternative yet very satisfying career paths through the sciences, including part-time and full-time jobs, while others wrote about sharing academic positions, or raising kids while attaining tenure.

    If you’d like to learn more about the project and the book, please visit The more women who speak out, the more likely things are to change (I hope.)

    This all led to a book, recently published by Cornell University Press, Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory: women scientists speak out.

  4. I love the idea of family friendly policies in an ideal world – and the concept of giving parents time off to care for children. I am a woman with kids. HOWEVER – that is fine for IBM or huge corporations who can afford it. Where does the money come from in smaller companies or, even more so, in start up companies – to pay the salary of somebody who is not working? So you need to hire somebody to do the person’s job while they are gone, plus pay the person who is gone. It is wonderful. But it is unrealistic to think that smaller companies can afford to do this and be successful.

  5. A relatively new organization,, founded by Joan Blades, a cofounder of and former VP and cofounder of Berkeley Systems, a software company that produced the After Dark screensaver, is trying to get Americans to adopt family-friendly workplace policies, so that all parents and caregivers have time off from work without being penalized. This is what they do in Europe, Australia and Canada — give parents time off with pay for child care leave; provide decent, affordable child care; and don’t penalize parents for time off to be with sick kids.

  6. Jackson

    Totally agree with your assessment and the need for significant change in the industry. It would be a shame that bright, innovative young women, like so many of the award recipients at this past week’s Intel Science and Engineering Fair, might be turned off to the technological fields when they have so incredibly much to offer.

  7. First off – good call on the article placement issue. And that reflect the priority that the culture places on the work/life balance issue thus far… That is: “Work/Life Balance is something for mothers who want to spend time with their kids, but continue to complain about equal pay… Never mind that their single male counterparts put in 20 hours a week more than they do…”

    I think focusing on the work/life balance as a basic HUMAN RIGHT (it affects health so deeply — physical and psychological), as opposed to a gender-specific issue, will help it gain more traction with the broader public.

    Treating causes like this in a more ‘universal’ manner is the key to change, really. It’s much like what’s happened to affirmative action (AA) in colleges. After various Court rulings declaring it unconstitutional, the colleges have simply changed it from a race issue, to a class issue — which after all is much more fair, and also satisfies the original intent of AA, since there is a strong correlation (though not an exclusive one by any means) between race and class. By giving special considerations based on class, as opposed to race, the colleges have actually given MORE people the opportunities they need/deserve. And they’ve done so in a way that is supported by a much broader base (politically and economically).

    Helping to broaden the work/life balance from mainly an issue of mothers who want to spend time with their children, to a basic human right will also help. 100+ hours a week spent at any job is simply a 21st Century form of indentured servitude — and yes, while one can say ‘If you don’t like it, just find another job’ however, that’s not always possible, especially in times of economic slowdowns and mortgages that can’t be met… This takes an enormous toll on families, as well as the nation as a whole:

    * from added strain upon the healthcare system
    * to lower birth-rates — the movie Idiocracy may not be so far-fetched — but even beyond that, there are many financial & social strains placed upon countries with declining birth rates among wage-earners, coupled with aging populations (just check out the budget and healthcare issues in Japan, much of Europe, etc. which are just entering such an era)
    * to added strains on the justice system — so many kids growing up with absentee parents certainly can’t remain trouble-free for long
    * and much more…

    This is a much larger issue than many seem to realize…

  8. nicole

    men and women are pushed to extremes when it comes to work, and like you said at the end, it takes a major event like a heart attack or a child to change many minds. sometimes running people like hampsters isnt effective. when people are comfortable and happy, i believe, is when they are most productive. maybe we should all look at quality instead of quantity

  9. 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.

    • Mandy Cat

      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.

  10. Eline

    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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. Susan

    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. :)