Can smaller T-shirts help solve the lack of women in tech?

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This has been a big week for women in technology. Facebook has finally put a woman on its board. Yesterday the Girls who Code project backed by Google, Twitter and eBay got a lot of attention. So last night at a Google Women Techmakers talk I expected more talk about big problems bringing women into tech. What I got were complaints about the lack of female-sized T-shirts and the sense that the female speakers were treated well by their male colleagues.

“I’m always surprised there aren’t more women, because if you look at technology, it’s a very new field,” said Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president for advertising at Google. “There’s not enough time to be biased. If you have a great product, it doesn’t matter.”

But there still aren’t enough female engineers working in tech. Many tech companies want to hire more female engineers, but figuring out how to get them in the door remains a challenge.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women made up only 14 percent of 2010 computer science graduates at major research universities. While women are 57 percent of the U.S. workforce, they hold only 25 percent of computing occupations. Women make up only 20 percent of CIO (chief information officer) positions at Fortune 500 companies.

The women on the Google panel said one primary reason they have difficulty recruiting women to engineering positions has to do with stereotypes. They said many people are taught to think of the “loner programmer,” or the image of the engineer working by himself in a numbers-driven field:

“Computer sicence has this vision of being solitary,” Wojcicki said. “But I sort of fell into it accidentally too, and I was surprised by how creative it really was.”

So if the tech companies can market programming as creative to recruit smart, talented women, can they support them within the corporate culture? Several of the Google women said that in their experiences, once women get into the field, the tech industry treats them well and makes them feel like equal players on the team:

“The culture of technology is very rational and objective,” said Angela Lai, the vice president of engineering of payments at Google. She noted that she’s often been the only woman in a room of designers or engineers, but that she’s forged bonds with her male coworkers.

Issues of recruiting aside, how well the tech world has totally adopted female engineers and business leaders into its ranks is still contentious. Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is fighting a highly public lawsuit brought by one if its female partners who has accused the company of perpetuating sexual discrimination against her.

With Sheryl Sandberg’s appointment to Facebook’s board on Monday, only now has Facebook responded to longstanding criticism that it needed a more diverse board. In a final example, angel investor Joanne Wilson wrote recently that while she was pleased to be named to Business Insider’s “New York’s Top Early Stage Investors,” her entry noted that she’s the wife of investor Fred Wilson, whereas Fred’s entry made no mention of her.

But even Google, a company the panelists praised for its efforts to recruit and retain female engineers, did not escape criticism from a mostly female audience on Tuesday.

One female audience member asked why, when she had applied to work at Google as an engineer, she had been interviewed by an all-male team. Another woman demanded to know why t-shirts distributed to attendees of the Google I/O conference only come in male sizes:

“I don’t want to be told that I can sleep in it,” she said, to knowing chuckles from her fellow audience members. Someone else asked that women’s shirts be distributed next year, and “please don’t make them pink.”

Wojcicki promised there would be t-shirts in women’s sizes next year. Then the company closed the event by distributing tote bags with a “Women at Google” logo. The logo was pink.

Google provided a livestream of this panel, and noted that the full video would be available online later. The video will be posted here when it becomes available.

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