Getting More Women to Tech

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Shira Ovide, one of its media reporters, about the lack of women in the leadership among tech companies and talked about the protests over the separately branded TEDWomen conference that was announced last month. Short version: There are too few women in tech.

Only about 11% of U.S. firms with venture-capital backing in 2009 had current or former female CEOs or female founders, according to data from Dow Jones VentureSource. The prestigious start-up incubator Y Combinator has had just 14 female founders among the 208 firms it has funded.

Then, a response came from Michael Arrington in TechCrunch.

I could, like others (see all the links in that Fred Wilson post too), write pandering but meaningless posts agonizing over the problem and suggesting creative ways that we (men) could do more to help women. I could point out that the CEO of TechCrunch is a woman, as are two of our four senior editors (I’m one of the four). And how we seek out women focused events and startups and cover them to death.

But I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to tell it like it is. And what it is is this: statistically speaking women have a huge advantage as entrepreneurs, because the press is dying to write about them, and venture capitalists are dying to fund them. Just so no one will point the accusing finger of discrimination at them.

Arrington is filled with some Real Talk: It’s not the men that are to blame for so few women in technology fields, it’s the women. He’s not going to “pander” to women or “cover [women-focused events] to death.” Sound defensive much?

All too often when discussions of diversity get opened up, it is those who benefit the most from current structures (usually white men from upper middle class backgrounds) demand they not be blamed for the lack of diversity. They’ve worked a lot to remedy the problem. But they give up! There’s nothing more they can do.

I recognize this is a well-intentioned approach, but it also comes from a perspective that is largely blind to greater forces at work. As the amazing Jamelle Bouie over at The American Prospect writes, “It’s less that there is a dearth of entrepreneurial talent among women, and more that women are socialized away from math and science at an early age.”

He’s right: Even though two-thirds of both boys and girls say they like science, the numbers of women who earn degrees in the traditional STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) drops sharply as they get older, according to a sociological study [PDF] Kristine De Welde, Sandra Laursen, and Heather Thiry. Though women earn the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the biological and agricultural sciences (sometimes referred to as “soft STEM“), women make up far less than half in physics, math and statistics, computer science, astronomy, and all forms of engineering. One notable exception is chemistry, where women earn roughly half of all chemistry bachelor’s degrees.

It’s true that the numbers, especially of degree-seekers, has improved in the last few decades, but still “men outnumber women (73% vs. 27% overall) in all sectors of employment for science and engineering.” Furthermore, when you get into high levels of academia, women seem to disappear, “At higher levels of STEM education, the percentage of women continues to decline; this is the so-called “leaky pipeline.” For example, though women earn nearly half of mathematics bachelors’ degrees, they earn only 27% of doctoral degrees.”

There are also other pressures at work: Women aren’t often found in leadership positions, often because women are socialized away from taking on leadership roles. I can’t tell you how many talented women I’ve talked to who have told me something along the lines of, “I want to do more behind-the-scenes kind of stuff.” The White House Project recently released a report on women’s leadership [PDF] to coincide withe the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment last week. They found that across all industries, despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of Americans said they were comfortable with women leaders, “today women account for only 18 percent of our top leaders.” This was true across all industries, “from academia and business to media and the military.” There’s little doubt that there’s a dirth of women’s leadership generally, not just among the tech industry.

Arrington’s not wrong that when you want to highlight women’s leadership — especially in the tech industry — those who want to diversify how it looks can quickly become frustrated. It is true that there just aren’t that many women. But just noting that tells only part of the story. Even from my own experience, I can how women are discouraged from science and math. I took advanced math classes each year and excelled at them. But when my 9th grade geometry teacher suggested I pursue a career in math, I didn’t even consider it. Somewhere I got the message that girls don’t do math. Those messages are sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle.

Getting more women into fields science, math, and technology is going to take time and a lot of work. Those numbers are slowly improving. This might be, in part, thanks to an increase in awareness of girl geek culture. Other sites like Skepchick and Geek Feminism try to support and encourage women in non-traditional industries like math, science, engineering, and technology. Rachel Sklar, of Mediaite, co-founded a group called “Change the Ratio” that seeks to encourage women to make their presence felt at tech events. These are just some of the ways tech women are working to support other tech women.

The important thing here to remember is that pointing out the lack of diversity in a field isn’t an attack on those white men — even if they feel that way. Men may have benefited from the structures to deter women from tech fields, but that then means they’re in a good position to also help change that culture. Creating more diversity isn’t a zero-sum game, even if some people view it as such. I understand Arrington’s frustrations, but he’s not the only one who’s frustrated. Plenty of women are, too. They just want to do something about it.

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48 comments for “Getting More Women to Tech

  1. rebekah
    August 30, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I go to a tech university and I can explain part of the problem. When women finally pass the insurmountable odds to actually make it into a technical university, they are met with even more challenges. Men and profs who do not think that women should be at tech universities being a major contributor. Other problems include few women in most of one’s classes, creepy nerds with no social skills, grad student teachers who hit on you, and difficulty in relating to fellow students interests to name a few. Add onto that constant self sabotage because the way society treats women in the STEM fields and you have the root of these problems. Yes we absolutely need to call out the men who refuse to hire and promote women within their companies and believe me I know that they are there, but the reality is that the main problem with getting women into STEM fields is directly linked to university adversity, and therefore until those problems are addressed there is going to be no way to fix these issues

  2. August 30, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Immediately the discussion goes to CEOs.

    Hum what’s that I smell? Could it be class privilege?

    Once upon a time, say 30 years ago when I got my AS in Computer technology and worked in the field women did, assembly, Q/A, wave soldering, board rework, packaging etc. As a certified tech I was a rarity. I got paid 2/3s what male techs did and I wasn’t considered for promotions.

    Most of those jobs are gone now, sent to China and India.

    I’m still certified as A+ but I got sick of getting expected to pour thousands into chasing certificates that were good for a couple of years.

    Oh did I mention how they screwed those techs who worked their way into middle class through constant re-certification by issuing thousands of H1-B visas in order to under cut demand and the pay techs were getting, how they off shored the phone support jobs we filled.

    Teching has turned into swap and toss, maybe rip a chip from a board to RMA it.

    Rather than simply decrying the lack of women at the top, which is in its own way a form of class warfare perhaps showing some unity with the workers both male and female who have been pitted against each other by the free market might be in order.

    Class war, not just for the rich anymore.

  3. Kay
    August 30, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Suzan makes a really good point: A lot of times we focus on the folks at the top because that’s where the numbers are easiest to count or the most attention is paid. But the intro and mid-levels of tech experience other problems, and Suzan did a great job of highlighting them. Tech is a constantly changing industry and the constant rat race of more training is yet another barrier.

  4. Miss S
    August 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I agree with rebekah. Being the only girl in your class and not having many other women in your department makes a difference. It does to me. My major was male dominated and my minor was wmst. I felt more comfortable in the settings that had mostly women. I didn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable around men- I had guy friends too. But I can understand how a woman-oriented environement is more welcoming and attractive to other women.

    The lack of mentors is a problem too.

  5. Natasha
    August 30, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    These are also careers, at many levels of the technology and programming industry, where the jobs that are left here are often more than usually time-intensive. As in, if you have family responsibilities, you can’t usually have one of those jobs.

    But now, venture capitalists and investors are pretty openly telling new businesses that they should be purchasing certain services, such as manufacturing, assembly, increasingly even product design, exclusively from China or India. Which means that men’s wages are crashing, so it’s only getting easier to succeed with the divide-and-conquer strategy of getting men to blame female counterparts for their misfortunes.

  6. Jericka
    August 30, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I have a friend with a daughter just going into high school. I remember a conversation where we were talking about what she would want to do when she grew up. A couple of the ideas she had were in the sciences, but, her Dad chimed in with, “That requires a lot of math.”
    Which seemed to imply that math was hard.
    Her brother never seemed to get comments like this when he shared his ideas.
    I know it is subtle, but, things like this matter. When I called him on it, the Dad didn’t think anything of his comment. So what if there is math? Why did he bring it up as if it were an obstacle?

  7. RB
    August 30, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    When I was in engineering undergrad five or so years ago, I heard this joke repeatedly from a handful of students: “The engineering class is 75% male and 25% ugly.” After hearing that I no longer wondered about why there are so few women in tech.

  8. Brennan
    August 30, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    When considering advanced degrees, did they compare to the percentages of women in humanities programs? I’ve never seen data on this, but I’m sure the rigors of a doctoral program would be especially hard on women shouldering the unequal family responsibilities expected of mothers. I’m currently an undergrad, and last semester we did a class exercise where we listed as many tenure-track professors as we could come up with and then classified them by number of children. Overwhelmingly, the tenured men were fathers and the tenured women were childless. The nature of the discipline may come into play here as well. My english prof, for instance, could collect her books and notes, go home, and work on her research while watching her seven-year-old. My biochem prof, though, would have a hard time fitting an HPLC, gas chromatogram, and microwave heating unit into her briefcase. Right now, an advanced degree in the so-called “hard sciences” (hate that term) requires being stuck in the lab for hours on end, especially in grad school. Like most things in life, that’s a lot easier if you have a wife.

    And then, of course, there are the factors that are harder to analyze. As a freshman, I transferred out of the chem major and into bio, much to my family’s dismay. My reasons were complicated. It partly had to do with seeing bio as a more exciting field–one where I would be free to explore my own interests. It was partly about feeling accepted and not being talked over by boys who knew less than I did. Still, it was hard to escape the fact that while the bio department was split more or less 50/50 along gender lines, the chem department had only two female profs out of eight staff members total.

  9. Anon
    August 30, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Wait a second. You talk about socialization. What else should Arrington do? I agree with you as to the nature of the problem, but criticizing Arrington and those in his position seems misplaced, by your own analysis.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I would say that the toy selection at our stores has more to do with the problem than people like Arrington.

    (Disclosure: I am a male in tech.)

  10. Kaz
    August 30, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks for mentioning the leaky pipeline. I’m a maths PhD student hoping to continue in academia and it really frustrates me when people blame the whole problem on women being socialised away from maths in school. Sure, that’s definitely part of the problem, but my undergraduate course was almost half female. Statistics I’ve found say something in between a third and 40% of maths undergrads are female! However, the number is much less for computer science and engineering – AFAIK maths and physics are actually about joint for highest proportion of female undergrads in the hard sciences/computer science/engineering area, which I always want to point out when people start acting as if women and maths is the sole problem when it comes to women in STEM – and the number drops DRAMATICALLY at the higher levels of academia. Going to conferences and seminars I’m starting to get used to being the only woman in the room, while in my undergrad I’d look around and feel as if it was half and half. (And still didn’t have a female lecturer until third year, which was… it’s not even about role models or mentors, to me. The aforementioned female lecturer was one of the worst lecturers I’ve ever seen and I definitely wouldn’t consider her any sort of mentor. It’s simply seeing evidence that it *can* be done, instead of all these people telling you sexism doesn’t exist anymore and the lack of women is apparently just a coincidence.)

    So, well, when it comes to getting women into maths in the first place we’ve already almost succeeded in some ways (although not when it comes to computer science and engineering), it’s keeping them there that seems to be the serious problem – whether that’s in academia or in STEM-type jobs.

    Note that I’m not saying the stereotypes about girls and maths aren’t bad and don’t do some serious harm, because they do, I just really don’t think it’s the only thing going on.

  11. Anon
    August 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    (Disclosure: I’m a male professor in computer science with two young daughters who I am eagerly hoping to teach programming to as soon as they are able.)

    One data point that some might find interesting is that the grad student gender ratios at my university are much better than the undergrad ratios. The primary difference is that most of our grad students are from India and China.

    Kaz, what you say about math doesn’t seem to apply to computer science. The undergrad classes are way skewed towards males.

  12. August 30, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Being the only girl in your class and not having many other women in your department.

    There were a couple of us in my class. I had a step up on most folks because I had messed around with synthesizers and kits to build extra filters, oscillators etc before going to school to study.

    So I was the mentor. I got the student lab assistant job and helped people. OTOH I had friends who knew stuff from computer clubs help me.

    It was easier when there were nerds and geeks and hippie freaks in the field.

  13. Athenia
    August 30, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    My friend survived the male dominated classes, the hard classes and self doubt. She considered getting her PhD, but after a semester of working in the lab she decided it wasn’t for her. Becoming a professor, especially in the sciences requires a lot of solitude. She wanted more people interaction.

    So, I wonder if somehow academics can change–more team work driven rather than going-it-alone.

  14. nobody
    August 30, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I don’t think being the only woman is the problem. Passing over women for mentoring is the problem. I’ve flittered around a lot. I love STEM. I changed majors 5 times as an undergrad, between 5 STEM majors in which I was the only woman. I stayed in the field that didn’t assume I was an idiot because I was a woman, and was instead excited to have me. Still, I found that I had to be better, not just as good as, the guys, to be respected as a student.

    I went to graduate school in that field because I was mentored/sponsored by faculty at my undergraduate institution. They made sure that the one female undergrad they’d ever seen stuck around. Too bad the same can’t be said for my graduate program. I saw my substantially less qualified male colleagues get guided painlessly and seamlessly into jobs that weren’t posted and no one told me about. Heck, I’ve seen them granted PhDs for research that was barely novel. Right now I’m hanging around in a lab that doesn’t pay me. The PI is always complaining about the male postdoc who is substantially less qualified than me not keeping up with his research. But he’s yet to offer me anything. I think the bottom line here is that he thinks he’s got to let the male have the job because he has to be able to support his wife (who, btw, has a job and therefore doesn’t need his support). After zero mentoring, I’m officially giving up.

    I’m polishing off my resume and looking for industry jobs. I don’t believe for a minute I can get a STEM job, despite having a PhD. I don’t know how, because I haven’t ever gotten any guidance. All the jobs I see require industry experience, which I don’t have, despite being otherwise qualified for the job. I just have this lousy PhD. I hear myths about “recruitment,” but I’ve never known anyone to be recruited. I’m guessing that recruited people get linked up by their mentors or something. As the second woman to ever get a PhD in my discipline, if anyone gave a shit about diversity, they’d give me a spot of advice about how to stay in the discipline. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to make a few bucks temping or something. It won’t be fulfilling, but it beats sitting around and helping out for free people who won’t even throw me a bone despite my qualifications.

  15. Anon
    August 30, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    nobody, I can’t give you any advice, because I don’t know what field you are in, but women PhDs in computer science are definitely getting jobs in industry with little problem. Some advisers help a lot with jobs, some not so much. It just depends on a lot of factors.

  16. Kevin K
    August 30, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    I’m a male with a PhD in physics and let me point out that being the only girl in the class (but usually there is more than one) is better than being one of 30 guys in a class. The professor will actually remember your name and pay more attention to you, rather than one of the dorks in the back. I promise this is true.

    Jobs in physics are hard to get for everyone, especially since you are basically competing against everyone in the world. I’m sure that’s true for other fields as well.

  17. integral
    August 30, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    …often because women are socialized away from taking on leadership roles

    “Socialized”? During my undergrad CS courses, students would be assigned in turns to lead the teams. When I was assigned as leader, invariably some dude would take over and the other dudes would ignore my attempts to lead.

    One of the male students once remarked to me that he’d be flunking if he didn’t have a group of our classmates to work on homework with. I wasn’t one of the guys, so I was continually out of the loop.

    We’d have to be very naive to think that it doesn’t suit men to make these fields hostile to women. When they’re called on it, they feign concern and helplessness and expect us to back off.

  18. Jessie
    August 30, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Nobody, that was the most discouraging/ disheartening post I’ve read in a long while.

    Amen, rebekah, amen.

    This article basically explains why I became a feminist. Well, partially at least. I would say my high school STEM courses were 50/50 male female. So were my first year courses. Second year was 85/15. Third year was 90/10.

    Where the heck did all the girls go? I thought my generation didn’t get the whole “girls can’t do math and boys don’t read”, but apparently I thought wrong. That’s the only explanation I can come up with. Physics is friggin HARD. I guess some girls are still getting the message “it’s so hard because the math is hard. Girls (I) can’t do math as well as the boys.”

    Plus I am so with Rebekah. The male students can really create a toxic atmosphere. Whether it is jokes about your Mrs. degree, advertising your relationship status, discussion about someone’s implants, or other tasteless jokes with sexist punchlines. Sometimes my university feels more like the boys’ locker room than an institution of higher education. If anyone has found an effective way of dealing with the locker-room mentality, I am all ears.

    I would love for there to be more women in the field. Love love love. But as my (male) supervisor said, our society really isn’t set up to promote women successfully getting a PhD. Children! Husband! House! blah blah blah! He really phrased it like an OR statement. I could have a PhD OR I could have house/car/family. I don’t have the time/ energy/ resources for both. The scary thing is I think he’s right.

    But I want both. I LIKE kids. I have no idea how my adult life is going to go. These are the issues I struggle with.

  19. Burn
    August 31, 2010 at 12:18 am

    RB: When I was in engineering undergrad five or so years ago, I heard this joke repeatedly from a handful of students:“The engineering class is 75% male and 25% ugly.”After hearing that I no longer wondered about why there are so few women in tech.

    I never heard that at my school (a science/engineering university) but we had a similar ratio, and snarky sayings for everyone. “The odds are good but the goods are odd” and “The odds and the goods– both bad.” I would say that there wasn’t a whole lot of love amongst the uber-nerdy, but that wasn’t strictly true, and a ridiculous number of people hooked up immediately upon matriculation and were married shortly after graduation.

    My own field (geosciences) has been moving slowly toward gender parity. Last report I read said it was at 44% women for undergraduates. In my small grad department, at a university that has 70% female students, we are still less than half women. Since the faculty in the department have a number of very vocal women, I didn’t used to notice the imbalance, but I just had my office moved from a pair of offices where there were 4 of us, all female, to a larger grad student office where there is me, and 9 guys; and the neighboring smaller office, which has no women in it at all, so in the last week the faculty have been referring to me as the token female, or asking me how I’m doing with “the guys”.

    I feel really lucky, however, that the guys with whom I share my office don’t suck. Our building is physical sciences, math, and CS. The building as a whole as a testosterone-y feeling compared to the rest of campus due to the gender imbalance in all of our smallish departments. (Biology and engineering are larger, and are in other buildings.) I heard some absolute horror stories from some of the undergrad women in the math department about being harrassed by their fellow students in the math student lounge just for being female, and I realize how far we have to go.

    And don’t get me started on hard vs. soft science. I hate those terms. It reminds me of hanging out with physicists who suck (as opposed to the large number of physicists who don’t suck) who like to harp on other fields for not being as pure. Some of them are willing to accept chemists, but I think a little bit of bile rises in their throat when they have to accept geoscientists under the umbrella of being physical scientists, and as soon as we get a few more women, I think we’ll be kicked out of the “hard sciences” category with the biologists, even though you can’t get much harder than a rock.

  20. Burn
    August 31, 2010 at 12:32 am

    ….and, I just remembered another thing that totally grated on me today. I received my favorite catalog o’ geekery in the mail today, full of cool science toys and gadgets. But I don’t even want to link it here because it pissed me off so much. On the page of fun chemistry kits was the “Dangerous Book For Boys” chemistry set. (“Not just for boys,” the catalog suggests, but, the name!) There is also an electronics kit under that brand. I’ve seen the books. There is also the Daring Book for Girls. I never picked either one up, but apparently there are no fun science kits branded under that title. When you go on the website, they have gift suggestions for boys and girls. Aforementioned chemistry and electronics sets, naturally, are on the boys list. While the number of fun, gender-neutral geeky toys on both lists overlaps considerably, which I consider a credit to the editors of those lists, other choices are questionable, such as the fact that boys get a generic chemistry kit, while girls get to brew cosmetics, soap, and perfume.


  21. August 31, 2010 at 5:07 am

    You are more understanding of Arrington than I was. The only thing I liked about what he had to say was that there had to be more action and less talk on this issue. For him to feel attacked, frustrated, and blamed on this shows a lack of understanding on his part. Boo hoo! He’s a white man who has to worry about complicated things like diversity.

  22. Yoshimi
    August 31, 2010 at 6:35 am

    It’s interesting that the one scientific field where women are well represented is referred to as “soft.” Is there really something inherently soft about biology or is it possible that the mere fact that women are doing it in great numbers reduces the perception of its hardness/difficulty?

  23. libdevil
    August 31, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Only anecdata, but I’ll check in from the field of chemistry. We see lots of undergrads, and roughly equal numbers of Ph.D candidates. What we don’t see is an equivalent number of faculty. At my previous institution, the number of women with tenure fluctuated from a low of 1 to a high of 3, in a department of around 18-20 active research groups. My current department is better balanced, but still only around 25% of the professors are women.

    One thing that may discourage women from pursuing academic careers is the treatment they receive from male professors during graduate school. Responsibilities within a research group are, in my experience, gendered. Men are assigned the technical responsibilities (maintaining instruments, preparing large batches of chemicals needed for the whole group, etc.) while women are assigned secretarial or social duties (scheduling meetings, ordering supplies, recruiting new group members, etc.). Unfortunately, there’s not much that an individual can do about that. Researchers within a group are extremely dependent upon the professor, and challenging sexism is career threatening. I’ve only been brave enough to approach it subtly, but that’s not enough to change attitudes, though it can sometimes temporarily modify behavior.

  24. exholt
    August 31, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Other problems include few women in most of one’s classes, creepy nerds with no social skills, grad student teachers who hit on you, and difficulty in relating to fellow students interests to name a few.

    The first is a serious problem in the sciences.

    However, while much more likely in the sciences and engineering , the second factor is also present in a different form in non-science fields such as poli-sci(Especially US politics), music performance(conservatory), lit, or art history. A big reason why I only minored in poli-sci and passed on the others.

    So, I wonder if somehow academics can change–more team work driven rather than going-it-alone. Athenia

    Though there is less aversion to having some cross-collaboration with colleagues/grad classmates, my impression of doing graduate study….especially at the PhD level is that it does tend to be solitary….even in the humanities and social sciences. Granted, the sciences can be worse by degree….but I’d say the problem of solitude seems to be endemic with PhD programs…especially ones considered “highly rigorous” as that degree’s main aim is to see if one can do independent original research in the field with “independent” being taken to extremes. A reason several people I knew cited as a reason to not date anyone who was in nearly any “rigorous” PhD program.

    Moreover, having been around PhD students, there seems to be a strong disdain of team-oriented work…especially as seen among undergrad business/MBA students as they’ve heard horror stories/experienced being in team assignment situations where they and 1-2 others end up doing 90% of the work while the rest of the group does little to nothing……and often the Prof concerned doesn’t seem to care to do anything to hold the slackers accountable.

    It is also a reason why many PhD students I knew, especially those in STEM fields are disdainful of business and education grad students as they felt the greater use of “team-oriented” work meant that it was “less rigorous”.

  25. Kristen J.
    August 31, 2010 at 9:24 am

    STEM doesn’t seem that different from econ or law (where the upper echelons are not necessarily academic) or philosophy (as my SO informs me). Not that the top tier careers in STEM don’t have unique problems, but it seems to me we have a systemic problem in nearly all fields when we get to certain levels regardless of how many women we have in the mid-range.

  26. libdevil
    August 31, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Hmm… occurs to me that I didn’t quite explain why I consider 25% “better balanced.” Our chair is a woman (and has been for years), the proportion of women amongst the younger faculty hovers around 50%, and the department is diligent about promoting and aggressive in retaining women on the faculty (though not always successfully). Progress, of a sort, even if the department as a whole still resembles an old-white-men convention.

  27. Anon
    August 31, 2010 at 9:40 am

    I should point out that the factors at play for academic jobs may be at least partially different from the factors at play in the technology industry.

    Regarding team-work, it’s fairly common in many fields. Many papers have co-authors other than the student and the adviser. Teamwork is common in undergrad computer science classes, however. I have not given any team projects in recent years, but may do so again this semester.

  28. t-ster
    August 31, 2010 at 10:45 am

    I am a women who got a graduate and undergraduate degree in engineering (that too, male dominated fields of engineering), only to drop the field and pursue a more liberal artsy field. For me, what happened is this: undergraduate engineering was so easy. It was all theoretical, no hands-on work, and I didn’t have to break a sweat.

    When I got to grad school, everyone was as smart as me, I got in on the wait list, and I realized that I wasn’t making much progress just by thinking about the problems, I had to get my hands dirty.

    My ego took a major hit, that undermined my confidence, and I made absolutely no progress on my research for 3 years. I was petrified of making mistakes. When I realized I had to graduate soon, I spent 3 months pulling 16 hour days and finished my work. But by then I was done with engineering. The lesson I learned was: if you work hard at something, even if you do a lot of things wrong, you can make progress in the end. But I didn’t learn that lesson until it was too late to make my career in engineering useful.

    I personally think that parents don’t teach their girl children to struggle as much growing up. They swoop in at the first sign of difficulty. Also, I think men are not taught to take their failures to heart in the same way I did. They don’t see making mistakes as a reflection on their innate ability, as I did. Unlike English and other liberal arts majors, math and science are the types of things that most people start out doing wrong, making a lot of mistakes, etc. And, our society seems to tell us that math/sci ability is a type of genius: an innate talent that you can’t really train. Fewer women think they are geniuses than men.

    In societies that see math ability as the result of hard work/practice rather than inborn skill (i.e. some Eastern cultures), the number of women who excel in these fields is much higher.

    While I’m sure more female mentors would have helped, to be honest, I liked being the lone girl in many of my classes in undergrad. No one doubted my intelligence and plenty of men served as mentors to me along the way. What really got me was that I didn’t have confidence in myself when things were hard.

  29. August 31, 2010 at 11:56 am

    “What really got me was that I didn’t have confidence in myself when things were hard. ”

    This, exactly.

    We teach our boys to never quit, to “get back on the horse.” We teach our girls that perfection is of the utmost importance. But scientific research doesn’t work that way. You need to get answers wrong and be OK with it, because at a certain level, no one knows the answers. You can’t be too afraid of looking stupid, or you’ll never get anything accomplished.

    There’s also a decent amount of bravado in science culture, and it took me a while to realize everyone was just as lost as I was in coursework. The guys I knew were always, like, “Oh, of course, it works this way and I know it so easily.” Even when they were wrong. But the girls were always really hesitant to offer an answer, even if they were correct, out of fear that they wouldn’t be.

  30. Athenia
    August 31, 2010 at 12:34 pm


    I think I read an article about that recently–girls prefer English and the humanities because “there’s no wrong answer.”

    (I disagree with that, but if that’s the perception….)

  31. Jim
    August 31, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    “It’s interesting that the one scientific field where women are well represented is referred to as “soft.” Is there really something inherently soft about biology or is it possible that the mere fact that women are doing it in great numbers reduces the perception of its hardness/difficulty? ”

    Aside from the “reason” you mention, the term “soft” in this context seems to mean “complex”. After all an organism consisting of thousands of huge-molecule substances interracting in tens of thousand of ways in an environment with thousands of other equally complex organisms is going to be a hell of a lot more complex than some hydrocarbon in a flask, or even simpler, the behavior of some kind of particle. And this complexity is naturally going to make it harder to arrive at the kind of cut-and-dry generalizations that lead to “hard” certainties.

    “Soft” has nothing whatever to do with the level of difficulty or solidity of the data. If you are a descriptive linguist doing work on a langugae, you work with no-shit physical data in the form of sounds waves coming out of you consultants’ mouths and their actual speech behavior.

    And it stays that rigorous quite a ways up the chain of abstraction. A language either has a k/q distinction or it doesn’t, either has tone distinctions or it doesn’t, either has grammatical tense or social relational marking or it doesn’t, and so forth. And if your consultant is worth a damn, she’ll tell you (usually it’s a she; they seem to tend to outlive the men) when you’re wrong. “No, you can’t say it that way; it doesn’t make sense” or “Well, you can say it that way if you want; after all you’re not X anyway.”

    And I might add that linguistics has notonly had pretty decent gender parity for a couple three generations now, but a pretty even number of the historic greats in the field have been women. Check out Mary Haas – absolutely foundational to the whole discipline.

    But then again, that’s “just” a social science, the one that served as the model for paleontolgy’s and biology’s study of evolution of species based on morphological changes. Not , y’know, the real stuff, “hard science”.

  32. Regina
    August 31, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Reading through these comments brought home the fact that nothing has changed in American opinion even as a century of great change occurred in American science and technology. I’m a retired professor of physics from a large state university, mother of 2, grandmother of 2 (no physicists there), and obviously a long-experienced juggler of lab and home. How did I get that way? To begin with, ages ago, as a kid I begged for an Erector set, and all I got was a Tinkertoy. I left my dolls sitting on the closet shelf. Then I fought a phalanx of well-meaning relatives when I refused “office work” and insisted on going to college. I went to what then was a girls’ college because I was sick of the backbiting I’d gotten in a coed high school for my choices of electives. Yes, my college had enough of us physics majors to maintain the department and the curriculum. Grad school ended up o.k., maybe because I returned to school long after my bachelor’s degree, older, with lots of work experience in the field. I have to acknowledge the following big breaks — when crisis strikes, women are accepted in all sorts of tech jobs! — (1) WWII — hired as a junior physicist in a government lab, with a brand new bac. degree; (2) the transistor — industrial labs poured resources into semiconductor R&D, and I got into a wide-open field; (3) Sputnik — physics depts expanded all around the U.S. and I was hired as an asst. prof., tenure-track, just when I needed the flexibility of a university schedule in order to manage motherhood along with the teaching and research (you can get a lot done outside of M-F 8-5!) I then put up with plenty of dumb attitudes, worse from non-science colleagues than from my “own kind,” but eventually was accepted into faculty leadership positions, elective as well as appointive. It was a tough haul, overall, but effective; I’m discouraged on reading here that there hasn’t been any real enlightenment in American society for all those decades. It really is long past time to quit telling girls what they aren’t good for and what they can’t — or shouldn’t! — do.

  33. Gembird
    August 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I don’t know whether it’s “girls can’t do maths” or the assumption that you can’t learn it, you just have to be naturally brilliant, or the fear of failure people seem to teach their daughters* but it certainly seems that a lot of girls and young women just assume they can’t do things right so there’s no point trying. If you can get past that and enter the ‘hard sciences’ (ffffffuuuuu I hate that phrase) you then come into contact with guys who try to boost their own sense of identity by cashing in on those cultural issues around girls and science/tech. Luckily for me, I’m rude and obnoxious and was the token girl from such an early age that university was basically a merry-go-round of “NO ARSEHOLE YOU LISTEN TO ME DAMMIT _frownyface_” but for anybody who is, you know, nice and normal and sociable, it can be really off-putting to spend all your time getting over something only to find that the next level of achievement is full of people who want to make you think that way all over again.

    It makes me rage- in particular, the people who tell me that biology isn’t a real science because it’s full of women (oh wow, slightly over 50%, we’re taking over!) really, really piss me off.

    *Seriously you guys, I have, like, Hermione Granger levels of fear of failure. MUST NOT GET THE NUMBERS WRONG OR EVERYTHING WILL EXPLODE OH GOD levels. I’m sure some of you know what that’s like.

  34. NancyinStLouis
    August 31, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    It’s not just math is too hard for girls. Some schools don’t know how to teach a rigorous math/science curriculum. Our two boys attended a private grade/high school until they graduated several years ago. The school prides itself in being a liberal arts prep school. Both are into tech stuff – one in CS and the other in Meteorology.

    The older boy got stuck in a HS sophomore math class when TPTB (The Powers That Be) decided they were going to “help” their students with math. He was bored to tears, there was so much dumbing down and repetition. In grade school he and a couple of buddies would have contests to see who’d finish their math homework first. (They had the complete lesson plan for the year.)

    The science curriculum did OK, but really didn’t challenge either boy. Why many of their female classmates are equally divided on college majors isn’t a mystery. Most of them went into Art History, Music or Languages. A very few headed for Med School. Some boys headed for Engineering or other tech majors. The rest headed for Business or a general Liberal Arts degree.

    The school does have the best reputation for teaching kids how to write. At least both boys know how to write, unlike many techies.

    BTW, I graduated in ’69 w/ a degree in Statistics and a minor in CS. (There wasn’t a CS major then.) I started out in EE and was the prettiest girl in EE for a year – the only one. I changed majors because I didn’t have the mind set for engineering (tedious detail checking). I didn’t mind being the only girl in my math classes. I was there to learn math. (It helped that my roommate was one of two women in Ceramic Engineering.)

    Come graduation time, I had one interviewer apologize to me for signing up for his company. They didn’t hire women for tech positions because they expected women to start a family and leave them in the lurch! I retired after close to 40 years in the computer world.

  35. Miss S
    September 1, 2010 at 8:49 am

    “What really got me was that I didn’t have confidence in myself when things were hard. ”
    This sounds so much like me. I didn’t get it from my mom. She raised me to get up, brush it, and keep it moving. I guess it’s my anxiety that makes me lose confidence. Either way it really sucks.

    The guys I knew were always, like, “Oh, of course, it works this way and I know it so easily.”
    This sounds so much like my experience. I’m not in science, but in business economics. (actually at the moment I’m unemployed) In classes, men would confidently toss out answers and I would get flustered because I wasn’t getting answers as quickly. It took me a while before I realized that most of those guys were just really, really, confident and didn’t always know what they were talking about. In those environments, being confident outweighs a lot.

    The benefit of being in a male environment for me was developing the confidence aspect and learning that being wrong isn’t the worst thing in the world.
    If you asked the men in that department what their post college plans were, they would tell you. No matter how ambitious, how outlandish, or how difficult their goal might be, they still told people without worrying that they might not live up to their expectations or that people would think it was stupid, or whatever. It’s really eye opening to sit in an all male class one hour and all female class the next and see that difference.

  36. catfood
    September 1, 2010 at 12:32 pm


    I think this is one way in which stereotypically male behavior can be “better” than stereotypically female behavior. In terms of confidence and simply not worrying about being wrong, women could (in some situations) benefit from indeed being “more like men.”

    On the other hand.

    I wonder how much of the men’s confidence comes from knowing that in fact the penalties for them of being wrong are mild, and how much of the women’s relative reticence comes from the opposite. I seriously don’t know, but I’d guess that’s a factor.

    Men (like me) who are attempting to be pro-feminist should watch for things like that–observe when women get slammed for taking small risks now and then and thus being “caught” at being wrong.

    Just thinking out loud here.

  37. Ian
    September 1, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Does anyone else think that the terms “nerdy” and “geek” are very gendered? So if something is geeky its for guys. It even implies that the person is white (see Al, Weird). I’ve started to recoil when I hear them being used because of this.

    There is certainly no “leaky pipeline” in Computer Science: it started out predominately male, and ended up predominately male at the majority-female liberal arts college I attended.

    So girls aren’t interested in nerdy jobs, boys aren’t interested in girly jobs. Now in the middle of the Great Recession and thinking about which jobs have the best job security (for ex. nurses), its hard to say who will get the better deal.

  38. Tim
    September 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm


    I’m a bit confused at people overlooking the something asserted in an earlier post that almost 50% of women earn Maths degrees as well as 50% chemistry. By any standard, chemistry is considered a hard science, and has a reputation as being both difficult and requiring a great deal of patience. Need I say anything about Maths? Most everyone considers maths to be quite nerdy at best? So this conditioning “girls can’t do math, guys can’t read”, well I can’t really buy that is the case. What I’m saying is it is clearly more nuances, yes there are problems post-grad, but how can you say girls are socialized to say we can’t do maths, then as women earn 50% of the maths bachelors. That doesn’t make sense. This whole topic needs a major paradigm shift. Perhaps people should find out what it is that Maths, and Chemistry (professors, admins) are doing to attract more women. Or what it is about the subjects themselves that women find attractive.

  39. Jen
    September 1, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    Kay, I really enjoyed this article – and thanks so much for the Skepchick mention! I’m one of the bloggers there and, as a woman who works in tech, the issue of women in geeky fields is one close to my heart. I try to bring it to Skepchick as often as I can. :)

  40. September 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I’m a woman in math.

    Here’s the thing. The issue isn’t whose fault it is that there aren’t enough women in the hard sciences. The issue is WHEN most of the inequality begins, and WHAT (if anything) to do about it.

    My impression so far, in my own field, is that there are two stages when girls and women fall out of the pipeline: when they’re in middle school or high school, and when they start families. The teenage problem is social/cultural; the motherhood problem is economic. So the way to get more women in the hard sciences is to educate them when they’re young, and provide job security or time off if they’re new mothers.

    If you buy that narrative, then Arrington ISN’T WRONG when he says that women in tech are aggressively promoted, funded, and publicized. They are. Women in science are too. There are lots of opportunities designed especially for women, and you can get a lot of advantages as a woman — IF you got through your teenage years without turning your brain off, and IF you haven’t (or haven’t yet) had children. There can simultaneously be “huge advantages” for women, AND huge challenges for women; the advantages and challenges occur at different stages of one’s career.

    When men say they’re trying to help, often they genuinely are. The increase of women in science and technology has happened with the help of men as well as women. The thing is, the remaining challenges for women are actually hard problems: how to reach out to teenage girls convinced that math is for boys? And how to structure the workplace to accommodate motherhood? There are a lot of workshops and grants for women, but those won’t solve the two main problems.

  41. Kay
    September 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    @sarah, Yes, yes, yes!

  42. John
    September 3, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I think sarah makes a good point, about the many women leaving when they have kids. Many of the comments have addressed this but seem to be ignoring the fact that this is entirely a personal choice. I grew up both of my parents worked, so I had a baby sitter or nanny, or I went to the YMCA or after school programs. This is nothing new for children of immigrants. There is no rule book that says you have to leave work for 5 to 8 years to watch the kids grow up. While I agree that companies should be accommodating to maternity they need not be anymore accommodating to motherhood than they are to fatherhood. Men, single or with families, often work longer hours than their female counterparts. This can help offset some of the responsibilities that typically moms perform at home (cooking). Other than that I don’t think is fair to ask for job security if your taking off months at a time. I think its a nice gesture, but by no means should be necessary. I work in the biomedical devices industry, my friend (at the same companies) manager had a child, and was back to work within 3 weeks.

  43. Moze
    September 3, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Can someone comment on this socialization for women to be perfect in the work place? Where in society do we say that women must be perfect at everything they do including math and science? Seems like we have to two things that are more or less mutually exclusive being said here. Some people will say “people at work don’t consider the men to be as smart or have good ideas” then other people say men expect every idea a women has to be perfect. You can only have one or the other here.

    Also I would like to comment on the whole not being afraid to blab a bad idea thing. The truth is, if its a dumb idea, people will note that you are consistently pitching dumb ideas, and if will affect you. The idea that as a man you can just constantly say things that incorrect at no consequence is ridiculous. At the same time, its this brazenness that often gives birth to ideas that take off. This isn’t just a men issues, in fact if you look at Americans vs International employees you will see this all the time. The Americans are much more confident shouting out w/e, and the internationals generally reserve comments if they think will truly make a contribution. Thats why you see so much more innovation in the US compared to other countries (even countries that have a lot of money like England, and France, etc). Americans are will to say “here me out, I have an idea, it might sound stupid but….”, and sometimes that makes all the difference. Its really fair to blame anyone, for personal fear of being seen an stupid for saying something wrong. In America, men aren’t rewarded for saying stupid things. If they do, people will start to take them less seriously. Anyways as I man I guess I wouldnt, for the most part pick up on this women must be perfect bit as much, but I certainly never have that expectation and wonder where it is visible in American society.

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