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Why We Need Women In Tech, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:20am

Did you know that when you look to start a business built on software, you are likely to be told you need a technical co-founder? Someone who can build the first working prototype of your  product, be it website, phone app, or refrigerator that can order milk? Someone who will code for free, for however long, before anyone will invest?

No? Understandable. I would expect it to be news to many, as, despite working in Silicon Valley tech since the 1990s, I am surprised. I found out in recent investigations of a business I might like to start myself.

But so what, right? So what if capital flows to those who can build vs. those who can imagine? Here’s the thing. Given that the ratio of men to women in computer science is incredibly high, we’re pretty much handing the future of American software-driven innovation to men and saying, “Here. Tell us what matters.”

OK, so I exaggerate. There are a few women who lead top tech companies now, and a good deal more at high levels in smaller ones. But my issue is not how many women work in tech.

I am concerned instead with the degree to which women’s ideas are now and will in future be represented in the field. Tech dictates the evolving stuff of life.

This is not new, technology has always moved society one way and another. Think about automobiles, electricity, and washing machines. Do you know how much time women, or their servants, used to spend doing laundry? Today we’re run by software and computer processors, humming no longer in the back room, sparking everywhere. That’s not news.

But given that software programming has gotten more and more accessible, meaning easier for everyone, and given that women now have control over their fertility, because let’s face nobody is going to do much focused cerebral work if they are at home with an infant, now is the time to seize the day. To seize the binary day.

I always wonder, if I’d gone to school 20 years later, would I still have majored in Comparative Literature? My instincts tell me programming would still have been too precise for my brain, but that I might have loved User Interface Design. Anyone else feel the same way? Or do you recoil in horror at the idea?

In any case, those of you with girl children, ask them to consider programming. Consider science. Not to say that our boy children shouldn’t consider science too, they should, but they may need less encouragement. Science learning already works for those boys so inclined.

I see some hopeful signs. There’s a group called Black Girls Code that’s going gangbusters. For the first time ever, the Nobel Prize of math, AKA the Fields Medal, has been awarded to a woman.

Which elicits one more thought. The rise of China and India is predicted in equal parts on inexpensive hourly labor and a focus on technology. I read, as I pass, stereotypes about Asian students doing All The Science. This is not genetic. It doesn’t have to be political, or national. Scientific learning requires focus and willingness to move past failure. It requires the capacity to delay gratification, as one waits for data, as one corrects errors. Parents and the environment raise children.

Here’s a great link to a female Chinese professor at Stanford, on why and how she came up with her solar power stickers.

You might ask, “What about your kids, Lisa?” Fair question. My scientific daughter majored in Psychology and Neuroscience. Had I been on the ball, perhaps I would have encouraged her to learn programming early. It might not have taken, of course. She is moved by humankind more than sheer problem-solving, and has gone into medicine. Science enough. I strongly encouraged my son to take Comp Sci in college. He did, good kid that he is, but after one semester in which he performed swimmingly, he knew that he needed to work in a less binary medium.

One can only encourage one’s children as they grow, directing causes more harm than good.


Here’s the only thing of note in what I’m saying. Don’t encourage your girl to enter science so she can get a job. Do it so she can shape the future.

Have a good weekend.

37 Responses

    1. @Terri, I love the idea that MIT is having breast pump hackathons. Now I’d like to see women designing space rockets. Probably they do, somewhere, I just think there is strength in numbers.

  1. There is a painful article in today’s NYTimes about the risks that women in science face, entitled “Science’s Sexual Assault Problem”…title says it all, but I would encourage anyone who thinks of these things to read it.

    I am as non-tech as one can be and still exist in todays world, but I am 68 and not in the job market, and its okay. For my granddaughters I hope for broader horizons than I dreamed of at their ages (well, one is only 4 months old, so her dreams are pretty basic now, but soon…). At the same time, I wonder about the all tech world that seems to be rushing at us, and what will the world be without creativity and comp lit. Its kind of like gardening? What would the world be with only one kind of flower?

    1. @Ellen, I would wholly agree that we still need words and pictures in our lives. We still need art.

      That an article about sexual assault in science even needs to be written enrages me almost into despair.

  2. I think that it’s more than just encouraging our daughters, nieces, etc. to go into programming. I work at the rival university across the Bay, and women now comprise a greater percentage of the engineering class than men. It’s been inching up for years, but now women have surpassed men. So it’s happening. What is NOT happening is that women are still hitting the glass sexist ceiling. There was a gigantic brouhaha this year at some very prestigious chemistry-based conference this year where no women were chosen as speakers. As you know, these types of events are where the networking happens, where intellectual rubber meets the road. Where current research is publicized and careers are often made. Of course this is not just limited to chemistry. Interesting article here:

    Frankly, I don’t think there is a dearth of women entering science. I think there is a dearth of opportunity given to women entering science.

    1. @claire, I have read about the discrimination women face in the academic hard sciences, but have no direct experience. I did think about the bias issue – it happens with venture capital too – but wanted in this post to focus very tightly. It seems to me that requiring a technical co-founder is a hidden bias, and I wanted to call it out.

      BTW, that other university is widely-regarded, amongst my CS colleagues, as the best of the best. Along with Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and a few other places. BSD forever;).

  3. Those programmers don’t work for free – they are working for equity, which can be extremely lucurative if the business succeeds and not many do. Normally when a start-up gets their first round of funding people ad essential as programmers start getting paid.

    Women/girls should take risks and not design their programs around easy courses that will bolster their GPA s for graduate school.
    While one may never use Calculus the ability to comprehend things with complex associations and many moving parts is useful.

    As to programming as a major – take Art History and Medieval Culture in your precious college years. You can learn to program later in Junior college.

    1. @roseag, Yes, maybe I should have been more specific? I didn’t want to get too technical about the cap table for software startups:). While you have a point on learning programming later, I can’t say that I fully agree with you for true software innovation. The software architects I know, as well as for example the founders of Google, come out of Computer Science departments. There’s a hierarchy, from programmer, to software engineer, to architect, to CTO, and depending on how nascent or even seminal the technology you’re working with, you will want different levels of understanding and capabilities.

  4. This is such a fresh subject for me, as I’m sending my eldest daughter off to college next weekend to study…. anthropology. Part of me cringes a little as I wonder about employability, and part of me thinks a good mind can apply a good education about any subject to any endeavor. Daughter #2 wants to be a veterinarian, but is also a really terrific artist, which makes me think there are science/art connections — in tech or not– to be made if she changes her mind about being an animal doctor. Sigh. Mostly it’s just wonderful to watch what they will do with such potential.

    1. @Kristina, It is wonderful to watch. And let me just say this, Cultural Anthropology is the base degree for any work in User Experience, which is the research arm of User Interface design. In other words, to know how to automate behaviors – which is what software does – you have to understand the motivations and processes of those behaviors to begin with.

    2. @Kristina, By all means, your base degree can be just ‘grist to the mill’ but you do often need to work your way ’round from your studied subject to more job-specific knowledge.

      Having hired graduates, I look for other relevant experience i.e. leadership of clubs, customer service jobs etc. and preferably some full time work experience (even just a few weeks).

      If your daughter can add one or two more business/IT relevant papers to her degree, that would help too.

  5. My five and seven year old daughters really enjoy Kodable. I highly recommend as an app that does a nice job of gamifying programming as it introduces it.

  6. And, last comment here, I was chatting with someone who is heavily involved in science/tech philanthropy. She said that one of the barriers appears to be that women don’t get interested in programming unless they perceive some way it is directly beneficial-tracking, polluters, connecting voters, etc. I thought that was interesting.

    1. @Hadilly, That is interesting, and comports with much of my experience. Thanks for the recommendations on Kodable. The earlier we introduce computing languages, like any other languages, the easier to learn.

  7. @roseag, you described my educational path, except my technical degree is in manufacturing technology. I will always appreciate the balance classes in humanities & tech give students.

    1. @Megan, To play devil’s advocate – do the classes give students the balance, or do the students who already have that balance support their tendencies by signing up for the classes? Which, don’t get me wrong, I value that qualitative side highly.

  8. I do struggle with the technology side of my blog especially when I change platforms and have to learn new ways of doing things. I employ a professional to do my design and programming however I need to have some basic understanding of it. It is interesting that my husband started as a programmer and runs a small software based company yet he does not understand some of the stuff I am doing. It is never too late to learn and my consolation when it becomes too stressful is that apparently technology helps to create new synapses in the brain and stave off early onset dementia.
    I think my grandchildren (2 boys so far) will grow up inside technology which is something I am not sure we can fully comprehend.

    1. @chicatanyage, Yes, it’s never too late to learn, and it is apparently so good for the memory. I am even considering doing a software development camp, if only for those synapses!

  9. In life sciences (I am in Genomics, which is an interesting blend of coding and biology) we have plenty of women going into the field, and getting Ph.Ds — and then they get stuck and drop off at the point where science becomes a really brutal field to be in, i.e. when you’re in your 30s and maybe want to be having kids but you also have to be getting tenure. You can train all the women you want but if the structures are still intrinsically hostile to a balanced life it’s not going to help. Younger men who do want to raise their kids find the culture and structure of tenure-track pretty hostile too, by the way, but it is so entrenched that it’s hard to change.

    1. @Cynthia, The How Do We Care For The Children In America question has not yet been solved and is hardly going to go away. That’s another difference between us and the Chinese at least, there the grandparents often provide primary care for small children.

      Academia seems in serious need of a shakeup.

  10. Your post made me think about the late Anita Borg, Ph.D. In computer science, who was committed to advancing women in technology because technology influences everything and women should have a place in it. She famously said “If women designed cars there’d be a place to put your purse.” I met her in 1999 when she spoke for us at a Forbes conference and we honored her for opening doors for other women. What an inspiration!

  11. Hi Lisa, I’m just speaking as someone who happens to have had a liberal arts degree & then realized I needed tech knowledge too. Happily, our local community college was just starting up a program in manufacturing technology in conjunction with the large commercial aircraft company with manufacturing facilities in our area. BTW I was happy & proud to see a chemist from my alma mater, WSU, quoted in that article about the ICQC boycott!

    1. @Megan, Oh one can definitely learn after college. I might do it myself:). And sounds like a great program. I appreciate industry/academia partnerships that support training and human resource development, not just lucrative patents.

  12. I love this post, and your penultimate statement: “Don’t encourage your girl to enter science so she can get a job. Do it so she can shape the future.”

    I believe we really need to think about that more, how we are shaping the future, and who we are empowering to do the shaping. It is not something to take for granted.

  13. It’s all about deemphasizing gender roles … if we get rid of the notion of coding and other’s comparatively male heavy industries as men’s work and other types of work as women’s work, then we can begin to even the scales a bit!

  14. I would never encourage a girl in particular to get into this field. It’s extremely ageist, so unless you rise to the top very quickly you will be unemployable well past the time you would in say the medical field. Advertising is about the only other comparable field I can think of that has this extreme age bias. I was turfed at 50, nobody in my company was over 55 except for one manager. A smart girl is better off doing what your daughter did, or getting into pharmacy, nursing, even law or engineering.

    1. @Vera, That’s true to a certain extent. But startup culture is all about who you know, so at any age, if you have a network that includes the young, and you’ve offered value, they will keep you around;).

  15. Managers at one of the tech companies I worked with had a scoring system for candidates that deducted points for children (and for a domestic partnership), till HR caught them and clamped down. A colleague still there told me, “They still have ways of finding out and penalizing people. They call having kids a ‘drag coefficient’.

    Still, I would encourage a woman to go into CompSci, just as my father encouraged women to go into medicine in the 1930s… and they will benefit from women in tech speaking candidly about the environment.

    1. @Duchesse, That is a dreadful story!

      And I do believe in the sheer power of numbers. Some of the change comes from loudly pointing out injustice, some from shifting the statistics slowly, slowly, slowly.

  16. I just read an article about True & Co, started by a woman using “big data” to make it easier to find a bra that fits. Here is their site –

    I tried it and, given my answers to their questionnaire, it actually recommended the brand and style that I have so far found fits me best – I am going to try their other recommendations to see if I find some additional styles that work for me!

  17. Coming late to the party, but really appreciate this post. Wish someone had talked to me about these issues when I was younger! I also majored in English and am getting an MBA, and it is so hard to wrap my brain around the more precise subjects like finance and data analysis/statistics.

    My classmates from India and China, both women and men, were taught to practice subjects like math and science until they could perfect the problems. Failure was not an option for them. Would a little bit of this repetition and toughness served me, and other American students, particularly women? Yes, probably. But it’s not a value our parents enforced.

    Now I’m looking at design research, a field that mixes creativity with business and social science analysis.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the business you may be starting! Hope you find a great tech partner, whoever he or she may be.

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