Women today represent an abysmal percentage of the population of most STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), and that number is shrinking, rather than expanding. At the same time, fewer young women are entering the STEM workforce than in previous years.
Why are women leaving STEM fields?
Researchers have been gathering volumes of data as to the why there are fewer women are staying in, or entering STEM fields, and from that data we can see many issues that cover a spectrum from that need to be addressed:
- Sexism: overt and subtle (hostile macho cultures)
- Harassment, threats, or potential or actual violence toward women
- Financial Independence
- Gender Stereotyping
- Work-life balance
Considering the number of challenges, addressing the lack of women in technology is a multifaceted phenomenon with no single solution, with each matter deserving attention. The primary goals of this post will focus on demonstrating…
- Incidents of sexism at industry events, and online conversations, and their link to the decline of women in STEM fields.
- The effects sexism has on women and the STEM industries as a whole, both now and in the future.
- A call to action to drive awareness and take a proactive stance in promoting women friendly STEM workplaces, conferences, schools, and meeting places.
By understanding these influences women in technology, particularly in software development, we can take corrective and proactive stances, in the retention, engagement, and attraction of top female talent.
Incidents of sexism are major contributors to a declining female STEM workforce.
The National Center for Women In Technology describes sexist incidents [.pdf] in various ways including,
“experienced/observed exclusionary cliques, unwanted sexual teasing, being bullied, and homophobic jokes”.
Consider that between January and October 2011, women reported 20 sexist incidents to the Geek Feminism Wiki, with some common themes:
- Several talks at tech conferences contained pornographic style imagery, or sexual imagery.
- Multiple presentations referenced women in a derogatory or demeaning way, (e.g., “women can’t program”, “women are stupid”) or by overt or subtle objectification of women.
- Overt harassment, inappropriate touching, and groping are still commonplace at technical conferences.
Roughly one incident every two weeks this year means that this happens more than we’d like to think – and that’s only the reports from a single website.
Exclusionary, offensive, incidents at conferences, along with threats, violence, and harassment, against women in technology (and women in general) are simply not isolated occasions. They have profound implications that directly impact the declining numbers of women in technology. The Washington Post outlines some statistics demonstrating this, in a study on interactions between men and women during online chat sessions.
“A 2006 University of Maryland study on chat rooms found that female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women.” [emphasis mine]
Those numbers have barely improved, five years later. Additionally, the participants in this study belong to a general online audience and not solely the STEM fields, so one must consider the fact that STEM fields are male dominated, resulting in a larger amount of sexist behavior.
Though not the only reason, the numbers show that in software development specifically, sexist and overtly offensive behavior (both online and off) is one of two key factors as to why women are leaving technical fields as reported by ABC News. This article quotes Laura Sherbin, director at the Center for Work-Life Policy, who published a study in the Harvard Business Review titled “Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology”. Laura goes on to explain the primary reasons women leave STEM fields…
“The top two reasons why women leave are the hostile macho cultures — the hard hat culture of engineering, the geek culture of technology or the lab culture of science … and extreme work pressures”
Sherbin also highlights just how critical and surprising the numbers are, even to researchers.
“The dropping out was a surprise to us. We knew anecdotally that women were leaving these careers. We didn’t expect to see the number 52 percent.”
To reiterate: 52% or just over half, of the female STEM workforce leaves because of hostile macho cultures.
Let’s do the math:
- Assume the average tech conference has 300 attendees.
- The average turnout of females at a technical conference is at about 15%, or 45 women in this example.
- 52%, or 23 of the women at that event will leave the industry.
- At a rate approximately of 26 events per year affecting 23 women each time, 598 women will be subjected to a hostile environment each year.
The cost in human terms and individual well-being is immeasurable.
A look at the negative effects and human cost of sexist behavior in STEM fields.
Considering the above numbers, try out this thought exercise, showing the implications of sexist incidents on women in software.
- Think of the names 23 women developers that you work alongside, have worked with, or know. Try it without looking at social networks, checking address books, etc…
- Think about these women. Are they your coworkers? Presenters you admire? Are they women with whom you enjoy having technical conversations, perhaps at conferences, code camps, or over social networks?
- There’s essentially a 50/50 chance, or the same chance as the toss of a coin, that those 23 women won’t be developers for much longer.
Once they’re gone, can you name 23 more women to replace them? It won’t be the younger girls entering the field.
The consequences have a stifling effect on younger girls wanting to enter the technology fields before they have a chance to start. Numbers show that a huge impasse in attracting young girls into the STEM fields, is a serious lack of women role models in those fields. Less women staying in the field means fewer role models for young girls, which in turn means fewer STEM girls overall.
It’s not just about sexist incidents though, subtle sexism can bleed into the everyday atmosphere of in tech fields and cause the same amount of negative barriers. While the day to day activ
ities of most technical women might not vary much from that of men, as far as actual programming, sitting in meetings, mundane business tasks, etc… What do differ are the interactions between the sexes, as well as both overt and subconscious behavior that manifests as sexist incidents, though primarily non-malicious, and most often subconscious. For example, here are some commonplace scenarios where subtle sexism happens in companies large and small:
- Men who repeatedly ask only the women attending meeting to take notes, or get coffee, when the woman is not a secretary or in a similar role.
- Colleagues that routinely ignore women during meetings, or a female states an idea that is promptly ignored, then raised again by a man who gets the credit. (in a consistent, frequent, pattern)
- Women, rather than men, are routinely stuck into “softer” positions, often to answer phones. Management gives women more remedial tasks that are clearly not aligned with their job description or what they were hired to do.
The sentiments above are detailed in a report by Level Playing Field Institute titled “The Tilted Playing Field: Hidden bias in information technology workspaces” [.pdf]. Reading about recent events and stories of everything from demeaning comments, to outright harassment, stalking, and groping, are still commonplace in the tech industry. I must agree that I’ve personally been privy to a number of these types of scenarios, but that’s not all…
When an incident at a conference happens, I inevitably get a call or email from a female colleague who has just given up, and is now looking at non-technical career alternatives.
If we are to keep our technical industries healthy, and full of diverse creativity, things must change, and soon. So what can you do?
A Call to Action: Drive awareness and take the lead to promote diversity in STEM fields.
Below are just some of the things you can do to drive diversity and promote women in STEM fields:
It may seem obvious, but without awareness, it’s impossible to know there’s a problem.
You can drive awareness by blogging, tweeting, or otherwise telling your story, or commenting on blogs to show your support. The Level Playing field’s report shows a real lack of awareness in populations at large. The more blog posts, articles, and events, mean more information people can use to take proactive stances to create technical communities and workspaces that are welcoming to everyone.
- Does your company have a diversity and inclusion policy? Even if you work for a small business or startup, a formal policy of inclusion fosters a welcoming environment for everyone. If you company doesn’t have one, get involved and ask your HR department to work on one with you. Don’t let your policy be a paper form of lip service, make it part of how you do business.
- Does your HR department have a clear open door policy, with a trusted employee to listen to concerns?
- Attend women in technology events. Hint: Take your favorite gal developer with you. At the Code Camp NYC 2011 WIT luncheon, a healthy mix of men and women joined in for a productive, round-table discussion.
- Ask technical women work on a joint talk with you for a user group or code camp, and invite them to technical events.
Presenters & conference organizers:
Organizers can create written guidelines to ensure a harassment-free environment for everyone at your conference, user group, or other meeting.
CodeStock 2010 set a perfect example to follow by embracing a WIT centered theme, including a female keynote speaker (*ahem* that would be me 🙂 ).
I would love to see every company behave as MS DPE East does, and I hope that you, dear readers of this blog, will step up to foster an environment in your workplaces and homes that support and celebrate women and diversity in STEM fields.
Should an incident occur at an event you’re attending, take corrective action as soon as possible. If you’re in a conference session and you feel offended or uncomfortable, walk out calmly, and write down exactly what you feel is offensive or inappropriate. Take the evaluation to the conference staff, and ask that they check out the session in question.
 The numbers in this sample represent one source of reports, so the actual numbers are much higher. Additionally, the number 23 is rounded from 23.4. Also assuming a single track conference, which is fairly common.
 These aren’t just manufactured scenarios – they’re real life stories from female contemporaries.
 As for large companies, my experiences at Microsoft DPE have been great!. I work on an highly functioning team with awesome people who celebrate diversity in technology and are quite supportive of each other.