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What If the Lack of Women in Tech Isn’t the Problem that Needs Fixing?

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CIOs: How to Get Your Teams to the Next Level

I’ve been following the effort to diversify hiring in the tech industry for a long time because I did a lot of my undergraduate and graduate work in Manpower Management. At that time, we used a statistics-based approach to match people with the jobs they were most capable of doing and would enjoy the most. That approach placed few women, or other minorities, into tech jobs. The conclusion was drawn that the effort was unfairly biased, and the science was thrown out in favor of the EEOC and quotas.

That was 40 years ago, yet minorities are still largely underrepresented in tech companies.

If you spend 40 years trying to fix a problem and it isn’t fixed, maybe it’s time to challenge some of the assumptions underlying that effort. Maybe we are trying to fix a problem that may not be a problem.

What if many women don’t want to be in tech as it exists? In that case, we should figure out why and whether that can be fixed. It may very well be that tech jobs, as they are, just aren’t attractive to women. Maybe the jobs themselves need to be changed in order to get the diversity many of us think the industry needs.

I believe that we desperately need the unique skills women have in the tech market and I’ve been, and continue to be, a diversity advocate. And I continue to believe that the argument that companies with more diversity could be more successful is stronger than the more common fairness argument. Most executives will make decisions that make them more successful and naturally avoid making decisions forced by rules they may not believe in; I believe the reason the 1970s Equal Opportunity effort failed was because it was trying to force an outcome rather than showcasing the advantages of a diverse firm.

Gamergate

I think the Gamergate scandal showcases why there aren’t more women in technology. The situation started as an ill-advised relationship between co-workers and became a leading example of abuse against women in the technology segment. If you don’t read this and become angry at the unfairness of what happened, I’d question whether you are human. Personally, I was embarrassed for my entire gender. This was clearly a case of men behaving badly in force and it showed the hostility in the tech market toward women. The attacks on the woman at the center of Gamergate and those who supported her, who were mostly other women, were over-the-top excessive, and included doxing, threats of rape, and threats of murder. Yet the defense of these women was less organized, largely ineffective, and rarely backed by companies supposedly outspoken in support of efforts to increase the penetration of women in this male-dominated industry. I didn’t see a single top woman CEO stand up and be counted here, nor did I see a lot of men step up.

I think the core of the problem with jobs in the tech industry is that they are largely designed around how men work, thus measurements favor how men think, making it far more difficult for women to advance. The segment is actually hostile to women, as showcased by Gamergate, driving women away from the segment. And we haven’t effectively fixed the lack of women in math and science programs or accepted alternative education paths effectively to allow women, without forced quotas, to compete for jobs they would actually be better at (we don’t seem to have a clear idea what those jobs are, either).

Wrapping Up: Suggested Solution for More Diversity in Tech

I think we need to stop applying band-aid solutions and actually fix what is causing this lack of diversity. That means taking departments in tech companies, like marketing and PR, which have a lot of women, and more deeply integrating them into the product creation process. That means treating these women as peers who can and should provide valuable insights that their male counterparts wouldn’t otherwise see. It fascinates, and somewhat surprises, me, that we believe that the “voice of the customer is king,” yet we tend to ignore the fact that often it is the department that is paid to understand that “voice” that we lock out of critical decisions. I also think women would be far better at ensuring customer loyalty and reducing customer churn than men are and that integrating them more in positions of authority here, as well as in product design, would vastly improve firms’ bottom lines. I think we need to make damn sure that the environments are supportive and safe and that anyone who believes that threatening any form of violence is a valid response to something they disagree with is forced out of the industry. We do need passion, but that kind of passion, no one needs.

In short, I think we must make the technology industry more attractive to women as a career path than it currently is. If we do, most of the related symptoms, like salary disparity, will self-correct over time. If we aren’t willing to do that, then maybe we should focus on doing something we are willing to do instead of spinning our wheels for another 40 or so years.

What’s the definition of insanity again? Well, I’m not going to say it again, even though it does kind of work here.

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+

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