Assigning Blame Won't Reverse Dearth of Women in Tech

Ann All

Michael Arrington is tired of people blaming the technology industry for the relative lack of women in tech careers, and he's letting everyone know how he feels with a TechCrunch post titled "Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Blaming the Men." (Interestingly in the URL, the title appears as "women-in-tech-stop-blaming-me.")


Arrington was inspired to write the post at least in part because Mediaite founder Rachel Sklar called out TechCrunch as part of the problem in a Wall Street Journal article about the dearth of female entrepreneurs, mentioning the "overwhelming maleness" of TechCrunch conferences.)


Arrington points out TechCrunch spends "an extraordinary amount of time" trying to recruit female speakers. In many cases, he writes, the women turn TechCrunch down because "they are literally hounded to speak at every single tech event in the world because they are all trying so hard to find qualified women to speak at their conference." So, got it -- not enough women in tech.


The problem, writes Arrington, "isn't that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs."


Arrington shares a communication he had with Zivity founder Cyan Banister, in which she told him men are far more comfortable taking risks than women. Is there some truth to this? Yes, I think so, and I think nature and nurture probably play a part in this.


When you become a parent and are exposed to herds of small children interacting in social settings, it quickly becomes obvious that the two sexes are wired differently. Boys (mostly) are louder, more impetuous, less sensitive of others' feelings. Because of these differences, I suppose, society seems to tolerate risk-taking from males in a way it doesn't from women. Boys aren't punished as harshly for it, and as they get older, they are rewarded for it. From an early age, females are told more often to "be careful."


Women are also more naturally inclined to seek consensus, which is not necessarily a strength when you're trying to get a company off the ground. I wrote about this in a post called "Do Jerks Make Better Innovators?" citing a TechCrunch post by Arrington in which he compared Digg founder Kevin Rose to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and argued Zuckerberg has been more successful because he largely doesn't care what Facebook users think.


Arrington's post inspired more than 1,200 comments, many of them, unfortunately though, somewhat predictably bickering over whether men are smarter than women. Several touch upon the cultural expectation that employees of technology companies will work long hours. (Entrepreneurs in any field must do the same if they expect to be successful.)


This may not be realistic for women with families, as they usually spend more time than men tending to family needs. I cited two reports from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the role of women at high-tech companies, that mention the impact of family responsibilities on females pursuing technology careers.


Are women forced into choosing between family responsibilities and career advancement? You could argue that one both ways. Maybe men just aren't given the opportunity to make the same kinds of choices. Until both sexes insist on a more equal balance between work and family, I doubt efforts to get women interested in technology careers will go very far. I know one thing for sure: Trying to find someone to "blame" isn't going to help.

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Sep 2, 2010 1:01 PM Cyan Banister Cyan Banister  says:

Thanks so much for this post. You are one of the few people who completely understood what I was trying to get across and I appreciate it.

Sep 2, 2010 2:22 PM Julie Hunt Julie Hunt  says:

Ann, I really appreciate the thoroughness of your post.

My additional thought is that a lot of the debate about women in tech / women creating tech start-ups seems to revolve around the notion that to do either women should emulate how men would do it. So I'll repeat my Tweet from earlier today: 

How women might create their tech start-ups does not necessarily map to the current stereotypical notions of how men would do it.

Just as you mention the continuing need for better work/life balance, still a seemingly "new" idea, perhaps it's time to consider new ways to work in tech and to create new companies that don't absolutely consume people. #innovation




Sep 3, 2010 7:29 PM MikeH MikeH  says:


You also need to include the fact that women entering the IT field are being faced with a lot of cultural bias. A large amount of managers are from other countries where women are not a huge part of the workforce. As of 10 years ago many women entered the IT field because of the equal pay (more or less) for equal work. I have worked with many women over the years whose work was equal and many times often better than their male co-workers.

Sep 8, 2010 2:38 PM SalT SalT  says:

Arrington's article really pushed a button within me...it's very difficult to watch someone from a privileged majority group complain about the benefits of the minority. It's like watching an able-bodied person complain about how awesome handicap parking is or someone with a job complain about not getting unemployment benefits.

There is nothing within a female brain that would make her better or worse at these positions than a male brain. The brain is plastic enough that it can do almost anything and renders any inherent differences between the sexes as moot.

What must be immensely difficult for women CEOs is stereotype threat. When you're at the top of your field, just the reminder that a negative stereotype exists against you puts you at a severe disadvantage, and this has been shown to be true for everyone. Controlled experiments have even been shown to produce exactly opposite results depending on which stereotype was engaged (A round of golf was presented neutrally as a control, as a test of athletic aptitude or as a test of strategic planning.)


So when Arrington says the press is dying to talk to them, they must get constant reminders that they're different, engaging the stereotype threat. When he says "I'm from Mars, not Venus" he buys into the myth that there is a difference between men and women, perpetuating the stereotype. If he really wants to be guiltless, he'll try to stop seeing any difference between them, it has to start somewhere.






Sep 8, 2010 6:42 PM AniaM AniaM  says:

While the traits that make an entrepreneur may be more common among men, before one starts a company he or she usually works in the trade for some time first.  I work as a design engineer in Silicon Valley for a large chip manufacturer.  It is clear to me that their environment discourages women, but it's not as blatant as disrespecting female employees.  Just as it's more common for men to take risks, it's more common for women to appreciate an aesthetically pleasant environment while this firm is spartan.  The CEO has described the firm as "family friendly", but as a new mother the only assistance I've received beyond the legal minimum is 1.5 weeks of pay during my maternity leave, and I've had co-workers warn me that upper management is probably not happy about the amount of legally-entitled leave that I chose to take.  My friends outside engineering had freedom to work part-time for a few weeks, a place for a quick nap during some weeks of pregnancy, etc. There are many subtle ways that established practices discourage women.  And if a woman doesn't get a few years of experience under her belt, she's less likely to have the knowledge to start a new company.

Sep 9, 2010 12:00 PM Richard Charette Richard Charette  says:

This is one heck of a topic. Couple of personal comments.

1) Men and women should have equal right/opportunities. This being written, there are some fundamental differences between men and women that make their route to success very different. I won't go too far down that road but ignoring the fact that those differences exist prevents one to understand why some things may be harder for one or he other.

2) We see a lot of writing about how women have (and keep) changing/evolving. The biggest hurdle in my book is that men haven't got their "revolution". Men have just not adjusted to the new reality of women, and redefined themselves accordingly. For example, as long as men won't change their view on their family role to support their partners, it will make it tougher for women since they will be the ones taking charge of a large chunk of family matters while the men are putting more time in their careers.

It is my opinion that a large majority of men are completely lost when it comes to understand women's reality, how they see the world, and how men should change. 9 out of 10 men I know function on old paradigms when it comes to a productive relationship with women. I can see how this makes things very complicated in the workplace (and business).

Time to work on a new man's paradigm! Women have done a lot of progress, it's time for men to do the same.


Sep 9, 2010 12:59 PM Paige Roberts Paige Roberts  says: in response to Boris

As a woman who has always had a technical aptitude and interests in things that women aren't "supposed" to be interested in, who has spent the last 13 years in a company that I joined when it was a 20 person startup, I've had a very different experience.

My mentors in engineering and technical services were all women.  My boss when I started out doing technical support was a tough, plain-spoken lesbian lady, who while certainly not the stereotypical girly-girl was eminently not like a man either.  My mentor and first manager as an engineer was a brilliant user interface designer and programmer, who also happened to be a mother of two.  My next manager, who is now Director of Engineering in my division, was another brilliant programmer and mom.  She's also pretty, very feminine, stands about 5" 4" and speaks softly enough that she always needs a mike when presenting at company meetings.

I once had an engineer friend, male, tell me he'd never met a really good female software engineer.  When I told him I could introduce him to two, and he was talking to another one, he laughed in disbelief. Yet, I've never felt like in any work situation, as a techie, engineer, or consultant, that my opinion held any less weight, or my work was expected to be any less expertly done because I have breasts.

And, it has been my priviledge as a marketer to interview and interact with a lot of brilliantly technical women, who weren't anything like men.  Here's an interview I did a couple years back with a couple of ladies who started a systems integration consulting company that was lucratively bought up by a larger company not long ago: http://bit.ly/9jEdqu If someone told me that the Kaselitz sisters were manlike, or that they didn't have their technical chops, or that they couldn't handle a startup company, I'd wonder what they were smoking.

I realize that statistically my experience is unusual. But I also wonder how much of the numbers, and the opinions, are shaped by our expectations. Statistics are notorious for being shaped largely by what we're seeking to prove with them.  We don't believe that women are out there, programming, consulting, starting companies. And if they are, well, it must be because they are mimicking men.

Certainly, it can be a bit harder for a woman in some ways.  I've changed jobs on occasion for family obligations, and I have run into men who put roadblocks in women's paths.  But women are out there. We're used to jumping roadblocks and juggling families and jobs.  And, from what I've seen through the last 10 years at Pervasive user conferences, our numbers in technology spaces are increasing fast.


Sep 9, 2010 3:23 PM Maggie Maggie  says:

Medicine (other than doctors) has a very high percentage of females vs. males.  There are about 4% males in nursing.  Education, particularly at the elementary levels, has the same problem.  If males don't start joining these fields, where are the women in engineering supposed to come from?

Sep 9, 2010 7:42 PM Boris Boris  says:

Excellent points raised by both Ann and the readers. From my experience from both school and the decades working as an engineer in both small and large companies, several things always stand out. The engineering world was designed by men to match men's work mentality and lifestyle. It is very demanding, competetive, and intolerant to individual's needs. In school, the subject matter was tough and demanding for a purpose -- to weed out the weak. Companies often assume their engineers will put in long hours of unpaid overtime without question. Managers will push thier subordinates to the brink of exhaustion with impossible schedules cut in half. Engineers are supposed to be tough without any questions asked. Many engineers don't have a life outside of their work. This is a man's world, designed by men!

Women, often being the wiser sex, don't exactly want to be just like men. I've met a few excellent female engineers, which all had a characteristic in common -- they behaved just like men, not women.

So the bigger question is why don't we make the engineering profession more palpatable to women? Why do we need to push our employees to put in 10 to 12 hour work days, work weekends, give up vacation days, etc.? Why do we have to be intolerant to families? If we made the work environment more appealing to women, then we would not have to treat women differently from men. We could have the same expectations from both sexes without distinction.

How about high tech companies designed by women! A family friendly environment that permits and encourages living a balanced work and personal lifestyle. Now I'm sure that many men would choose this in favor of their own traditional dog-eat-dog engineering world.

Sep 10, 2010 8:06 AM Barbara Davis Barbara Davis  says:

There's a reason teenager's need to be told to pick up their socks despite walking by them every day since they dropped them there... They just don't see it. I have been in technology for the past 10 years. I am also an entrepreneur, an author, and speaker. I love it all.

But I am also a wife and mother, and the one thing that I have noticed about my male counterparts is that they can just pick up and go on business trips and it is expected. No one questions their up and leaving the family for weeks. They just don't see it the same when it comes to women. Either you're single or the expectations for you to do the things needed to advance drop. When I go on a business trip it is a major impact on the family because suddenly my husband has to deal with the kids and be "on" all the time.

One hundred years ago they said women didn't want the vote. Boy were they wrong. Force me to choose and yes, my child wins. Why? Because I know what men don't seem to see: that when I am old and can no longer work, my child will still be there.

Let me find creative ways to include my child and I will go farther than you've ever dreamed. Do I believe that women are holding themselves back? Yes I do. Because we raise children and we don't teach them anything should be different.

Sep 15, 2010 12:47 PM Barbara Davis Barbara Davis  says: in response to Jack

I agree we're wired differently. I don't agree men are more wired to be engineers. I married one and grew up around them. I guess if by wired you mean less likely to be nurturing and interested in how people FEEL about the work they're doing and feeling appreciated more often, maybe you're right. But I doubt that's true because I get just as many men complaining about the workplace as I do women.

I guess I'm a rare breed. I love my seniority in the tech world. Of course that could just be my ego. I don't feel like when I contribute people are thinking "hey, that was good, for a chick..." I feel like I've done a great job and its appreciated. Unfortunately I still do meet the guy who thinks we should all be barefoot and pregnant. He doesn't usually last long around me.

Sep 15, 2010 7:38 PM Jack Jack  says: in response to Barbara Davis

The author notes that the two sexes are wired differently.  So why do we expect the same number of women and men to be in the field of Engineering?  Is it just because engineers tend to make more money than many other professions?  Of course women have every right to become an engineer.  The doors for women entering the engineering force are open much wider than they are for men.  Go to local meeting for an audio club, or a model train club.  These clubs are completely voluntary and no one is making any money.  You will find that clubs like these are almost all men.  Including men who are shy, men who don't like change, and men that don't fit the stereotype in this article that boys are risk takers.  Men and Women are wired differently.  In a fair world there may always be more men than women in engineering.  Now don't get me wrong, some women are wired to be engineers and they should be engineers.  Only in an unfair world, will we find the same number of men and women in engineering, as statistically men are wired to be engineers more than women are. 

Sep 17, 2010 8:38 AM Jack Jack  says: in response to Barbara Davis

I guess at this point we would need to define what an engineer is.  According to Webster's: Engineering is 'the application of mathematical and scientific principles to practical ends, as the design, construction, and operation of economical and efficient structures, equipment, and systems.' 

Let's start again where we agree.  We agree that the sexes are wired differently.  Put a race car (or space ship, or robot, etcetera) and a box of kittens in a room and let a group of second graders in, and most of the boys will head towards the car, and most of the girls will head towards the kittens.  With a scientific application to the minds of these kids, how can one deduce that 'men are not more wired to be engineers than women?'  Now some women will head towards the car, and maybe they are wired in a way that they will pursue a career in engineering.  That's great.  Maybe a girl that heads towards the kittens latter becomes interested in engineering, that is great as well.  Men in engineering should understand that some women are wired to be engineers and should not hold stereotypes.

Yet, from a statistical point of view, one I hope can be appreciated in an engineering form; I think it is poor science to believe that there will be equal amounts of men and women pursuing engineering degrees.  Implementing policies towards this goal, including making engineering firms more family friendly for women are likely to fail at best.  At worst it will make men mistakenly believe that women who are engineers are not as competent, as our society made it so much easier for them to obtain an engineering degree or become hired as engineer. 

Oct 19, 2010 4:53 PM Amy Jenkins Amy Jenkins  says:

I am a woman with 2 degrees in engineering - electrical and computer - that I obtained 25 years ago.  At that time the ratio of men to women was 7 to 1.

It remains the same today - at least at the university where my husband teaches engineering.

I stayed in engineering/technical work with one of the world's largest corporations until I had my first child.  I was very successful at what I did for those 10 years, and I truly enjoyed it.  But  I haven't returned, and I don't regret it for a minute.  I am lucky enough to have a husband who makes enough money to support me and our 3 children.  I have 2 part time jobs, one of which is teaching high school math to home schooled students while my children are in school - neither of these interfere with my primary job as Wife and Mom.  What I (and many other women) realize is that the window of time I have to raise the next generation is very small - and virtually nobody else can be my children's mother.  Lots of other people can engineer stuff.  Nobody else can be the mom at the class party, the mom who cheers for the losing team at the soccer field, the mom who drives kids to their piano lessons.  Sure, dads can do a lot of that stuff, but really, when you're sick and feeling down, who do YOU want?  Your Mom or your Dad?  Men and women ARE wired differently.  And that's a WONDERFUL design - that we aren't all great at the same things - that it takes many different parts to make the world go 'round, and we don't all have to be great engineers. 

Oct 27, 2010 7:57 PM Fred Fred  says:

Let's start again where we agree. We agree that there is more disparity in the genders themselves then between men and women.  Men and women are not wired differently.

Women love tech but are pushed out not by children but by discrimination in the workplace.


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