Gender Bias in Tech: Companies with 'Hero Mindset' Don't Want Heroines

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Why aren't more women pursuing technology careers? I met a smattering of female CIOs at the recent IT Business Edge-sponsored Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando, but they are the exception rather than the rule, as I noted in a post about Mattel's Computer Engineer Barbie last month. The percentage of women employed by 10 of Silicon Valley's most prominent technology companies, including HP, Intel and Cisco, fell from 37 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2005. The percentage of female managers and top executives dropped from 28 percent to 26 percent during the same time period, reported MercuryNews.com.


My post also mentioned former astronaut Sally Ride's involvement with the Obama adminstration's Race to the Top educational initiative and her own Sally Ride Science, which attempts to interest kids in science through festivals, science camps and programs involving engineering challenges with toys. Ride often cites a sobering statistic from the National Science Foundation: While women comprise 46 percent of the American work force, they hold just 25 percent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) jobs.


The reasons for this aren't always easy to pin down. Some, including Ride, fault a culture in which girls just aren't encouraged to be geeks. Earlier this month I wrote about the general difficulty women experience in pursuing demanding careers. I am in a relatively undemanding job and yet I often feel like a hamster on a wheel -- running fast and getting nowhere -- as I attempt to juggle career and family responsibilities. Most of my female friends and colleagues -- at least those with children -- are in the same boat. "Many women still feel compelled to be a bread-maker as well as a bread-winner," I wrote and cited several comments that appeared following a Vivek Wadhwa-penned piece on BusinessWeek that discussed the dearth of female tech entrepreneurs.


Two recent reports issued by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the role of women at high-tech firms, support the idea that companies with a "hero mindset" might not want to hire heroines. Cultures in which employees are expected to work long hours to "save" projects may discriminate against working mothers, assuming their family responsibilities will keep prevent them from pulling all-nighters, according to a Network World story about the reports.


Worse, the Anita Borg Institute faults poorly defined requirements and bad project management for marathon coding sessions and other last-ditch efforts to salvage projects. The hectic pace and blunt communication styles in many technology workplaces can "leave women feeling isolated and crushed," according one of the reports, which was based on feedback from 59 senior business and technical managers, male and female, gathered during a closed forum organized last October by the Anita Borg Institute. Among the companies represented: Cisco, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Symantec.


An anonymous commenter seems to agree, writing:

The work culture expects you to work until 10 p.m. to make those last-minute changes, and if you are also responsible for the family at home and "the second shift," something's gotta give. In reality, both men and women should be concerned about work/life balance, and good project management so their hard work goes into a good project. Unfortunately, that is not the mindset today and women who cannot devote their entire lives 24/7 to the job are seen as less desirable workers.

Dr. Carolyn Simard, the report's author, says technical women are "still a rarity." Women in the United States earn just 18 percent of college computer science degrees, down from 37 percent in 1985.


The second report, based on a survey of some 1,800 participants from seven unidentified high-tech firms in Silicon Valley, found that women hold about 4 percent of the senior-level technical positions at high-tech firms and an estimated one-quarter of all technology jobs. At the higher level, however, women more frequently end up in management positions than men (36.9 percent of women vs.19 percent of men).


According to the report, women far more often than men carry "primary responsibility for the household," although senior-level technical women are much more likely to have a partner who assumes primary responsibility for the household/children (23.5 percent of partnered senior women) in comparison with women in entry/midlevel jobs (13.4 percent). Senior-level technical women also are more likely than their male counterparts to forego a partner and children because they think it will negatively impact their careers.


As Network World notes, the Anita Borg Institute is is "putting forward a few ideas certain to generate debate and controversy." One recommendation is for companies to grant at least an initial interview to all women candidates. I don't think this is a good idea, as it's bound to lead to resentment among male coworkers and further foster the kind of culture that can leave women in tech workplaces feeling "crushed."


Another idea advocated by the institute is to create a software tool that can be used to detect bias in letters of recommendation, performance reviews and other documents. From the report:

Using machine learning and text analyses methods would help organizations and individuals address the existence of bias before the damaging language is formally used in recommendations or evaluations.

Maybe. Being aware of discrimination is the first step in eradicating it. But I think this could lead to accusations of "gaming the system" and might make people so afraid of inadvertent discriminatory language that they'd shy away from sharing honest opinions.