At the Chaos Communication Camp in August 2015 I spoke about challenges for women in tech and how we as key figures in tech can resolve these issues to make our community landscape more diverse. I wrote down the talk's content to offer another medium besides the recording and provide more ressources in the links
I was very happy to get the chance to bring this issue up, which I think is not a given. Especially recently it seems as if the entire discussion about gender and technology has been heated up and determined by conflict, accusation and confrontation. I personally believe that collaboration and explanation are key if we really want to change something. Hence I'll happily share the insights I gathered over the past years, being active in the field of Digital Literacy and the research I conducted to complement my experiences.
I'll first give a short insight into the gender disparity in tech, after that I'll provide an overview, or rather selection, of the most frequently mentioned challenges for women in tech. I'll then suggest some solutions that we as a tech community can apply to yield a change. At the end I'll also give a shot at why we should care at all. I understand that not everybody considers this as an urgent matter, but I'll offer some explanation and some arguments to answer that question.
Disclaimer: I am well aware that I am talking in binaries here. As in every feminist endeavor I have the unit problem – in order to talk about women in tech I have to talk about women. I want to state clearly, that there are many people of different genders that do not fit into my descriptions. But for the sake of tackling an existing problem, I will talk about women and hence generalize a lot. I kindly ask you pardon this. I also neglect a lot of other underrepresented groups, but I personally strongly believe, that most statements and solutions that I suggest apply to other underrepresented groups as well.
For my research, I have been roaming through numerous articles and statistics that depict the huge gender disparity in tech jobs and education. The percentage of women who study Computer Science in Germany was at 14% in 2013 though the number is on the rise. The number of women who work in related fields lingers around 14 to 16%. But instead of boring you with statistics and numbers, I'd rather acknowledge that everyone of you is very well informed about the disparity. We all know this fairly well from conferences, hacker spaces, open source development and from our job environment. Fewer women in tech is something we are really used to and hardly notice. But why are there so few women in tech?
People that are into Computer History are probably already well informed about the fact, that this hasn't always been the case. In the early 20th Century, a computer was a person fulfilling the task of...well – computing. This person used to be a woman usually, later the computer operators were often women as well. From the very beginning of computer history, there were numerous prominent examples of female computer scientists that were responsible for major breakthroughs in computing (see this elaborate list of important female computer scientists). So when and why did this change? There are numerous reasons and of the most compelling comes from the US American podcast „Planet Money“. In the US, the number of women getting into computer science started to dwindle dramatically in the middle of the 80ies. This correlates with a very particular mile stone in the history of the computer: The rise of the home computer. That decade, computers became a product that private households could afford and they were almost entirely marketed to boys. Consequently, boys were far more likely to have a computer in their bedroom, being exposed to technology for a far longer time than girls were, when they entered school. This development was fueling the actual advantage of boys in computing and the creation of a stereotype, as the Planet Money article describes it:
This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture.
In the end both the head start of boys in school and the establishment of a stereotype led to a development that continues up until today. The disappearance of women in computer science certainly had manifold reasons, but the strong reification of a stereotype with ads and movies certainly plays a vital and international role. However, this can be considered a new perspective: The lack of women in computing is a development and process with a history. This is about their disappearance, not about any naturally given disadvantage. With the beginning of the 90ies, numerous longterm studies and research turned up. In the following, I will elaborate on some of the most frequently mentioned challenges for women in tech.
One of the most helpful resources for this was the report written by Ellen Spertus in 1991: &Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?. I strongly recommend this report to anyone, who is interested in the topic but hasn't been exposed to feminist literature for a decade. Ellen Spertus who is now a professor of computer science has been asking herself this question since she was a kid and decided to search for answers when she was an under graduate – the result can be read in this report, where she offers very basic and accessible explanations that were elaborated in the ensuing two decades by a growing academic research body.
One of the challenges that women are facing is strongly linked to the above mentioned rise of the personal computer: Stereotypes. Stereotypes aren't necessarily something bad by default. Actually, they are incredibly helpful. They are part of our mental capability to process all the millions of impressions we get at any given moment by categorizing, grouping and clustering what we see. But in order to understand why there is such a huge fuss about stereotypes, it is important to consider stereotype as a mental concept that never comes alone, there are always attributions linked to them. These attributions and the lines we draw among different stereotypes and people are determined by our social and cultural background, so they are always constructed. What some people in Germany consider a „Südländer“ is most likely not a valid or helpful category for people in Greece or Turkey. But in Germany, this category makes sense to some people and they also attribute certain traits to this group, that tend to be negative.
Stereotypes are not only assisting us in categorizing our environment, they are also very powerful when it comes to the connotations. We do not necessarily attribute traits only, we also expect these traits that are culturally attached, to be true. You might have heard of the term „self-fulfilling prophecy“. What sounds somewhat esoteric is actually a phenomenon called „stereotype threat“ that has been thoroughly explored by social psychology. One of the most impressive examples stems from an experiment that was conducted in 1999 at Harvard. Prof. Dr. Margaret Shih depicted in her report "Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantative Performance" how the simple act of naming their gender or race prior to a math test could affect the performance of asian-american women. Those who only mentioned their gender performed below the expected average, those who only mentioned their immigrant background performed above the average. The simple activation of stereotypes that are relevant to performance can actually determine the outcome.
This in incredibly important for understanding how stereotypes about women and nerds are not always reflecting but shaping reality. And what is often omitted in the public discussion: There are strong stereotypes about women, like women being bad at everything linked to technology, but there also strong stereotypes about the „Nerd himself“. Being a rather socially awkward male person loitering and tinkering in the cellars of parents and institutes, shying away from daylight. While this might be true for some hackers and programmers, this is by far not common and I assume that a lot of programmers and hackers do not identify with this image either.
When our stereotypes restrict other people's possibilities, they are called prejudices. When people live up to the expectations that come along with a stereotype, we call this stereotype threat. So if a man with a migration background is living in a context where people like him are expected to be less intelligent and criminal, he is not very likely to experience equal chances in this country. Similarly, if a girl is exposed to the idea and stereotype of girls being bad at math and is never being encouraged, chances are good that she won't be great at math. Or at least, it takes more effort and lucky circumstances for her to pursue a math career.
In my research for which I interviewed different initiatives,5 the lack of self confidence among women was repeatedly mentioned as one of the core problems.6 This lack of self-confidence is fueled by stereotypes and their effects and fosters the persistence of stereotypes in return. In Jane Margolis long-term research about students at Carnegie Mellon University she discovered large differences in the self-evaluation of female and male students. In Laura E. Hirshfields report „She won't make me feel dumb“ the development and stabilization of a wrong and negative self-assessment of women from early days in elementary school to obstacles in academic career steps.
Even from my own relatively short time as a person that is repeatedly positioned at the intersection of women and tech, talking to women, teaching stuff to women and girls, I have identified this as a major obstacle for women. Their concerns of not being good enough or fear of not living up to the necessary skill set for studying computer science, visiting a tech conference or even confronting a community when they want to ask something they don't know (see an interview I conducted with Marina from Outreachy) are hindering them from actually getting into tech and improving their skills.
This is not only true for tech, women generally tend to judge their abilities below their actual abilities. Tech, though, offers very strong stereotypes that foster this misconception. Lastly, I assume that this is hardly news for anyone. Most women that I know display a far lower self-esteem than I would consider appropriate and on top of that I often experience women shying away from tasks, doubting their skills. An observation that I am presumably sharing with most people. Additionally I often see that women are well aware of this limiting mindset but often lack the resources or strategies to cope with this challenge. One of the methods suggested, is to acknowledge this as the impostor syndrome.
It always feels a little awkward using the term „structural“, but in the absence of a better term, I'll use it for conditions that are already deeply embedded in the structure of our society and an effect of the factors mentioned earlier.
One of these structural preconditions is the lack of computers in girls' bedrooms, which has been briefly described before. With the lack of a exposure to technology, girls are already disadvantaged in school, at the first encounter with computers in class. This leads to less and less girls that are inclined to take further computer classes and the first dropout of girls is created. Later, consequently, less women chose computer science as a study course, but even if they do, there are more leaks in the pipeline. Women are often more inclined to change their residence in favor of their male partners. And women can become pregnant, which is still a huge obstacle career wise and often appears in times, when critical career options are in reach. Hence, again, women drop out on the way to the top management and professor positions.
Additionally this is linked to resources. If women are responsible of the so called care work, less and less time is available for tinkering on programming languages and technology. Furthermore affording the necessary devices and tools can pose a challenge to women but also other groups that are underrepresented.
Strongly linked to stereotypes is the lack of positive role models. Female speakers and prominent figures in tech and tech communities are still seldom, though the number is visibly increasing. But it's not only the sparkling hacker super stars, it's also the everyday coworker, developer, engineer that is far too often displayed as male, while in reality, there are plenty of female examples. The more positive role models there are, the more obvious and accessible a career in stem and interest in computers can be to girls and women.
Last but not least: The male environment. A team doesn't necessarily have to be explicitly sexist to make a women not feel entirely comfortable. But ending up in an all male team that has all male topics and hobbies might make it difficult for women to connect. Also conferences might be rather aimed at male interests, with a lot of free booze but no child care facilities (the latter would, btw, also benefit dads). But of course there are also cases of deliberate sexism, harassment, discrimination and abuse towards women happening in the tech scene and it is important not to ignore this. Especially coworkers, community members or friends that aren't affected, should speak up and take a stand against sexism when they see it happening.
Having pondered on the manifold problems, issues and challenges, let's move on to the solutions. I have tied together what I consider the most effective changes that almost everyone and every community can work on and that are tackling the particular challenges I have mentioned above. The solutions I am suggesting are gathered from years of being embedded in the field of digital literacy, from the chaos mentors, that I co-organized (a project aimed at inviting and onboarding new people to a tech conference) and a research I conducted over the past 6 months, for which I examined different initiatives and their strategies.
Be explicit and inviting
This might seem way too easy, but its effective and yet still new to a lot of people I talked to: If you are open to women and welcoming women or other underrepresented groups at your event, your community, your company or study course: Say it. State this clearly on the landing page of your website. Women need extra encouragement, so invite them and offer them a slight sensation of being welcomed. This can also be a powerful message to all other attendees and eventually even improve the overall attitude towards women. These kinds of changes need to be exemplified by respected and prominent people.
Give room to positive role models
There is a lack of positive female role models in tech, but the reason shouldn't be reduced to the lack of women in tech. People who are involved in computer science or hacker spaces know, that there are plenty of cool women, who just usually aren't in the spot light. Sometimes the necessary room for them needs to be created, by explicitly inviting them to talk about their hacks or by making them visible. Groups that have a visible female organizer oder lead, are far more likely to attract more women and in the end, a lot of cool female hackers on stage can effectively manipulate a common stereotype.
This probably opens up the highly debated issue of a quota for talks and panels. I am personally not a fan of a forced quota and I don't want to be invited because of my gender, but only for my qualification. But if we can agree that the current gender distribution on stages is not reflecting the actual distribution in different fields of expertise, than I guess it is just to say, that It pays off to give it a second thought, whether there might be a suitable woman with equal qualification somewhere, it just takes a little bit more effort to find and invite her than just asking the guys we know already from other talks.
One way to do this would be by asking your community for female experts or explicitly inviting women to talk. Also, if females are part of team that organizes the content, they might bring along connections to other female speakers and experts.
Talk about this issue
If you are part of a group, a company, a team or a community that is tech-related, you might have been thinking about how to get more women involved or considered the lack of women something you want to change. Probably one of the easiest and best ways to find out the specific underlying reasons is to simply talk and exchange about this issue. Talk to women on your team and ask them if they feel comfortable or if anything is bothering them. Maybe you haven't been taking something into account because you couldn't see it – it's ok to ask! You might come across a hint of something you or someone else did perfectly right and should continue to work on. Also: Raising this issue is an incredibly positive signal and shows that you care.
Create spaces for women
These spaces don't need to physical, it could be a women's meetup at a conference, a mailing list for women or even a programming workshop for women. Women might feel more comfortable when they have the chance to learn and take a first step when they are among women. The reasons might be, that they experienced discouraging encounters with men in tech at a very early age, for example in school or in their families. Furthermore, dynamics might be different in an all female group, where there is no one overruling them, but instead they get the space they need to ask questions without feeling stupid.
This tends to be an advice often misunderstood as: KILL ALL TEH MENZ, LET GRRRLZ RULE TEH PLANET, JAH! While I agree that grrrlz should rule the planet, this is not about exclusion but actually about inclusion where exclusion is the default. Technology cannot be presented in a neutral way, it's meaning is so strongly connoted as male and women are detached and not inclined to visit and participate for numerous reasons. A programming workshop for women can be a first step to tackle this fear of not belonging and consequently lead to higher percentage of women in context where every gender is and should be welcomed.
More women in tech → more women in tech!
In the end, there are numerous ways to get more women into tech. Not every method and strategy might be perfect or feasible, but the challenges for women are so strongly intertwined that every little step has the potential to trigger a bigger change. The woman you invited for a programming workshop? She might have always been interested in programming, but would have never visited a “normal” programming class. Maybe she'll be hooked and continue to learn and finally become a programmer too, changing the mindest of her coworkers, who might consider their daughters just as capable, changing the mindset of her friends, who could suddenly consider becoming a programmer too or accelerating change herself by adding a female perspective when it comes to hiring new team members. The more women we can onboard and get attached, the more women will follow. And subsequently, I'm positive, that this will lead to a greater diversity in general.
All this sounds like a great plan, but why should we invest all that effort? This is a question I have been confronted with more than once and in fact I can comprehend why people might wonder about all this ado about seemingly simply some species that doesn't like math. Let me explain:
First of all this is about fairness, rather than enforcement or positive discrimination (bullshit). If people don't want to get into tech, that is totally fine. But if they want to, we should create equal opportunities for them and identify the doors that are yet to be opened for them. There are still many obstacles, but none of them is impossible to overcome if we have common goals and turn them into action.
Diversity in groupings of intergalactic lifeforms
Business and organizational studies have recently started to observe and analyze the effects of gender distribution on team and companies performances. Their research confirms that a good gender balance in teams has a positive effect on its performance (see this very comprehensive report by cataclyst). But also apart from business cases, diversity in communities can change dynamics that benefit not only women but everyone. I talked to many people that would be equally happy with a more balanced gender distribution in their teams or on events. In fact, both women and men are more inclined to visit conferences with a smaller gender gap. I believe that different people add different perspectives and in the end create a greater spectrum of possibilities, no set of skills is ever the same. Opening up doors to new people opens up new chances, perspectives and possible actions for a community.
Diversity in tech
The world that we live in is increasingly shaped and determined by digital technology. For some it's more direct, for some less. Some of us are privileged in terms of being able to chose what technologies we want to depend on – others do not have that choice. But technology is not a perpetrator, it is a tool used and developed by people and for their particular interests. I we want those interests not to be a representation of a fairly small proportion of this planet's population, we need to increase diversity in tech. I don't think that women code different than men do, I think everybody codes differently. Other people have other ideas on how technology can be used in a meaningful way – for others. And to be honest: I think, we are running out of time, considering how much stupid jerktech we already have out there.
So who is taking care of this change everyone hopefully wants to see now? There are already a bunch of initiatives that I really admire for their work. The Open Tech School, the Rails Girls, the Outreachy program by the Linux Foundation and many more. Those are great addresses to consult for advice since they all have had a great impact and established an expertise in their field. But in the end everyone of us has a huge leverage at hand to contribute. In our local hackspaces, in our communities, at work or in our families. We can be supportive, we can organize and connect, we can strengthen our awareness and be strong allies. Everyone of us can be that encouraging moment in someone else's life. If we work on this together, we can be the change that will make our communities more diverse, stronger and even more pleasant to be part of.