Is Tech Cheating Itself Out of Female Genius?
By Mike Stiles on Oct 15, 2013
Or put another way, are we as an industry doing everything we can to encourage women to develop an interest in and pursue the field so that we benefit from the leadership and innovation they bring?
Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Actually she was Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and she lived between 1815 and 1852. An English mathematician, she’s mostly known for her work on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a mechanical computer. Since she came up with the first algorithm meant for a machine to process, she’s also regarded as the first computer programmer.
Have women come as far in math, tech and science since then as we might expect? And if not, why not? Brilliantly realizing I’m not a woman, I asked some pointed questions to Meg Bear, Group Vice President of the Cloud Social Platform at Oracle.
Spotlight: What are some of the barriers to encouraging and inspiring girls/young women to develop and pursue an interest in technology?
Meg: When I think back to my own experience, I realize there was an imagination gap in my education. I was the first in my family to attend college, so I had no obvious role models in STEM or professional disciplines, male or female. I realize now how critical it is to help kids from a very young age imagine themselves in these types of careers. I was lucky my professional journey got me here, but looking back, there were many opportunities in my early education where it should have been mentioned and wasn't. I know this is still a problem for many young girls today, especially those being educated in socio-disadvantaged environments.
Spotlight: Is there anything about our education system that keeps steering boys and girls into certain areas of interest? Are our schools making the opportunities for women in tech clear?
Meg: Having two girls in elementary school, I notice awareness is improving. Part of this is the natural outcome of the consumerization of technology. No longer is the concept novel, it’s just part of everyone’s life. My girls are digital natives and for them, technology isn’t a new idea, it's how life works. That said, there’s still a very clear gap for girls as they hit middle school, where the social pressure to appear less smart is a critical problem. Girls must be reminded to embrace all of their abilities and not shy away from science and math since we now know the suggestion boys are better at math is a myth. Myths and bias are often less about fact and more about how our brains work.
Spotlight: What are the responsibilities of those women who are currently in tech and who are blazing trails across it in terms of encouraging more to follow in their footsteps?
Meg: I’m a strong believer that being visible is a critical responsibility of women today. We often downplay our technical and professional strengths at home and in social settings. This deprives the next generation from realizing the diversity we’re achieving. I was reminded how important this is when a few years ago, my 5-year-old daughter said she wanted to wear a tie to school to look like a "man who was a boss." When I asked what a women boss might look like, she said, "I don't know, I've never seen one." I was horrified and realized I was letting her down by not letting her see what my own job was about.
Spotlight: In terms of tech companies and startups, are women getting any signals they aren’t welcome, or are companies making an extended effort to recruit exceptionally talented women?
Spotlight: For women coming out of college and entering the field, what are the most important things they should be prepared for?
Meg: There’s a lot of documentation about how women set themselves up for lesser roles directly out of college, especially in the equal pay area. I think that everyone, not just women, should start their career with both an open mind to opportunity and a commitment to lifelong learning and giving back. Those are the keys to maximizing your potential personally and professionally.
Spotlight: How has the environment changed for women in tech over the past 20 years? Has tech become cool? Is tech required knowledge now for women majoring in business? Are ideas from women more likely to gain traction/funding than in the past?
Meg: Without a doubt the 21st century is leaning toward the feminine. That’s not to suggest a lack of men, but to suggest the increased contribution of women. No longer are women expected to participate from the sidelines but instead to be active participants. This shift is exciting to see and I firmly believe the benefits to the world will be widespread and sustained. Technology becoming cool is a big part of this but also the macro trends of globalization and consumerization bring forward the need for both genders to partner in solving the biggest problems we face in our world. Technology is no longer the purview or responsibility of the few, it’s available and critical to everyone. This changes the landscape dramatically and increases the urgency of STEM education for everyone.