Tech industry still shortchanged on female perspective

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: After two decades of tech, there still remains few women in the high-tech industry.

I don’t usually get worked up about gender issues, but I am dismayed with how few women there still are in the high-tech industry in 2011 versus 20 years ago.

As technology becomes increasingly integral to business sustainability and to society, I feel my sex is missing out--which means the industry likewise is shortchanged on the woman’s perspective. I liken it to running a medical research trial and neglecting to include women and girls in the clinical sample.

Gallery: Women of tech: Few but mighty

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that of the roughly 537,000 people working as computer and information systems managers in 2010, 70.1 percent were men. If you do the math, that means only 29.9 percent were women. I don’t know what the figures were for 1991 when ZDNet burst onto the scene, but it is still a massive inequity. The percentages get even more skewed when you look at more technical careers.

Why do women shy away from technology? I think it has a lot to do with how girls are guided in elementary and high school. It also has to do with how we are treated once we get here. Consider the experience I had at my first major technology trade show in 1991: the now defunct Computer Dealer Exposition (aka Comdex). On the first day, I arrived for an appointment, where I was confronted by four seated men. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:

Man #1: “Great to meet you, have a seat and we’ll get started.” Me, noticing there are no free chairs: “Thanks, where?” Man #1, patting knee: “How about right here?

Fortunately, I have six brothers and stepbrothers so I got over it, and women are pushing forward, albeit more slowly than I would like. The gallery, "Women of tech: few but mighty," offers suggestions of a few rule-breaking women that have made/or are making an impact in the past 20 years. My list includes:

Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz Google Senior Vice President of Business Operations Shona Brown Xerox CEO Ursula Burns Oracle President Safra Catz Palm Computing & Handspring CEO Donna Dubinsky Serial technology entrepreneur Judy Estrin Former Xerox CEO and Chairman Anne Mulcahy HP Executive Vice President Ann Livermore IBM Senior Vice President Virginia Rometty Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg IBM Senior Vice President Linda Sanford

I purposely omitted leaders who hold more "traditional" women's executive positions in corporate communications, marketing or human resources. Not because I don't think their contributions are critical (they are), but because these are areas where progress has been made over the years. I'm more interested in the women who are breaking the "rules."

In a December 2010 TED Talk video, Facebook’s Sandberg reminds us the gender gap isn’t a technology-specific thing. She suggests three things women can do to start rectifying the situation – and it would be great if the guys reading this would help support these ideas.

  • “Take a seat at the table.” Too often, women don’t assert their rightful position. Who knows why. Maybe we’re afraid of being called a bitch or being disliked, common fallout of female assertiveness.
  • “Make your partner a real partner.” This is directed primarily at any woman (or man) with children and cuts to the issue of how to ensure mothers and fathers share child-rearing equally if both work outside the home full time.
  • “Don’t leave before you leave.” Some women disengage from career challenges before they actually have children. Sandberg says “leaning back” is a career-damaging habit that doesn't just damage the individual but also reflects more broadly across the workplace. Sad, but true.

In the TED video, Sandberg says, the changes that things will change during her own career are minimal. But she’s rooting for her daughter -- AND her son to help usher in meaningful change that will bring more of the woman's perspective to the technology industry -- and, indeed, to corporate America in the larger sense: “I’m hopeful that future generations can [fix this]. I think a world that was run where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world.”

Who knows, maybe in another 20 years?

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

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