Friday, October 30, 2009

Emerging Commitment

Wednesday evening's TechFlash Women in Tech event didn't just shake up my sense of self. It also gave me some facts and figures bolstering a view I've long held regarding the value and importance of gender equality. My perspective is simple and boils down to wanting to maximize value more than caring that much about fairness. Tough girls can hack it and find a way to fit in - I did - but when it's a matter of a system that's sub-optimized, I'm more motivated to want to get in and fix it at that systemic level rather than rely on one-off solutions.

What emerged from that event was a picture that my rather passionate sense of the problems in gender inequality developed over the past 40 years is not wrong. There is indeed a system sub-optimization problem worth addressing. Some of the figures quoted that stood out to me:

  • The majority of patents evaluated as highly innovative came from mixed gender teams but only 9% of technology patents have female contributors. Implied conclusion: get more women involved and you're likely to see more innovation.

  • Women typically get 30% less than men in venture capitol funding but maintain similar output to their better-funded counterparts. Implied conclusion: get more for your money when investing in women because often they really have learned how to do more with less.

  • Women are primary wage-earners in 4 out of 10 families but only 5% of tech startups are women-owned/led. Implied conclusion: Women are capable of doing the work; families and the tech sector would both benefit from increased contributions from women.

  • Although women make up about half the general workforce, women make up only 24% of tech; in 1985, 37% of computer science majors were female, now it's down to 17%. Implied conclusion: instead of growing the numbers of women in tech, their ranks are actually shrinking; given the other stats, this is "key talent de-selecting itself and not coming to the table."

  • Only 16% of Fortune 500 companies have women on their boards. Implied conclusions: not only do the numbers of women shrink in the higher ranks, there is a de-motivating effect on all women in tech/business because there are fewer role models and the system is again missing out on key perspectives.
And this was all just from the TechFlash event. I learned today that apparently the World Bank is of a similar mind, but from the perspective of poverty, that there is an economic advantage to investing in girls.

In my mind, these numbers paint a scary picture - fewer and fewer women in a key business sector that doesn't necessarily stop to consider the value they provide so doesn't miss them when they're gone. With fewer women available as role models, fewer girls and young women even stop to think of going into tech. With fewer women in the ranks of tech workers and no one else motivated enough to bring them into the fold, policies and attitudes that make tech a less attractive option to women remain in place and so they simply make other choices about the work they do. And the cycle continues to devolve in that way.

Considering what these numbers really mean, I can only conclude that it is in everyone's best interests - male and female, families and individuals, tech sector and general economy - for us to work together to find a way to bring more women into science and technology. It's not about devaluing men's contributions. It's not about playing the gender card or whining about what's fair (my personal favorite anti-feminism beef). It is simply about what is best for us as a society.

These numbers tell me that our system is more seriously broken than I'd realized, that we have reached a point somewhere along the way when it started to get worse instead of better. While not perfect, the laws and larger policies seem to me to be generally good enough so that's not the biggest problem right now. Where we're falling down is in day-to-day culture and implementation of those policies and in the choices that we each make. And when I stop to think about who is in a position to start to get that part fixed, I see a couple of obvious answers outright.

The first answer is we are all responsible for doing something about this collectively.

Men - find ways to listen to the challenges that women face in tech and help eliminate them, sometimes (perhaps) by taking them on as your own.

Women - don't give up on yourselves just because there are easier options available. Toughen up and do the hard work for yourselves and other younger women to follow and find a way to make women in tech a more, rather than less, common occurrence. Not everyone enjoys being a pioneer, but someone's got to do it or the path is never carved out for others to follow. We had one started and we let it get grown over.

Men and women both - encourage and support women of all ages to think of becoming involved in tech; be creative, it's not all just about the programming. It's about being cutting edge and changing the world, hopefully for the better. That last part is something a lot of women can get behind so it shouldn't be a tough sell. Remember to mentor individual women and also to actively advocate for their individual and collective success.

The second answer was a bit of a gulp for me. Between feeling I had so little in common with women for so many years, especially seeing so many of them not really push themselves to their true capacity, and feeling more drawn to men because it was easier for me to see what we had in common, it never really occurred to me to be that involved in advocating for women. And I say this as a person who has openly asserted how stupid many of our attitudes and policies are when it comes to women.

It wasn't that I thought I was better than other women; it was more (I believe now - I'm still trying to figure it all out) that I didn't realize just much of an impact the advantages I enjoyed (familial support, a genetic predisposition to stubbornness, and an unequivocal sense in key areas of my ability to provide value) really had in influencing my choices as opposed to the choices made by other women. I realize now that while I am indeed different from a lot of women, I am not, in fact entirely alone amongst my gender in those differences. Compared with that subset, the real difference is that the challenges I found difficult might seem insurmountable to others - or not worth the effort. Tough as it is to admit, this thought really hadn't occurred to me.

What I truly did not realize fully was just how troublesome it is that the women who could be doing this work, aren't. And in coming to these realizations, gulps and all, knowing my own experiences - both successful and not so much - with playing in a variety of male-dominated fields, knowing my sense of history and understanding of the playing field (as it was, is, and might be), and knowing I have the coaching skills and the leadership skills, and the general business skills to do it... I can only conclude one thing: that I too am not only capable of directly influencing the short-term and long-term outcomes with regard to women in tech, but that I have an outright responsibility to do so.

That said, I have practically zero clue at this point exactly what that looks like. I only know I have to be involved in some way. First and foremost, it occurs to me that it is important to recognize that responsibility in my sense of mission regarding what I'm trying to accomplish with my business. That means actively seeking to support women and women-owned businesses in tech with my coaching and my consulting. It means making it more clear how I can help.

I also sense an importance in figuring out how I can help younger girls when they are first electing to move toward or away from tech, even though I have a son instead of a daughter. On that front, if you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them. One of things I like about being female is an increased willingness to take the crowdsourcing approach.

Feel free to also enter into dialog on the matter. Your own thoughts and observations, suggestions and conclusions. This is a big one and we'll all have to get behind it to be able to move the ball in any significant way. As they say, though, awareness is the first step.

What conclusions can you draw from the evidence around you about what responsibilities you now (or no longer) have?