Women in Technology – Why Does it Matter?
The yearly SQL PASS summit is always one of my favorite times of year. It’s a week packed full of great technical content and many networking opportunities. Not to mention the parties and fun. J And of course the #sqlkilts. One of the highlights of the #sqlpass conference is the Women in Technology (WIT) Luncheon. This year quite a few men (and a couple of women) wore kilts that day and several of those wore shirts designed by @MidnightDBA saying “I’m supporting Women in Tech. What are YOU doing? (Plus, I look hot in a skirt)”. They came with the rest of us to hear a panel that discussed topics such as how women influence innovation, how women affect the bottom line, and why high tech jobs benefit women. Many audience members participated with comments and questions. I was so inspired by the day that I am taking some of the key points and summarizing them.
This year we had a great panel of speakers:
Billie Jo Murray, General Manager, SQL Central Services, Microsoft
Nora Denzel, Senior Vice President and General Manager – Employee Management Solutions, Intuit
Michelle Ufford, Senior SQL Server DBA, GoDaddy.com
Denise McInerney, Staff Database Administrator, Intuit
Stacia Misner, Principal, Data Inspirations
The number of men in the audience at the WIT luncheon continues to grow each year, as more people realize that supporting women in tech takes support from both men and women and that everyone benefits from the diversity. As Nora said: “Welcome to the women, and also welcome to the men, and also welcome to the men in skirts”. The number of women in technical jobs is decreasing at a faster rate than in other occupations, and the percentage of computer science graduates who are women is plummeting. Going forward it will be harder and harder for companies to recruit women into technical jobs. There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for why this is happening. There are plenty of hypotheses but so far there doesn’t seem be consensus on the causes and more importantly on what to do about it.
So why do we care? Why does it matter how many women there are in tech? Why do we need a special group, time, or event just for WIT? There were many good points given about this during the lunch, both from the panel and from the audience. As Nora and Michelle both pointed out, at a high level diversity helps teams deliver a better product and fosters innovation. When you have people from different backgrounds, they approach the problem/product/issue in varying ways. The more approaches you have during the development phase and the broader the base for feedback, the more innovative and useful the end product is. This isn’t just some people sitting around a room and complaining; studies have borne this out. Gender is only one aspect of diversity, but it’s an important one. As the panel said, diversity is a means to an end. Diversity done right attracts great talent, leads to higher ROI, and makes the workplace healthier. Diverse companies are more likely to be voted a great place to work and that higher morale can translate to a better bottom line. Denise shared a great quote from Bill Gates. BillG was giving a speech in Saudi Arabia to an audience segregated by gender. There was a question to BillG about whether Saudi Arabia could become a top competitive economy by 2010. His answer: “…if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top.”
Women (yes, stereotypically and not across the board) tend to approach tech projects differently than men. Often they take the perspective that technology’s purpose is to help others and therefore they think of projects in those terms. Teams shaped by stereotypically male dominated thinking often take an approach of fixing a problem or using something just because it’s “cool”. Both approaches have their place, and when they’re combined the innovation can explode (hopefully in a good way).
So what incentives are there for women to take a tech job and stay in the tech industry? I would argue that it’s a fun career, but what else is enticing? How about money and financial security? Tech jobs tend to pay well in general. The gender wage gap tends to be lower in the tech industry, so for the same job there’s a higher chance a woman will be paid as much as a man with the same skills. As Denise said, with the increased financial security from a tech job, a woman has greater control over all aspects of her life. From another perspective, as women in tech we are “thought workers”. That means we are valued for how smart we are, for our brains. In the tech world we can compete on the basis of our ideas. Despite the constant media message about women having to always compete for who looks the best, see who can dumb themselves down the most, and avoid math and science, in the tech world we can shine based on our merits.
If it’s such a great career path for women, why aren’t there more women here? I already mentioned the rapidly decreasing percentage of women with computer science degrees, though I have heard that in other countries that may not be the case. But why don’t women apply for tech jobs? Is it the geek image? A lack of desire to work around all that testosterone all the time? The media-fed feeling that women just aren’t good at math, science, and the “hard stuff”? The lack of glamour or perception of long hours? A feeling that we won’t fit in? Again, there is no consensus on why. If we could figure that out, maybe it would be easier to solve the problem. As Jimmy May said, “she-geeks are cool”, and we need to communicate that to women.
For women already in the tech arena, how do we approach our jobs? There seemed to be wide agreement that as women we are much more likely to seek perfection of an idea before we present it. We aren’t as likely to speak up at meetings if we don’t feel we are 100% prepared. We need to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s ok to make mistakes or to say “I’ll have to get back to you”. As Billie Jo said, women need to “sit at the table”. This applies both literally and figuratively. She talked about attending large meetings with so many attendees that there were chairs lining the walls as well as around the table. And who does she see sitting in the chairs “out of the way” around the edges instead of at the table? Women. Take a seat at the table, say something even if it’s not brilliant, and be an active participant. Despite the common perception of many women, we don’t have to know everything and do everything to be good at our jobs. Don’t wait for perfection before acting; step in and become a participant. The example was given that if a job application has ten requirements a women with “only” nine qualifications will not apply, but a man with only one qualification is likely to submit an application. That’s a bit exaggerated but does show a gender gap that many of us can identify with. Get over it! Move on and become a player in the tech game!
Now we’re all convinced that we need to have WIT. And we also know women aren’t getting many computer science degrees. So who do we recruit? How about math or physics majors? Billie Jo expressed an appreciation for music majors because the way their minds work is similar to what is needed in a tech environment. I know very successful techies with degrees in such seemingly unrelated fields as English. So don’t limit your search to the typical candidates. If something isn’t a true, absolute requirement, word the job description so it’s clearly a “nice to have” and you may see more women apply. Try to find the essence of what you’re looking for and include that description instead of some example of how someone else typified that essence. And remember that a broad background in college and life is very helpful. Billie Jo pointed out that her experience is that women tend to have a broader background in their coursework. This makes them more flexible and often makes it easier for them to fit in and advance at work. Stacia made the point that we need to look at people in the business world, especially for business intelligence type work. Don’t think of tech vs. non-tech. If IT people rely on a business person who consistently takes the real world requirements and makes them understandable to a techie, maybe they are a candidate for an IT job. Look beyond the normal and expected and you may be surprised who you find.
Life/Work balance always seems to come up when we talk about WIT. It’s not only women who need this balance, but for some reason we seem to be the ones who visibly seek it. This is a discussion for another time, but one important point an audience member made is to ask your family for help. It’s ok to tell your spouse that you’re going to SQL PASS next year and it’s the partner/spouse’s responsibility to look after the kids that week. It’s ok to ask them to do some extra housework while you prepare the presentation you’re going to give at your local user group (or at SQL PASS!). You support them and they feel good when they get to return that support. So ask for support from your friends and family and don’t feel bad about it!
So what can each of us do to support and encourage WIT? Some of the ideas suggested include:
· Watch the lunch panel here: PASS Summit 2010 Women in Technology Live Streaming Panel Discussion http://www.sqlpass.org/summit/na2010/LiveKeynotes/WITLuncheon.aspx
· Don’t wait to be perfect or have perfect knowledge before you act.
· Mentor women who would make good SQL MVPs or SQL MCMs (BJ offered to help!).
· Don’t put up with a lack of WIT support at your company.
· Be a peer mentor (to a man or woman) and seek out a peer mentor (man or woman).
· Nominate qualified WIT peers for the MVP program.
· As a WIT: submit an abstract for a conference, offer to speak at a user group or code camp, get involved in public/visible ways.
· Have 1:1 conversations about tech, WIT, and/or diversity with people you can influence.
· Thank the WIT in your life, starting with the SQL PASS WIT planning team!
#passwit search https://twitter.com/#!/search/%23passwit
#passwit search http://archivist.visitmix.com/adc612a0/1
Main WIT page at SQLPASS http://wit.sqlpass.org/