Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Nice to know that some things haven’t changed. (Harrumph…)

My first job out of business school was for a company that sold software and data to Wall Street.

The confluence of technology and finance? Well, let’s just say it was a perfect storm of sexism.

Shortly before I’d joined the company, they had run an ad that was notorious, even for the times. (This would have been the late 1970’s.) I can’t remember all the salacious details, but it featured a mini-skirted chick, legs spread, shot from behind while walking towards a bunch of leering men. I have fortunately blocked the caption completely out of my mind.

At one point while working for this company, I was the product manager for a forecasting tool called AutoBJ, which I occasionally had to demo to the Wall Street crowd. Let the hilarity begin.

I will say that the techies were not quite as bad as the traders, perhaps because half the techies had a touch of Asperger’s, and were overtly more goofy than puerile-y sexist. But in general, the tenor of the place was often hostile to women. There were few – if any – women in policy positions, and some of the senior executives were complete and utter skirt chasers.

Fast forward to a new company, where I was still in the technology for Wall Street game, and where I was the only woman on a team charged with plotting the company’s financial services strategy. At one meeting, one of the charmers on the team said, “Think of financial services as a prone woman, legs spread, waiting for us to penetrate her.” It goes without saying that our strategy failed abysmally – as did that company.

Somewhere along the line  - yet another tech company, but one not focused (thankfully) on The Street - I made my way into the management ranks, where I quickly learned that a woman’s voice was like a dog whistle: only certain ears were attuned to hear it.

Truly, I would say something at a management meeting and it would be totally ignored. Until a couple of minutes later, one of the men made the same point. I soon learned that the best thing to do was to say something like, “Thanks, Joe, for supporting me on this.”

Truly a grrrrrr situation.

Meanwhile, one of my fellow “execs” – we were such a small company, it seemed ludicrous to think of us as executives, but, indeed, that’s what we were – was famous for doodling breast-like doodles throughout our meetings. This same fellow, at one point, thanked me for helping him prepare for a major presentation by saying “Thanks for being my wet nurse.” (I don’t think he was being sexist. I did mention Asperger’s, did I not? Still, it will give you some sense of the climate for women back in the dark ages of the late 20th century.)

Given all this, I was not surprised at a recent article in The New York Times chronicling the troubles that women continue to have in tech – especially women who are themselves techies. The article leads off talking about Elissa Shevinsky, who realized she’d had it with the tech sector over the positive (hee-haw) reception that an app called Titstare which enables “you to take photos of yourself staring at tits.”

Ms. Shevinsky felt pushed to the edge. Women who enter fields dominated by men often feel this way. They love the work and want to fit in. But then something happens — a slight or a major offense — and they suddenly feel like outsiders. The question for newcomers to a field has always been when to play along and when to push back.

Today, even as so many barriers have fallen — whether at elite universities, where women outnumber men, or in running for the presidency, where polls show that fewer people think gender makes a difference — computer engineering, the most innovative sector of the economy, remains behind. Many women who want to be engineers encounter a field where they not only are significantly underrepresented but also feel pushed away.

Tech executives often fault schools, parents or society in general for failing to encourage girls to pursue computer science. But something else is at play in the industry: Among the women who join the field, 56 percent leave by midcareer, a startling attrition rate that is double that for men,according to research from the Harvard Business School.

A culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha-male culture that can make women and other people who don’t fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned or even endangered. (Source: NY Times)

I find this colossally disheartening, especially since I am a major proponent of young women pursuing a STEM education and career.

Alas, the number of women in the computing field is actually going down:

In 2012, just 18 percent of computer-science college graduates were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Which is really too bad, especially because this is where a lot of the good jobs are going to be.

It’s not just the jerk quotient that keeps women out of tech. It’s a complex combination of factors that Pink Slip is certainly not going to come up with a solution for.

And I will say that I very much enjoyed working with most of the techies I met over the years, and that some of my best friends are engineers.

Still, I’m bummed that 30-plus years after I started in technology, it remains a tough go for women.

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