Wednesday, March 04, 2015

It’s tough being a S.T.E.M. woman…

Next weekend, there’s a big gaming show coming up in Boston – PAX East.

The big news around it as that Giant Spacekat, a locale gaming company that’s led by a woman (Brianna Wu) was pulling out of the event because she fears for the safety of her staff.

There’s a major issue around sexism (and threats of violence directed against some of the more outspoken women) in the gaming community, which I won’t get into here. I’ll just say that the situation is pretty awful.

But even when you factor gaming out, it’s still tough being a S.T.E.M. (Science. Technology. Engineering. Math.) woman.

This was the subject of a recent article in the L.A. Times, “Why Are Women Leaving the Tech Industry in Droves?”

There were a couple of tech women interviewed – women with strong S.T.E.M. backgrounds – math and science majors working as programmers who, because of what they experienced as a hostile work environment, were packing it in.

This doesn’t exactly help the tech economy, which is trying to figure out where their employees are going to come from.

Women in tech say filling the pipeline of talent won't do much good if women keep quitting — it's like trying to fill a leaking bucket.

"It's a really frustrating thing," said Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation. "The pipeline may not improve much unless women can look ahead and see it's a valuable investment."

When I look back on all the techies I worked with, I can pretty much count the deeply technical women on one hand (by my definition, that would be women coding at the systems – rather than applications – level). All of them were quite brilliant; only one, as far as I can tell, made her way into a executive management position.

Although I’m not a S.T.E.M. girl myself, the tech world was where I spent my career.

So I’m not surprised to read:

A Harvard Business Review study from 2008 found that as many as 50% of women working in science, engineering and technology will, over time, leave because of hostile work environments.

The reasons are varied. According to the Harvard study, they include a "hostile" male culture, a sense of isolation and lack of a clear career path. An updated study in 2014 found the reasons hadn't significantly changed.

Most women in the Harvard study said the attitudes holding them back are subtle, and hence more difficult to challenge.

Yep, tech can be tough on a woman.

It’s interesting that, when I read about what the women interviewed in the L.A. Times article experienced, it was quite similar to things that happened to me, especially once I “made it” into management, where at times I was the lone women at the table, working (generally) for a male boss, and (often) with only males as my peers.

Your “assertions weren’t trusted”. Small things – none on its own worth complaining about – would mount up, so that you didn’t feel like a real part of the team. (What, exactly, are they talking about when their standing next to each other at the urinals?) Just plain not being heard.

I used to say that a women’s voice is like a dog whistles: not all ears are attuned to hear it.

For women in tech, the ears not attuned to hear it are the ones that matter: the male bosses, the male colleagues, the male investors.

At one of my jobs, I finally got sick of my points being ignored when they came out of my mouth, but picked up on a bit later when voiced by a male. Once in a while, I would smile and thank “Dave” for backing my point. Mostly I just let it go.

What is it with tech that’s so much worse than other industries?

Or are other industries and professions equally difficult for women to get ahead in?

Why is it that some things don’t ever seem to change?

The aggressive guy is just the aggressive guy. The aggressive woman is a pushy bitch.

I’ve been at meetings where we were supposed to dissect a failure. So why was I, as often as not, one of the few people capable of pointing out systemic failures. Even if there was no finger pointing – who wants to be part of that? – the men for the most part didn’t seem interested in rehashing the failures. It was always on to the next. Even if it would have been supremely helpful to try to learn something from the past.

And admitting to any role you may have played in the failure?

When I ventured to say that I had screwed something up, or could have done better, there were two reactions. 1) Phew, we’re off the hook: it’s her fault. And 2) She has two heads.

I find it very sad that, 30+ years after I started in tech, S.T.E.M. careers are still tough on women.

We’re good enough for the “soft” jobs like HR and marketing (sort of), but not for the guy stuff.

What a shame…

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