Women in Web Development: Do The Numbers Really Matter?

My good friend and great LA-based social media mind Alana Joy just published a blog post addressing the oft-discussed ratio of women to men in the tech business. And I have to say, she makes a very compelling point. Despite what you may read in the media, the tech industry is full of strong, smart, savvy, successful women who are actually going out there and getting things done for themselves and their companies. They may not be the loudest demographic in the room, but they’re certainly a strong segment of the population. And, like Alana says, what makes us so strong is the quality of our work, not the quantity of our numbers.

So, while I am loathe to say the glass ceiling has been demolished, or that there are no hurdles a woman working in a male-dominated industry has to face (yes, there are certain types of jokes that are less funny when you don’t have a Y chromosome, no matter how many times the guys around you repeat them), I do think that all this talk of ratios is indeed reductive. Not to mention counterproductive.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think we have a parity problem in tech. There are a lot of women in PR, marketing and human resources, and far too few to gripe with me about managing unwieldy databases or overseeing overnight code pushes. But, that doesn’t mean we need to start satisfying some quota of female coders at my company just for the sake of improving my ability to bitch about code problems over a glass of wine after work. That’s not where the failure is.

The failure isn’t the industry or its hiring practices. It’s in education, summer camps, parenting, and all the other places young girls could be coming into contact with coding, development and engineering but aren’t.

The brilliant Jolie O’Dell made this point very well on her blog recently. It’s not that there aren’t women doing amazing things in tech right now. It’s that the stream of amazing women being funneled into the more technical sides of tech is still very small. And that’s a huge fail. Personally, I was just telling my dad the other day that I never would have gotten into doing what I do had I not sort of stumbled into it. I was never a math person, and while I loved science, my lack of advanced math skills kept me out of the more advanced science classes for most of my education. Despite having grown up in a world of affluence and educational opportunity, I was never exposed to computer engineering or web development as a possible path for me, let alone the kind of product management I do every day.

Once I was tagged as an ‘artsy kid’, a ‘theater nerd’ and an ‘english person’, I was effectively set on a certain educational track that highly favored those disciplines and heavily discounted math, science and technology. I can pinpoint the exact moment this happened too — when I was put into the ‘dumb’ math group in fourth grade, because I was still slow on my multiplication tables. From that moment on, my math and science education was lumped in with a bunch of kids who didn’t get it, despite the fact that when I put my mind to it, I usually did. And, I was never given any option other than the track I was on – even at a well-regarded, college prep school and a fantastic university.

After I graduated college, it was by accident that I found a job at a startup website. And by necessity that I taught myself the web development basics that I needed to understand in order to do that job. Which means it was a total fluke that I found my passion — a passion I fervently wish I’d been given the chance to explore at an earlier age, when I was still within easy reach of the rich educational system I could certainly have taken better advantage of had I known then what I love to do now.

All of which goes to tell you that the system — even in the best schools — definitely has a numbers problem. But it’s not the numbers problem tech trendsetters like to talk about. For me, it’s a pretty familiar problem actually. How do you take an unwieldy data-set with a lot of varying items (aka: students) and properly categorize and classify them all? How do you make sure nothing falls through the cracks, and everything gets equal attention?

The answer is, you can’t. Kids are not data points. They’re evolving, organic creatures. And, by putting them on particular tracks, or classifying them into specific groups at a young age, you’re not developing the multi-faceted minds of the future. You’re creating a bunch of self-fulfilling prophecies. And yes, one of those prophecies tends to be ‘girls are good with words, boys are good with numbers,’ and the many similar gendered generalizations that keep women pouring into PR & marketing and trickling into development and engineering.

All of which goes to say that while I agree with a lot of what Alana said about the ratio of women in tech today, I don’t think we can say we don’t have a quantity issue at play. We do.  We have a numbers problem plaguing our collective past and threatening our industry’s future. And, I think that as smart, savvy, successful women in the tech world, we can do a lot to help fix it. We can offer ourselves up as role models, host events like Lynn Langit’s code workshops and help encourage and engage all the young girls we can find to look at this industry as a real possibility, regardless of where they think their paths are pre-determined to go. Nobody owes women in tech anything but an equal opportunity to succeed. And that’s exactly what we owe the young girls coming up behind us as well.

(Oh, and for the record, I can do my multiplication tables in my sleep now. Not that there’s much time to sleep when you’re trying to help coordinate development on a massive, database-driven website. Which by the way, takes more math than that fourth grade teacher with no faith in me could probably have done herself anyway. So there. )

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2 thoughts on “Women in Web Development: Do The Numbers Really Matter?

  1. Pingback: The links are strong with this one (4th December, 2010) | Geek Feminism Blog

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