By Linda Forrest
Reading yesterday’s post about the role formal education plays in entrepreneurship, I was reminded of an article I read a few months ago about the “real reason women quit engineering.”
In Stemming The Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professors report on their survey of over 3,700 women with engineering degrees. They found that just one in four women who had left the field reported doing so to spend more time with family. One third left “because they did not like the workplace climate, their boss or the culture,” while almost half departed due to “working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement or low salary” (respondents were allowed to check more than one reason). The researchers also found that among women who got engineering degrees but never entered the field, a third made that decision “because of their perceptions of engineering as being inflexible or the engineering workplace culture as being non-supportive of women.” And, unsurprisingly, “Women engineers who were treated in a condescending, patronizing manner, and were belittled and undermined by their supervisors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organizations.”
News such as this can’t inspire young women to go into these fields, as evidenced by the dismal US figures in the charts below that Catalyst, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, published about females pursuing formal education in the technology realm:
Anecdotally, I can speak to the fact that many of our contacts within client organizations are women; some would argue that marketing, the department with which we’re most frequently engaged at our client companies, is among the corporate world’s pink collar ghetto (along with HR, PR and other female-dominated roles) and thus there’s an inordinate number of females in those roles. But that’s not always the case, and it should be noted that women can and have risen to the highest ranks in these disciplines within technology companies, an accomplishment that’s not to be overlooked.
What percentage of women are participating in the more technical side of technology companies? Vastly fewer women than men, according to this chart, also from Catalyst:
With a little research, however, it’s easy to find powerful and successful female role models in tech. Fast Company did an extensive feature back in 2009 that profiled the Most Influential Women in Technology. Though it’s a bit out of date and some of these ladies are sure to have changed roles and companies, at the time it was noted that there were high-ranking female executives at companies like Intel, IBM, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, ebay and that it was women entrepreneurs that founded flickr, SlideShare and BabyCenter.
Speaking for Canada, I’m happy to report that locally there are many inspiring female leaders, such as those that have won CATA’s Sara Kirke Award for Canada’s Leading Woman Entrepreneur and Technology Innovator, the most recent winner being PostRank CEO, Carol Leaman.
What is the secret to success for women in technology? Is it networking? Education? Entrepreneurship? Some combination of those elements?
I personally had many great networking experiences with the group Canadian Women in Technology (formerly CATA WIT, now CanWIT), a networking group whose Ottawa meetings are filled with great, inspiring, successful women working in high tech. Though I haven’t yet had the pleasure of attending one of their events, FUN for Tech Women appears to be a vibrant and growing group that meets its objectives of providing “Fellowship, Unity and Networking” for women working in Ottawa’s tech sector. Women in tech in this region are positively spoiled with the amount of networking, camaraderie, guest speakers, and role models available to them.
It would seem, however, that Ottawa (if not Canada as a whole) offers more support and encouragement to women in the male dominated technology sector than many other communities. Gender imbalance in IT is a keenly studied topic, as evidenced by the two separate conferences that took place this month dedicated to boosting the participation of women in technology in the US. According to US government statistics, while the fairer sex accounted for 36 percent of IT professionals in 1991, they now account for only 25 percent of same.
An article last year in the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm about the lack of women leading venture-backed startups:
Only about 11% of U.S. firms with venture-capital backing in 2009 had current or former female CEOs or female founders, according to data from Dow Jones VentureSource. The prestigious startup incubator Y Combinator has had just 14 female founders among the 208 firms it has funded.
The “where-are-all-the-women” meme is a familiar one, and not confined to the technology world. But in start-up land, where the good idea is supposed to trump social status and everything else, the lack of women in positions of authority stands out.
Women already in the tech sector are working to create the sorts of support system that we’re fortunate already exists in Ottawa and various associations dedicated to women in technology like The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, Women in Technology (US) and Women in Technology (UK) are working hard to turn the tide. As a female who has chosen to make her career in the technology field, I wish them all the best. As the WSJ article pointed out, a good idea can trump everything else; the Facebooks of the world have led to the democratization of technology and anyone can be the founder or a key executive at the next world-dominating startup, male or female.