The politically correct answer, obviously, is, “Yes.” The statistically correct answer is, “Yes,” as well. In 2009, according to The National Center for Women & Information Technology, while women held 58% of professional jobs overall in the U.S., we only held 25% of professional computing positions. Similarly, while 57% of 2009 undergraduate degree recipients were women, only 18% of recipients of computer and information sciences degrees were female -- down from 37% in 1985.
Ask people why there are so few women in technology, and you’ll get a variety of answers, ranging from cultural stereotypes to parenting to role models. “Globally, women-led businesses receive less than 5% of venture capital,” points out Glenda Stone, who co-shares the UK Women’s Enterprise Taskforce. The New York Times suggests that that statistic is a direct reflection of the fact that the VC firms themselves are male-dominated. They quote Toby Stuart, a Harvard Business School professor, who says that “data show that people are more trusting and comfortable working with people of their own sex.”
There is no doubt that sexism and discrimination against women exist in the world. We are just this week applauding Saudi Arabia for actually allowing women to compete for the country at the Olympics -- despite the fact that their girls don’t even receive physical education in state schools. (Boys do.) Last night, I sat on a panel of Women in Leadership. The first question was why we needed more women in leadership. “Equity and justice,” said the woman next to me. A South African, she’s lived at the pointy end -- pardon the pun -- of an overtly and explicitly male-dominated society.
Unlike my South African colleague, I was privileged to grow up in an environment where I never felt discriminated against because of gender -- and I confess to having little patience or empathy for stories about sexist treatment. The dramatic Twitter argument that unfolded this week between Shanley Kane and Geeklist’s Reuben Katz and Christian Sanz seemed to me more a trio of toddlers throwing sand at each other than a problem of sexism. While we can’t be blind to the very real issues around women’s rights, we must be conscious not to become so aware of an issue that we perceive everything through its lens.
One of the other members of the women’s leadership panel gave a different answer to the question of why we need more women: that companies perform better when there are women on the team. That assessment is backed up by Cindy Padnos, quoted in the same New York Times article, who looked at 100 gender and tech entrepreneurship studies. “When you have gender diversity in an organization,” says Padnos, “you have better innovation, and I don’t know where innovation is more important than in the high-tech world.”
Note Padnos’ choice of the word “diversity.” She is not suggesting that women are “better,” that we are wiser, softer, or more nurturing than our male counterparts. She is simply stating the inarguable: that a woman has a different perspective than a man, and that when you have multiple perspectives in a group, the group has the ability to make wiser, better informed decisions. Notice also the empowerment embedded in this point of view: it is not that men need to feel bad about poor, excluded women; it is that we are seeking better outcomes for our society and our businesses.
Which means we have to question the original question from our facilitator. Instead of asking why we need more women in leadership positions, we need to ask what would make our leadership better. What would make us more effective? What would make us wiser, more insightful leaders?
The answer is not women. The answer is diversity: of gender, of viewpoint, of life experience, of worldview. The answer is for us to realize that we are each limited to the maximum perspective our meager experience affords us, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our individual philosophies, and that by inviting in those who see the world from a different angle, we can broaden our own vision.
What are your thoughts on and experiences of this topic? I welcome your comments, below or on Twitter.