Why We Need to Rethink "Women in Tech"
To a Silicon Valley outsider, it may seem like everyone out here is “technical.” Internet giants dominate the job market, and online startups are a dime a dozen. But when industry insiders describe someone as “technical” (e.g., “I’m looking for a technical co-founder”), it has a very specific meaning: that person can write code.
It’s in this context that the debate about women in tech gets interesting. On one side are those who complain that there aren’t really any women in tech; on the other are those who seek to prove that there are. Fast Company and The Huffington Post can be counted in the latter group—both published lists last year to honor the tech industry’s top women. HuffPo’s “18 Female Founders In Tech To Watch” and Fast Company’s “30 Most Influential Women in Technology” drew attention to talented and powerful women who are taking the tech industry by storm.
But if you look closely at the lists, an interesting fact emerges: Only about a third of the women on either list can code.
Conversely, nearly all of the top men in tech have software engineering backgrounds. Forbes’ 2011 list of “The World’s Most Powerful People” included tech industry leaders like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Baidu’s Robin Li—all men, all founders, all computer scientists.
Imagine your disappointment if only a third of the “Top Women in Music” were musicians. Similarly, it would be a little weird if an overwhelming majority of the leading women in medicine had never studied science. There are lots of ways to lead and shape an industry, but shouldn’t mastering the core of the craft rank near the top?
I bring this up not to disparage the “non-technical” women in tech. I am one of them. Last fall, Femme-o-nomics named me one of the “Top 50 Women to Watch in Tech.” I’m on the founding team of an online company, and I write about issues related to tech, so I was hugely honored to receive the recognition. That said, I’m the first to admit that I’m around tech more than I’m in it. If I were a Craigslist post, I’d be listed as “tech adjacent.”
Tech is a hot sector, and it’s exciting to see more women getting involved. But let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. We still have a long way to go before we reach gender equality at the core of the industry, and the recent boom of “women in tech” might be misleading. Just as having a website doesn’t necessarily make your new company a “tech startup,” having a blog doesn’t necessarily make you a “woman in tech.”
I’m not saying that coding is all there is to the tech industry. There’s an important place for non-technical skills: Expertise in online business models, digital marketing, e-commerce, new media, social media strategy, gadgets, and IT infrastructure are all essential to the technology ecosystem.
But the fundamental building blocks of tech—the magic, if you will—come from the engineers who write code. They are the conductors in this symphony of 1s and 0s. Amber Reyngoudt, software engineer at Milk Inc., likened computer scientists to painters or sculptors: “We actually create something with our own hands and then say, ‘I made this.’”
So why is it so important to have more female coders in the tech world? Reyngoudt’s respect for the power to create highlights one of the most compelling reasons: Inspiring a new generation of women to learn computer science empowers female entrepreneurs to come up with unique solutions to new problems. Additionally, as more and more industries step into the digital age, tech will imbue every part of our economy. Computer science is a growing field, one in which we desperately need more top talent. And one in which women can’t be left behind.
Although tech industry women like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and HP’s Meg Whitman deserve praise for their leadership, the tech world needs more coder role models like Google’s Marisa Mayer. Only then are we ever going to convince the next generation that computer science isn’t just for boys.