Woman Troubles in Technology

The New York Times had an article today about the loss of women in the science and technology fields as they hit their 30s and beyond. It cites a report that blames a macho culture intrinsic to those fields. But it’s possible that readers in the tech field missed it as it only ran in the Style section of the paper’s web site rather than the Technology section. Because apparently the loss of female programming and engineering talent has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the latest swimsuits. An article on the Wii Fit however, was deemed worthy of appearing in both sections.

I actually think the “macho culture” inherent to these fields has less to do with the lack of women sticking around than the persistent assumption that’s behind the NYTimes confining the article to the Style pages. The assumption is that work-life balance is a female issue. Aside from tales of overt sexual harassment, the main trends that emerge in the report are that women need to “act like a man” to succeed (code for working a lot and not talking about family), and that the hours are not conducive for working mothers.

Women aren’t less capable of doing math and science, but they do tend to be less available when it comes to working long hours after having a child, unless they have a husband with a 9-5 job. Those all-night programming sessions or the week-long visits to foreign fabs to make sure a chip design is implemented correctly are costly to families. For the type of competitive person who ends up in the technology field, deciding between giving 110 percent to solving a technological problem and giving 90 or even 100 percent when junior is sick, is too frustrating. So they back off, because if the game is rigged so you can’t win, smart people pick a new game.

These women aren’t dumb, but their employers might be. The Silicon Valley startup culture demands a person give 110 percent and can be gruelingly inflexible. Academia and research labs are similar. But after a child –or maybe a heart attack — people tend to look at the rigged game and decline to play. So either the culture in technology will be forced to change, or it will continue to feed on canon fodder in the form of youth and single men. Regardless, it’s not just a female problem.