The Discussion About The Lack of Women In Tech

The meme of the lack of women in tech (or software, or entrepreneurship) appeared in several places today.  Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years and deeply involved in this issue. It’s very satisfying for me to see a meme like this pick up speed and appear in a bunch of thoughtful articles and discussions. If you are interested in this issue, I have three articles from the last 24 hours that I encourage you to read.

Let’s start with a high level discussion in the San Jose Mercury News article titled Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech. The article does a nice job of framing the issue and the last few paragraphs bring up the idea that the “paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  A similar concept is that parents of young girls (junior high / high school) discourage (or “don’t encourage”) their daughters from exploring computer science.

Next is a chewy blog post by Eric Ries titled Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business).  Eric tackles a bunch of concepts around diversity with a focus on gender diversity (although a lot of the constructs are applicable to ethnic and racial diversity.)  The comments to this post contain some good additional refinements to the discussion. In reading through the comments, I find it interesting to see how loaded the word “diversity” is as some of the commenters seem to confuse “diversity” with “equal numbers of all types” or some kind of specious politically correct construct. Eric also includes a tremendous short presentation by Terri Oda about how biology (doesn’t) explain the low number of women in computer science.

Finally, Fred Wilson’s excellent post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon has a comment thread started by Tereza that talks about an idea she calls XX-Combinator (a seed accelerator for women).

For those that question the lack of data surrounding this area that is driving some of the current thinking, the amount of actual research that NCWIT has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or done over the past five years is substantial.  As with much social science research, there’s a big gap between the core research, the conclusions, and long term behavioral change, but as Lucy Sanders (the CEO of NCWIT) is fond of saying, we are five years into a 20 year shift.

  • Odd that a computer scientist like Terri could be so bad at logic. Here is a summary of her presentation:

    – Math ability is not that important in programming
    – The statistical difference in men and women in math ability is actually small
    – Biology does not explain the difference in the numbers of men and women in computer science


    Since apparently you found this presentation useful, let me point out the flaws explicitly:

    – The presentation doesn't have any facts or even theories about biology, so why does its conclusion relate to biology? The small differences in mathematical ability shown may or may not relate to biology.

    – If mathematical ability doesn't matter in programming, then why do we care about the statistical differences between men and women in mathematical ability? It would be irrelevant to the case.

    At the end of the day it does not matter whether it is biology or social influences that cause the disparity. The structure of human gender and social interactions is not going to change because there are not enough female software developers. Instead, emphasizing that modern software development has become rather social and interactive (Agile, XP, etc.) in comparison with the past, so that girls don't view the career as "sitting in front of a screen all day alone," would be much more productive.

    • Your last paragraph is right on the money, especially the concluding sentence:

      Instead, emphasizing that modern software development has become rather social and interactive (Agile, XP, etc.) in comparison with the past, so that girls don't view the career as “sitting in front of a screen all day alone,” would be much more productive.

      This is one of the big things that has been figured out.

  • Great slide show, and a cool technology for showing it. Interesting though, that when the slide show is over, the first "Related Slideshow" presented is "Incredibly Beautiful Women" showing a bikini-clad babe.____Then (since Brad is always trying out new technology) I registered with IntenseDebate so that I could log in here. My login confirmation was signed "The fellas at IntenseDebate". Looks like it will be a long road to gender parity in IT.

    • Oops. The irony is – indeed – everywhere.

  • Brad, great post, and it's helped me revise a little of my thinking from my commenting at Fred Wilson's blog with Tereza. I'd be happy to read more research and if you want, you can send me some data or links to reports you have done, or just point me the way. Thanks.

    • This is especially interesting since The Atlantic Monthly recently ran a cover story entitled "The End of Men." Basically, young women are pursuing higher education in much higher numbers than young men. This has ironically led some universities to secretly giving preference to male applicants to try to restore gender ratios. I participate in STEM initiatives for women and am hearing there is a large increase in the number of women getting undergraduate degrees in computer science specifically.

      So, for me, the real question is why are so many women not following through with tech careers? I'll argue the early academic and business environment is not particularly family friendly, at a time when involved parenting is making a resugence (I am also a military Academy graduate–nearly all my female classmates left the service prior to 20 years for family reasons).

      Title IX has done wonders for getting girls into sports and teaching them about competition. But I've seen very little change in the adult workforce.

      • PaulD

        I immediately thought of the Atlantic Monthly article too. And not to be too cavalier about it, but my feeling was, "If women are pretty much taking over the business world, is it such a bad thing that males retain some dominance in the tech world?"

        But more fundamentally, so long as the numbers are not lower due to discrimination, why do we care? People make choices. I have raised two daughters and one son to young adulthood, and I think we should be more concerned with our young men. Our society is increasingly placing value on following rules, doing long hours of desk work, and keeping track of minutia. I can't blame ANYONE for rebelling against a system like that, but girls seem to be able, in general, to stomach it better than boys.

        • Paul – the reason we care is because so often they're not really choices at all. Girls are too often siphoned off onto a different path before they even understand they could have it any other way. Or they become fed up with the game (thinking they have no choice but to walk away from it) that men should have walked away from years ago but who think THEY have no other choice than to stick it out.

          One of the things I've always appreciated about Brad's position is not that we're supposed to be nicer to girls (frankly, I'd be fighting to be the last to take that approach) but rather, business and society win when we make it easier for women to be part of the process – in tech as well as in business – and suffer when we don't.

          I also believe that far from sacrificing young men in the attempt to establish a more equitable (not necessarily equal) system, the best solutions are those that benefit both. I too am concerned about young men but they at least have the advantage of being considered by most as the de facto standard.

          • PaulD

            I agree that everyone should be getting the message that it's a big world out there and you can do anything you want.

            A big part of what Jen is talking about, though, has to do with women taking themselves out of the workplace to focus on being a mom. That really transcends the whole discussion of women in tech and becomes an issue of what matters most in life — which may well end up not being one's career. I happen to believe that Jen's female cohorts at the Academy made really wise decisions. Maybe what we really need to do is push telecommuting so that women and other caretakers won't feel they need to leave the workforce; it makes perfect sense in computer science and is great for the environment.

      • There are lots of professions where women face tough choices between career advancement and having kids. Assume a woman graduates college at 21, takes two years off, attends law school, graduates at 26. Joins a big firm where it takes 8 years to make partner. So about the time she is coming up for partner review is also the optimal time to have children. Same is true of a medical career or a college professor in a tenure track job.

        Software programming is different. You don't need a masters degree, only a bachelors, and every knows a large chunk of the very top developers did not finish college. You can do TechStars at age 22, get funded by a VC the next year, and hopefully make more money than you can spend the rest of your life by age 28. For women worried about having kids and a successful career, programming could make a lot of sense! And if you don't make $10 million, and you have kids but you also need to work, a good female software engineer is much more likely to find a good job where she can work at home four days a week than an equally good female lawyer.

        James Mitchell

    • There is some stuff at as well as links to some of the other research. That's a good place to start.

  • I know what the statistics are but when you actually go out into the world you do tend to see more men working or taking an interest in computer technology. Not to say that there are none but if you ask someone to visually estimate the stats they would favor more men taking these jobs.

  • My friends who went into super-competitive businesses (say law, banking, etc, etc) push comes to shove, are probably going to leave it or have complicated issues when kids come along. Think of it this way, when we measure labor versus salaries, in general, in the US, very few families measure against total family income, they measure against the woman's income. That's weird. So it creates strange calculations about risk and reward for the entire family.

    Stop worrying about the women- worry about the kids.

    • In a two-income family, whoever makes the least has the most expendable income if there are choices to be made around bailing on the career to take care of kids. Guess who that usually is – and guess who that means is left holding the bag that's supposed to contain the money for groceries?

      In my mind, this is an excellent argument for fixing gender wage disparities (creates more real choices for families) and for finding ways to to make it so that work and family (for both men and women) are not mutually exclusive options.

      It will take creativity and ingenuity to make it happen, but if we don't, we'll just remain stuck with the same old choices – and again, it's the businesses who suffer as much any individual because they risk losing top talent.

  • Brad — thanks for wrapping in my XX Combinator concept. Would love to see it happen.

    I built the comment into a blog post here:….


    • I just read it – great post!

  • Brad, thanks for your longstanding leadership on this issue. As more women make up more of the workforce, a fundamental shift that is happening globally and accelerating, we need to be responsive to the needs of all employees. If nothing else, it makes business sense, and as a venture investor for the past 11 years, I see more and more talented women starting businesses that are going to be impactful. We need to nurture this talent (that will make up more than 50% of our workforce) and make sure that the very best are given the opportunity to get access to capital and networks — if that is the path they want.. I've written about this subject in my blog several times, the most recent here:…. In 1999, after being a tech entrepreneur myself and before starting my venture career, I set up training/microfinance programs for women entrepreneurs in Tanzania. Now, after investing in Silicon Valley, Boston, India, Europe and NYC, mentoring entrepreneurs and establishing entrepreneurial ecosystems, I know that regardless of gender and geography, ALL entrepreneurs need that support and mentorship. One person cannot do it alone, no matter who they are. And not everyone who is talented has equal access now.

  • Am I the only one who finds the term "gender diversity" a bit ridiculous? Considering there are only two… 😉

    • I think the phrase has been co-opted to mean “roughly equal amount of men and women” – especially in the context of a male dominated domain. Gender parity is probably a better phrase as you point out.

  • Stu

    I have no idea what non-women'ed tech universe you inhabit, but as a provider of services to the SMB community, there are Plenty of women in and entering the IT world. Statistics for college graduates in IT careers are over 50% women.
    Perhaps in the entrepreneurial world women are not reaching parity right now, but in the world where systems need to get up & running, Parity is not far off.

    • Lucy

      Stu, our data show that women are no where close to parity at any part of the IT pipeline. See for a resource on this. In 2008, for example, women made up only 18% of all CIS graduates. Also, if one is looking at computer science majors at research institutions, the number drops to 12%. Further, women make up only 25% of the total IT workforce. I wish we were close to parity but we are not.

  • @BrianCVC

    Terri Oda's presentation is great and it's good to see some real analysis. Unfortunately, she comes to the wrong conclusion based on the data. She says "therefore, biological differences do not account for the gender disparity in computer science." A more appropriate conclusion might be "therefore, biological differences in math performance do not account for the gender disparity in computer science."

    Given that math performance is not such an important determinant of programming ability anyway, this doesn't tell us much….

  • Paul

    I still find a significant strain of liberal social engineering in the whole gender-equity-in-salary-and-representation movement. For example, in Terri Oda's presentation she neglects to consider one of the most basic biological differences between men and women: the ability to bear children. What impact do the demands of childraising have on the number of women available for technical jobs? What impact does supposed pro-family regulation have on the eagerness of employers to hire women, who often leave for long stretches of time to have children? Or leave forever, as many do? What about the psychological differences between men and women, many of which are certainly influenced or caused by biological differences? Just because women and men have similar abilities in technical fields doesn't mean they have similar interest levels in them. Finally, what is the great social good that is to be accomplished by drawing women into the workforce? How much do kids, families and marriages suffer from the rush to dual-income family structures? These are some of the blind spots that nobody in the gender-equity movement ever seems to address. I, for one, would take them a lot more seriously if they would.

  • James_Mitchell

    "We are five years into a 20 year shift."

    Has there been ANY progress in the past 5 years? My guess would be that if you surveyed women undergraduates at the top U.S. non-technical colleges, the percentage that have any interest in programming is not any different in 2010 than it was 5, 10 or 15 years ago.

    For software programming, the best time to get girls interested is high school. There are so many things we as a society could do. If you are a female high school student with any intellectual ability at all, you will be automatically enrolled in a programming class. To get out of it, you have to jump through 15 hoops.

    James Mitchell

    • Yes – there has been enormous progress. Some of it is documented on the NCWIT site (

  • I'm a startup founder, graduate of the inaugural Silicon Valley Founder Institute (summer 2009), and one of four newly accepted PhD students at CU's ATLAS program doing research in computer science. At this point you'd assume I'm male. Oh, and I'm a proud hands-on mum to four incredible children. While society continues to believe there needs to be a choice between motherhood and success, and that women are not good at accepting the 'risk' of startups, there will continue to be judgment. This is all about more than numbers of women in IT. It's time to ask deeper questions about societal attitudes – and attitudes of male entrepreneurs. Oh and I'm from overseas on a visa too 😉

    • Jo – welcome to Boulder! You should definitely connect with Lucy Sanders (as you may know, NCWIT is housed in the ATLAS building on the second floor.)

  • Five years into a 25 year shift. Ha! Your startup visa work should have told me. I guess you are also big on gender.

  • Really nice post…
    But it should be fair between men and women 🙂

  • mike.spears.68

    I think it's all about cultural stereotypes and assumptions about women's skills. The problem is that women seem to accept these stereotypes. However, I've seen great women managers in tech companies, if they choose this field they usually succeed. Regarding famous women entrepreneurs there was Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay cosmetics) in the 20th century, a best-selling author and powerful motivational speaker named the Most Outstanding Woman in Business in the 20th Century. Well, I think that women entrepreneurs have the following qualities that we, the men, lack: they ask for help when they don't know hot to accomplish a certain task, they have a stronger focus on values and on the working environment and try to build a business that functions well without them being the central noisy element of it (they are like the conductor of the symphony and I think they can also manage their home, husband and kids…). They are also great business partners:

  • Thanks for your comment & links, really interesting. I recently did an interview with Randy Komisar on Women Entrepreneurs… After failing in a 5 year dream to raise venture, I decided to do what I could to raise awareness for women entrepreneurs sourcing venture. Let's bridge the gap in however we can…

  • Thanks for this post Brad, you are a star supporting women entrepreneurs & also the Startup Visa. I recently interviewed Randy Komisar on Women Entrepreneurs… and European Entrepreneurs too. And even more recently Tereza on xx combinator… Keep up the good work Brad!

  • Guest

    Men who ask 'does it matter if there are women in tech' shows that they feel women have nothing to offer. It's insulting and demeaning. Look at the inventions that the world is losing out on by excluding women in certain fields.

    But I can tell you that in one company I worked for the boss would rather have the project fail than to acknowledge and use the ingenuity of the technical women. And I'm not kidding. Men would do anything to keep women out so that they can pretend only men are good at working in tech.