Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Plateau of the Gender Gap in Tech: A Story of Oblivious Education

Last week, I attended the Grand Global Challenges Summit, GGCS for short, a conference aimed at promoting social awareness in the world of engineering sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering in the US, UK, and China. During the second introduction speech, given by a member of the Chinese National Academy of Engineering, two slides were shown depicting some of the most influential people in science and engineering.

The first slide was composed of Chinese scientists and engineers. There were two women. The second, of Americans. There was one woman. I tapped my friend, who happens to be male, on the shoulder and commented on this within two seconds of the slides being shown. He looked slightly appalled once I brought it up, but admitted that he hadn’t really noticed. This is not to say he’s not a feminist or didn’t care — he simply had the luxury to not have to notice, and that’s a problem. I wasn’t alone, though. About a dozen questions relating to the lack of women on those slides flowed in, all from female audience members, leaving the speaker a bit flustered.

To my surprise, the next talk brought even more controversy. An older, white male speaker took the stage to talk about the history of the program, and at the end a woman stood up and angrily brought up the fact that the National Academy had not scheduled any female speakers for the entirety of the conference. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t the most elegant way to bring up the concern, and it definitely wasn’t the correct person to direct it towards, but it set off a spark.

Oddly enough, the moderator, a man, grew strangely defensive and informed the audience that there were eight female speakers scheduled for the rest of the conference. I was immediately relieved, until I saw that out of those eight, only two were actually engineers. Two among 22 engineers. That’s less than 10%. That, to me, is horrifying. The whole dramatic ordeal made me cringe in my seat, however, it did bring up quite extensive discussions I did not expect to have at this conference.

At lunch I spoke with other female engineering students about their experiences. One, a biomedical engineer, stated that the gender divide in her field was actually about 50–50, and working mostly in academia, she had never faced bias herself. Another, an electrical engineer, noted that at her summer internship, she noticed that men came into the office wearing jeans and hoodies while women wore full business attire, for legitimate fear of not being taken seriously. Unfortunately, even at an internship level, a couple had already experienced subtle forms of sexual harassment. A recruiter at one of the sponsor companies who was relatively new to industry told me that she had never felt personally victimized, but she was always painfully aware of being the only woman in the room at most times. Still, no one in the company ever really talked about the gap.

Personally, I have always been aware of being one of about four girls in a classroom, but I’ve never felt targeted because of it. My most significant encounter with bias was during high school robotics, when a competing captain’s dad half-joked that my team had only won the most prestigious award at a competition because I was one of maybe three female captains at the event. To him, it probably meant nothing. It was one comment that probably seems like something I could have shrugged off, but it has stuck with me for almost four years now — not because I think he was right, but because I couldn’t help but wonder how many other people thought the same.

In academia, bias is definitely less pervasive than in industry. Why? Maybe it’s because our generation is more progressive than those who are in charge at companies. I know that none of my male peers think I’m less than them because I’m a woman, yet time and time again women report the same experiences going into industry. Even among the small percentage of women that study engineering in college, a large percentage of women, about 40% according to the Harvard Business Review, with degrees in engineering choose to pursue a different field after working in industry or never even pursue engineering after graduation. It’s discouraging to say the least, and it’s no wonder that more women choose to pursue different fields in college. Acceptance is not enough if everyone, gender inclusive, remains a bystander.

While telling another male friend about the encounters I had at the conference and the lack of female speakers, he said something along the lines of, “Maybe they just reached out to people and they happened to be male.” Well, that’s the problem isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not using this example to say that all men are sexist and don’t value women in the engineering workforce. I’m using this example to point out how oblivious our current education system, and perhaps just our society as a whole, allows men to be on this matter. They may not be sexist, but they haven’t been taught to do anything about or even notice gender imbalances — a luxury that simply shouldn’t exist.

At a conference that seeks to better the world, how could none of the organizers have noticed this glaringly obviously disparity? And if they had noticed, why didn’t anyone do something about it? My guess is that it was not out of malice, but that they just didn’t see it as an issue — until about all their female audience members spoke out, I suppose.

Education panel at GGCS

Many people tend to tiptoe around this subject, women included, in fear of offending a group or coming on too strong. This is exactly why I fell in love with Martha Lane Fox. She’s an entrepreneur who sits on the board of Twitter and is a member of the UK House of Lords who got her start in 1998 as a co-founder of Europe’s largest travel and leisure website. As a founder of a charity fighting for a fairer internet, she was brought to the conference to discuss net neutrality. However, the discussion did briefly venture into the amount of women in digital tech when the same moderator that had awkwardly been stepping round the issue all day asked for her opinion, and she was brutally honest.

She declared, “There is no growth in the amount of women in the tech industry. At this nonexistent rate, we will never reach parity in this field. We’re at a plateau.” I think it was something that everyone needed to hear. She was blunt, yes, but she was also bold and charming in her manner of speech overall, and perhaps that got the point across more definitively than the angered woman from the beginning of the day. Still, the point was the same. Just because companies start initiatives to hire women, does not mean we are any closer to solving the problem. It’s not enough.

Martha also commented on the fact that even though digital tech is a relatively new field, filled with amazing and brilliant people who are, for the most part, not malicious, we have somehow managed to rebuild an archaic structure where men dominate that permeates the entire industry. This comment alone garnered more applause than anything had all day, as the audience was visibly struck, myself included. The people that make up the tech industry are not bad people. We have to go back to the roots. And yes, part of that is creating programs for girls and young women that promote STEM and boost their confidence, but all the blame cannot be placed on a lack of confidence or a lack of will. And all the blame cannot be placed on sexist tendencies of some men. The blame is to be placed on an educational foundation that has yet to recognize how to properly teach children the importance of equality and diversity.

For two summers in a row, I worked at a STEM based summer camp, specifically teaching a Lego Robotics class. The camp had set aside specific weeks that were “girls only”, as this was one of the classes mainly dominated by boys. Keep in mind that these children were only in the fourth and fifth grades. While I appreciated the efforts of the camp to be inclusive and provide parents and the girls with an environment in which the girls would certainly be comfortable, I was torn.

Week after week I watched the girls who entered the regular class be paired up with boys, and do amazingly well. These kids were unlikely to have been exposed to the kinds of bias we see in industry and higher education in engineering, and once a girl’s robot destroyed theirs in sumo bots, none of them walked away thinking that gender was a contributing factor for skill level. All this was a small example of inclusive and unbiased education.

Having women in engineering contributes to both social and economic good. Clearly, there’s a moral issue at play, but having women engineers will also undoubtedly push the world of technology forward. One of the members of the National Academy of Engineering proudly announced that their first cohort of Grand Challenge Scholars, a program they launched to bring their philosophy into education, was exactly 50% male and 50% female. Additionally, studies have shown time and time again that more women pursue engineering to not only obtain interesting and prosperous careers, but to become “socially responsible engineers.” The very even amount of male and female students attending the summit and the smaller gender gap in biomedical engineering speak to this as well.

A more diverse set of workers simply produces a different, wider range of thoughts. Taking steps to solve this critical gender imbalance problem clearly has the power to push the entire field of engineering and technology in a new direction, to stimulate the economy, and to create more solutions for the world pioneered by a diverse and balanced workforce.