Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Women in the Tech Sector

The Lack of Women in Technology and Startups and its soul-sister post, Horror Stories from Women in Tech: two Jezebel articles covering women in the tech sector.

Living in Taiwan, where tech companies, science parks, engineering and IT jobs, IT and the semiconductor industry is king, I do feel that it's worthwhile to reflect on why so few women enter this industry. I don't have an answer for that, but do not believe that it's because Taiwanese female students are discouraged from pursuing math and science related fields (I've met more women in scientific fields in Taiwan than in the USA, though I am not sure of the overall numbers). Certainly it is not implied to young Taiwanese women that "women are bad at math", if anything, from a culture-and-education perspective, female students are expected to be just as good at math as men. Back in the USA you can see the ripple effect of this in that a significant portion of the women you encounter in math or science related fields are Asian.

So why do so few of them enter the tech industry? I'm saying this from experience: in four and a half years of teaching classes at several tech companies, I've encountered a grand total of three - three - female engineers (I have taught women in tech companies who work in marketing, HR and other office-job, female-friendly fields, and am focusing on engineering here for a reason: it requires a different sort of training altogether from an HR professional, marketing specialist or event planner). It is not unusual to have classes made up entirely of men in those companies, or to have ten men and one woman.

I can't help but think that while women are expected to be good at hard science fields as students, that if they test into college majors that involve math or science, parents tend to push them more towards accounting or medicine, while pushing their sons into engineering. This is good for nobody: it takes away a female voice from an innovative field, it pushes women into less innovative fields (not talking about medicine here so much as accounting - one of the least innovative fields out there) which stifles female creativity, it creates a gender divide that can translate into prejudice - "there aren't many women in the tech sector" can so easily and scarily become "women aren't good in tech fields so they shouldn't take those jobs" to "As a boss, I prefer to hire men because women aren't suited to the tech sector" and suddenly, BOOM. Full-on discrimination.

And no, we are not saving Taiwan's women from famously long and arduous working hours - make no mistake, you'd feel a lot less ethically good about owning so many smart gadgets if you knew what the workers at some of these companies had to put up with in terms of work hours and expectations of workload and productivity. Accountants, especially young auditors, work just as long if not longer. I had a student once - a young auditor for a Big Four firm - fall asleep on break and snooze for a good 45 minutes because she'd been working 7am-2am every day, and sleeping three to four hours a night - it was tax season and that's what they have to do.

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