Why Do We Need Women in Tech?

I was recently asked an interesting and challenging question by a female colleague. In her experience (as a female and a programmer) she’s often asked, “How do we get more women involved in technology?” to which she proposed a “more interesting question”: “Why do we want more women [in technology]?”. She challenged me to come up with something better than a “generic ‘increased diversity’ answer.”

Here’s my attempt …

Women Need Technology — The Future Belongs to All of Us

Computing is our future. A future where every product we own is connected, smart, and responsive. A future where we are able to delegate more and more of our mundane work to algorithms and machines. There should be more women in technology because they must have a voice in what that future looks like. As long as men continue to dominate the field of computer science we are perpetuating the oppression of women by either actively or tacitly accepting their silence in the design of our common future.

Technology Needs Women — Women Think Differently

Without getting into a conversation over nature vs. nurture it is safe to say that over centuries women have been socialized differently than men. This socialization leads to a different vocabulary of metaphors and experiences. In the book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff argues that “the human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined” and that “human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” If this is true, the fundamentally different experience of being a woman brings with it a fundamentally different way of thinking.

One axiom that comes to mind is “there are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.” Just as the original designers of graphical user interfaces chose files, folders, and a desktop to be the defining metaphors for that revolution in computing we are constantly "naming things" and choosing the metaphors which will define the systems we design. I suspect that a person with sufficiently different experiences (and metaphors) would add a great deal of value when solving these sorts of problems.

Solving problems is the primary activity of most technologists (computer scientists, developers, designers). There is a a great body of research showing that a diversity of perspectives aids in problem solving—like the work of Scott Paigehttp://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~spage/index.html at the University of Michigan. In his book ”The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies” Scott shares what he calls the “ketchup question”.

Paige’s fascinating question powerfully illustrates the way diversity can contribute to innovative outcomes: Do you store your ketchup in the refrigerator or the cupboard? After asking a number of groups Pagie’s anecdotal conclusion was about 80-90% of people store their ketchup in the refrigerator. As Paige writes, “Almost all white Midwesterners do, but many African Americans Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, and Irish do not. They store their ketchup in the cupboard.”

We can learn to “tolerate” these differences in local custom and achieve peacful coexistance but that’s unlikely to lead to new thinking. Where we keep our ketchup seems like a relatively minor issue of coordination (not temperature). Everyone needs to know where to find the ketchup more than they care where it’s stored (resturants store it on the table after all).

The real power of diversity comes when people from different contexts are faced with a problem to solve. Say for example missing ketchup. Which replacement is a ketchup-in-the-fridge person most likely to reach for? Mayonnaise? Mustard? These condiments feel “close” to ketchup because custom dictates they are. A ketchup-in-the-cupboard person is likely to reach for what’s closest as well, maybe malt vinegar.

The world is faced with a dispiriting number of wicked problems, and computing promises continued breakthroughs for some time to come. If we’re going to solve some of our largest problems we don’t just need more people in computer-related disciplines, we need more great people. According to the theory of constraints if we try to solve other issues before we’ve dealt with this clear constraint we are wasting our effort. Today, we are statistically shorting this critical field of nearly 50% of the population’s intellect — this is unacceptable.

I do not claim to understand all the reasons for the disparity we face but I do know that solving it is crucial.