Science and Technology Workplace, A Predominately Male Face

Two_women_operating_ENIAC.gifRecent studies suggest that fewer girls and women are pursuing, or staying in, careers in science and technology. Six years ago, 28 percent of the undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. That number, however, dropped to 22 percent in 2005 and now reportedly sits at 10 percent. At the same time, women in the technical community are increasingly leaving their jobs. A recent study published by the Harvard Business Review found that while women made up 41% of newly qualified technical staff, more than half dropped out by the time they reached their late thirties.

Surely, a variety of reasons contribute to the male dominance of science and technology fields. Some blame our “cultural software”: young girls are not taught to enjoy computers. As the director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology & Social Behavior Justine Cassell explains, “the girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were ‘boys toys’ and that true girls didn’t play with computers.” Others suggest that women leave computer science careers to stay at home, in much the same way that women do in any other careers.

But the Harvard Business Review study offers a less benign explanation for women’s departure from careers in computer science, one that arguably accords with our Internet culture: the majority of women working in science and technology leave their jobs for alternative careers or the home to avoid struggling with sexual harassment, the macho “lab coat culture,” and the old boys’ network that excluded them. Nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed for the study said that they had been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. A total of 43 percent of female engineers said that they had encountered an “inherently sexist culture” in which it was assumed that only men had the skills to succeed in the most advanced posts. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist at the Center for Work-Life Policy and author of the study, explained that although the “predatory” and “condescending culture” towards women has declined in most workplaces in the past 20 years, it has “survived in the engineering, science, and technology context.” This seems consistent with what commentators call the “culture of misogyny” that pervades many social networking sites, blogs, and other Web 2.0 platforms.

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8 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    This may be a result of what C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” Single-minded focus on science and tech can crowd out approaches to knowledge that cultivate empathy and fairness. As Martha Nussbaum has observed:

    “I’m getting more and more worried that we’re going to have nations of docile engineers who won’t know how to examine the claims of a political leader. [For example,] in India the state that has particularly gone down this road is the state of Gujarat, where kids for generations now have not learned much critical thinking and they’re stuffed with this rote learning, and that is the state that’s had the largest amount of religious violence. There’s not enough public criticism in the state of the leadership, although plenty of criticism from outside and national media. The education system is part of the problem.”

    Paul Heald has an interesting perspective:

    “I don’t accuse them of being misogynistic or evil, but the architects of the web were overwhelmingly men and they were outcasts of a sort, famed for their anti-social nature and devotion to the arcana of code. Bill Gates and Steven Jobs would make millions while they sat in their cubicles for days on end, stealing precious minutes to play in their virtual world. I don’t blame them for revolting, for conferring upon themselves and later comers the ability to take down the mighty with a few anonymous keystrokes. But there is no reason not to speak the truth, not to identify the profound ressentiment at the foundation for the architecture, now accepted as immutable, of the most powerful information resource known to humankind.”

    “Larry [Lessig] speaks of an identity layer that might be added to the web, the possibility to be pseudonymous, yet traceable in greatest need. Perhaps a layer of light will shine forth and scatter the ravening clusters of pale skulking creatures back into the darkest corners of our subconscious. Frodo’s ring must be thrown back into Mt. Doom.”

  2. Ace says:

    This seems like something that would be very easy for a market to correct. So easy that the hypothesis does not make sense. If a tech company were able to eliminate the sexual harassment issues, they should be able to hire female engineers, programmers etc. at a tremendous discount. It seems the “good guys” here would have a huge market advantage in retention of key employees.

    An all female firm would have huge competitive advantage over the market at large if they could guarantee to female employees (who must be equally talented in order for your hypothesis to hold true) that the types of issues that turned off women to the lab coat environment will not occur in their all-female firm.

    Why hasn’t the market corrected for this?

  3. Sean M. says:

    I am interested that you lumped “social networking sites, blogs, and other Web 2.0 platforms” together. I am willing to concede that women are treated poorly in the blogosphere, especially in the realm of political blogging.

    But do you feel that the same applies to social networking sites? Facebook, for instance, requires real names and often times faces are attached to those names. Indeed, Facebook seems to be a haven for females who like sharing pictures and albums that would have to be created in person. I am willing to admit there is evidence that females are mistreated on social networking sites like they are on blogs (for instance, I know little about how women are treated on MySpace). But I’d like to know what it is.

  4. Danielle Citron says:

    Thanks for all of your comments. Consider AutoAdmit, JuicyCampus, and the chan sites, all arguably networking sites that operate with anonymity in mind and have brought together groups that attack women. Facebook is superb about privacy and other problems so I was in no way lumping them into that category.

  5. Ace: The market won’t solve problems of discrimination if the side of the bargain with a taste for discrimination (in this case, male programmers) both has more leverage and is willing to “pay” for the privilege of not just discriminating, but maintaining a discriminatory hierarchy.

    Imagine a computer company that wants to do gender integration and eliminate sexual harassment. In theory, it should do great — it’s getting all these female techies that other companies are pushing away. But that assumes that it doesn’t lose male workers who value the pre-existing culture. If the male workers have more bargaining power (more seniority, greater numbers, etc.), then they’ll win that battle.

    The all-woman company might duck out of that a little, but it runs into problems of its own: both in terms of high startup costs and in its interactions with other computing companies which are presumably still steeped in the old culture.

  6. Jack T says:

    Anyone advocating censorship should be ashamed of herself.

  7. FYI – the incident you cite above did not happen as was widely reported.

    See my column: