CANDACE FLEMING’S résumé boasts a double major in industrial engineering and English from Stanford, an M.B.A. from Harvard, a management position at Hewlett-Packard and experience as president of a small software company.
But when she was raising money for Crimson Hexagon, a start-up company she co-founded in 2007, she recalls one venture capitalist telling her that it didn’t matter that she didn’t have business cards, because all they would say was “Mom.”
It's shocking to read this clearly sexist account in the NY Times' article because we don't hear about it happening in a professional setting (although it still makes for a racy opening for a Coding/Founding Damsels in Distress article). But deeper discrimination than soundbytes on the venture capitalist circuit are preventing women from entering the tech industry in vast numbers. Lemme break it down for you using the beloved If-Then Transitive Property.
Assumption 1: If you work in tech, then you don't like people.
p = "You work in tech"
q = "You don't like people"
Bear with me, my close and very social technical peers, and consider this statement for the industry at large and not just the recent web movement.
If you majored in CS, chances are that one of your classmates switched majors to something less technical, and cited "I'm a people person" as their reason for switching. If you didn't major in CS, you probably have an anecdotal story about the Math or Engineering Club as the collection of the most socially awkward kids in school. Movies have historically overemphasized the nerd nature of anyone remotely technical. Only in more recent movies has technology been used by all types of people in a natural and ubiquitous rather than character-foiling way.
The statement is the most true for newcomers considering a career in the industry, or to those just getting started.
Assumption 2: If you don't like people, then you are not a woman.
q = "You don't like people"
r = "You are not a woman"
Try to refute this statement. Think it through. You're tapping your chin, thinking..thinking....No1. All women in American Society are fundamentally raised to like other people2. Women maintain kinships in our society: we plan birthday parties, send thank you and get well cards, organize family get-togethers with our mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, plan for Sweet Sixteen parties or humongous expensive weddings from a very early age, etc. Think of the last time you received a legitimate, personal thank-you card from a guy. (I only received one in my whole life, and even though it was just a simple email, it was AWESOME. I told all my friends about it the next day.)
Riddle me this: when you think about the most challenging "people jobs" (and by this, I mean a job that might require the best People Skills), you can't help but draw conclusions about the gender disparities in these industries. Social workers, care takers, teachers, nurses, and even doctors are on this list as an up-and-coming female profession. Religious Leaders also belong on this list but women do 90% of the community fellowship in that job: organizing the nice post-service chat over coffee, an easter-egg hunt for children, TupperWare party in the Narthex, whatever.
Alright, lady confession time: we don't do all of these things because we actually like people. I don't think most women want to invite hundreds of guests to their wedding, or really have some relatives over for Thanksgiving. The truth is that women have to act personable or they won't fit in with the rest of society, and that is the saddest and most sexist part of this whole equation. The word personable is defined as "pleasant or amiable in person; attractive" -- they might as well define it as the Expectation for American Females! This is true for girls, teenagers, young women, middle aged women, and all the way up to elderly women: if you do not like people, or at least make an honest attempt to get along with other people, then you are not a woman. And the need to fit in applies all over the place to young women -- just look at Justin Bieber's popularity.3
if (p → q) and
if (q → r), then
(p → r).
If you work in tech, you are not a woman.
And the logic in this equation hinges directly on how we perceive the tech industry, not our societal understanding of women. Notice that my argument that women's need to fit in with their peers is pretty damn strong, while our perception of an industry of geeky introverts is obviously flawed and short-lived. Honestly, if you think it would be easier to turn an entire culture that relegates women to be the caregivers, I'm all ears.
A scenario to test this theory: put yourself in a freshman CS major's shoes. She calls (who else?) another woman (her mother, aunt, sister, best friend, whatever) to talk about her tough classes and her college experience. What would a kin say to a young woman whom she just wants to be happy? Some might say "Honey, why don't you study what you like and feel comfortable in?"; others might say "Go out there and kick some ass, honey!", but I'd say it is a rare woman, indeed, that doesn't reinforce female expectations of acceptance among their peers.4
Women will always be in Candace Fleming's shoes, and even on forefront of success, some still be able to side with the venture capitalist's point of view. He probably thought he was doing her a favor by giving her a heads up that she looks too Mommish to be taken seriously because, fundamentally, if you work in tech, then you aren't a woman. A business woman, maybe, but a technical person? People probably ask Candace that all the time, since it just seems illogical that a people-person would ever choose a career in technology.
And one day, after years of one-sided kinship through blogging and a renewed, improved image of Hollywood/propaganda geekery attracts enough women to say "Hey, I like the difference this industry could make, and my critics are more accepting of this career choice", a few more will join. Then a LOT more will join. Then so many will join that I'll have to rethink the scalability of mailing my kinship-building "Happy Owlidays (with a picture of an owl) holiday cards. And that's a problem that I would like to try solving.
1 Okay, nice try, but "The Cat Lady"? Do you really
consider her a part of American society? If you know one personally,
and you get along with them or have tea with them on some afternoons,
then I bet that lady fundamentally likes you. Or she might really
connect with a great online cat community.
2 What about that beautiful, tormented character from that gratuitously violent movie you saw a few years ago or whatevs? Again, this woman is not a part of American society. The woman that you see on cop dramas kickin' ass by day or solving murder crimes is, actually, a part of society because she likes people. She's talks to lots of her coworkers and her teammates about evidence and precedence and they come up with a solution to take down the bad guy.
3 People wonder why preteens love him, but I totally get it: he looks like the boy-version of the prettiest girl in school. Girls want to popular, and they want to be normal and have crushes on boys, so Bieb is the lowest barrier to entry. Do you know what men like George Clooney must look like to preteens? Their dads.
4 No, I never had this talk with my mom in college. She preferred to hear about my sorority!