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Women and Girls in Technology: Ice Station Zebra

April 23, 2013 3 comments

I recently completed a volunteer project called Technovation Challenge that aims to “inspire girls to become creators and innovators” by mentoring them to create mobile app companies. I’d like to share a little bit about the experience because it was great for the students, inspirational for me and it’s critical for the hi-tech industry going forward.

I’ll preface this with a confession, using the term “girls” makes me feel politically incorrect, but that’s the Technovation terminology and, as you’ll see, aiming young is important. The story begins with Joythi, a concerned parent who organized an extracurricular course of study for students who were disbanded when our young women’s STEM school was closed. Joythi chose Technovation as one of the activities and asked a friend (Shannon) to form and lead a mentoring team to coach the kids (ages 13-16) through a 12-week program that concluded with an international competition for $10,000 in seed funding.

PDX Team

PDX Team

Perhaps you’ve heard that “kids today have a sense of entitlement” and “they won’t go the extra mile.” I didn’t see that with our students. Portland State University donated a computer lab, which was fitting, because I’d rate the time commitment and pace equal to a university course. The program included concept, design, market research, competitive analysis, programming, planning and the all-important funding pitch. Each student brought something special to her team. There were some great programmers and writers, an artistic type doing PowerPoint images, a spreadsheet wizard rolling the numbers and a future product manager who authored an amazing competitive matrix. They did it all and created a prototype mobile app to help high school students graduate: Graduaide. I’d tell you more, but the team can do it better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Prsz9oHFpx4

Why is this important? Let’s start with the team. Their confidence shouts out in the video. And they really earned that feeling. They learned a lot about hi-tech and themselves. They believe in themselves and that’s important for middle school students. But I didn’t just see what the Portland team produced. I also judged entries from Canada, UK, Ukraine, Jordan and India. They were great. For me, working with an almost entirely female team was really educational. I expected that, but was still surprised at the extent to which I feel better prepared to address gender in the workplace as a result.

But why is this important to our industry? Gender inequity in hi-tech is pretty well documented, so I’ll just summarize it like this. The hi-tech workplace is predominantly male (~70%) and the bias is even stronger in areas like programming. Put simply, it becomes more pronounced as rewards increase and it’s been getting worse. When I graduated from university, women were earning close to 40% of the computer science degrees, but today, it’s less than 20%. What happened? I believe men created an environment that’s suited to men; and it’s driving 50% of the population away. How can that be healthy or smart business?

Diversity is important for many reasons but here’s the bottom-line: your company will be more successful if your employees reflect the demographics of your market. So we’re not just being unfair, we’re leaving money on the table – all of us. I’ve led several development sites with 20+ programmers but no women and I call this phenomenon “Ice Station Zebra”. That’s a reference a classic cold-war thriller with the peculiar distinction of an all-male cast. That’s where we are today: Ice Station Zebra. Of course I’m an optimist and believe smart ideas win in the long term. So I believe gender equity in hi-tech will happen, but I don’t think it’s enough to be “gender-blind” today because I don’t believe we can wait for this problem to solve itself. So here are some recommendations you can act on today.

First, when opening a job requisition, insist that your recruiter present qualified female candidates before interviews begin. Perhaps you didn’t know you could do that? Well you can, and you’ll get no argument from HR. They know there’s a problem and will be glad that you see it too. Second, walk a mile in their shoes. You’re not going to learn much about hi-tech gender issues from a room full of guys. Third, address the problem at the root and that means promoting hi-tech careers as an option for women and girls. The first two suggestions won’t move the needle if we cannot improve the entry rate. Volunteering for the PDX Technovation Challenge was a great experience because it helped me understand gender in the workplace and it promoted hi-tech with young women. Change will happen. Where do you want to be when it does and what will you do about it now?

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