The gender debate has been going on for years across all walks of life, but recently there seems to have been an increase in focus on gender disparity in the tech and science industries. Yahoo’s appointing of Marissa Mayer as CEO, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement and the rise of groups like Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code to encourage and increase the numbers of female programmers and STEM majors have pushed the issue further into the limelight.
This is a great thing.
Gender disparity is an issue that needs to be addressed. More than that, it needs to be leaned on and poked at constantly until we can achieve some momentum that pushes us towards a more equal situation within these industries.
Unfortunately, we’re going about it all wrong.
In the process of bringing the issue to light, we’re falling into a pattern of complaining and calling out ‘offenders’ on a far-too-regular basis. Though we’re not without good intentions for the most part, this negative, reactive behavior is not pushing us forward.
The power of encouragement
I want to tell you a story. It’s an amazing tale of how surprisingly easy it can be to reduce the performance gap between genders:
Akira Miyake, a researcher at the University of Colorado, conducted an experiment that had previously shown impressive results in improving the performance of black students. He applied the process to 399 physics students to see if the performance gap between male and female students could be reduced.
The experiment sees students spending 15 minutes on a writing exercise at the beginning of the school year. Students are asked to choose from a list of values and write about either:
1. The value that is most important to them and why
2. The value that is least important to them and why other people might care about it
For the students who focused on personal values they cared deeply about, the result was a boost to their self-esteem and an increase in their performance—especially for those who had previously been the weakest performers.
In fact, the exam results at the end of the year showed that the gender gap was almost closed. In a standard test called the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), which tests understanding of basic physics concepts, the female students actually outperformed the male students.
Akira’s results show a phenomenal decrease in performance disparity between male and female students, simply from a 15-minute writing exercise.
Negativity doesn’t motivate
The students in Akira’s class weren’t subjected to reminders of performance problems or common gaps between the genders which can lead to poor performance.
That probably seems like an obvious requirement but reminders can come in surprisingly subtle forms, such as having a student list their race or gender at the beginning of an exam. This is known as stereotype threat, and has been shown to lead to poor performance as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Being told that female students fair poorly in STEM subjects, or that the tech industry is lacking in female programmers, for instance, can reinforce those beliefs within women’s minds, leading them to confirm those stereotypes themselves.
Recent posts on the problems of gender inequality in the tech and science fields have continued to reinforce the idea that women are subordinate to men. Not intentionally, I’m sure, as most of these examples are trying to encourage women to take up technology and science careers and fight for equal opportunities, but sadly the negative ideas keep being reinforced.
Sheryl Sandberg, for one, consistently reminds us of the stereotypes women are forced to work against, and the struggle for women to be taken seriously in roles of power during interviews and public appearances to promote her book, Lean In.
For instance, this quote from Upstart:
“Stereotypes remain a huge limiting factor for women, who are often seen as ”too aggressive“ when they succeed, Sandberg said. ”As men get powerful and successful, everyone likes them better.”
But when women achieve success, “everyone likes them worse,”
And from BBC News:
“(T)he way boys and girls are raised is still creating a situation where men and women are judged differently in the workplace. A powerful man will be viewed as a “great guy” whereas a powerful woman will be thought of as “political”.
She even went so far as to say “Men still run the world.”
Just see how many women read quotes like that and walk away feeling empowered and ready to take on the tech industry.
Sheryl’s not the only one pointing out the problems for women in tech, though. John Harthorne explains the issues succinctly in his piece at Cognoscenti:
“The absence of women in the startup space is not news to anyone. Nor are the endless — and varied, and even contradictory — alleged roots of the problem. They go like this: women don’t excel in, or are not pushed to pursue, STEM subjects and computer science at school. Women lack entrepreneurial role models and have trouble finding mentors. Women are less ambitious, less confident, or more risk-averse than their male counterparts. Women face the demands of raising a family and balancing commitments at home and work. Women are victims of a system consciously or unconsciously biased against them.”
Thankfully, John goes on to offer some solutions:
“We need to assume three responsibilities to involve more women in the startup world: we must inspire, showcase, and support women in entrepreneurship.”
Rae Hoffman also has some snappy advice for avoiding the negativity:
“Well, here’s what I think. First off, women should stop reading publications that tell them that they’re lesser than their male counterparts.”
When it comes to panels at tech conferences, the number of women included is a particularly contentious issue. Rebecca J. Rosen’s suggestion that men take a pledge to appear only on panels that include at least one female speaker again reinforced the idea that women are underrepresented in this area. In fact, in pointing out that it’s unlikely no women are qualified for these panels, and yet there are still no women appearing on them, Rebecca is reinforcing the idea that this is an unfair and unexplainable issue for women to fight against:
“But if you, like I do, reject the idea that there are no women qualified enough for the vast, vast majority of panels, then you have to ask why so many panels don’t have any women on them. My belief is that for whatever reason men who are organizing panels are inclined to think of the names of … wait for it … other men.”
It might sound like I’m suggesting we bury our heads in the sand, but that’s not what I’m saying at all. These issues are important. They need solutions. They need discussion and action and awareness. Bringing them up over and over certainly contributes to awareness, and may even push some people towards discussion and action.
The sad thing is the effect of repeating these issues on those people who are already affected by the issues themselves, i.e. women who are struggling for equality in the tech and science industries. Hearing that this is a problem, that their field isn’t fair, that men are not including them in the industry the way they should… these negative sentiments are being drilled into the minds of people who could actually change this for the better.
Increasing positivity is a better solution
Remember that 15-minute writing exercise I talked about earlier? The takeaway from that story is that the writing exercise improved the students’ opinions of themselves, by reinforcing their values. The students’ opinions of themselves and their ability to perform were increased.
Unlike reinforcing or reminding the female students of the gaps that already exist, or the likelihood of them performing worse than their male counterparts (which was statistically high), this experiment focused on what they already valued in themselves and why they could achieve high results.
Positive encouragement and reinforcement of values and ideals can make a huge difference, particularly for low performers. This is the kind of thing we need to see, not only in tech and science now, but in schools and coding clubs and college internships. This is the kind of encouragement that will build up a girl’s self-esteem and improve her performance before she gets into the industry and is face-to-face with discrimination and ugly stereotypes.
What we can do right now
Like I said, let’s not bury our heads in the sand. Let’s not ignore the issues or stop calling them out.
But there is more we can do. We can actually make a difference, rather than being satisfied with ranting on Twitter or in a blog post from the comfort of our armchairs.
Let’s get uncomfortable and make a change.
1. Turn up the positivity
There are great examples all around us already:
- Courtney Stanton pulled off a 50/50 gender split in panel speakers at her No Show Conference.
- Inspired by her approach, the organizers of JSConf EU put together a panel with 25% female speakers.
- Candy Ku’s reflections on the 2011 Triple Helix International Conference pointed out methods for decreasing the gender gap, like educating gatekeepers in the STEM fields and incentivizing companies to achieve gender equality within their teams.
2. Enforce values
The writing exercise used at the University of Colorado worked because it reinforced strong beliefs the students already had about themselves. With a little encouragement, these beliefs were brought to the forefront of their minds and boosted their self-confidence, which in turn enabled them to perform better.
With a heavier focus on values and increasing the self-esteem of girls going into STEM fields (or women already in those fields), we can build their confidence and help them to close the divide between gender performance in tech and science.
Change is Possible
The more positive action and discussion we see, the more we can reflect and multiply that positivity. So how about this for a pledge: no more complaining. No more ‘calling people out’ for making mistakes unless we’re offering to help them fix it. No more negativity for the sake of it.
But bring on the positive encouragement, because we can never get enough of that.