Powering the search for more women in tech

Powering the search for more women in tech

By Irina Raicu J.D. ’09

Photo by FJ Gaylor Photography
Internet ethicist Irina Raicu J.D. ’09 considers Google’s attempt to recruit more women engineers. The following op/ed first appeared in WSJ Marketwatch on June 14, 2013.

In the Q&A following a recent keynote address at Google’s developer conference (I/O 2013), CEO Larry Page made an unusual admission. He said that he and Sergey Brin had been working on a particular problem “forever.”

The intractable problem that even Google hasn’t been able to solve so far was the recruitment of women—a symptom of the underrepresentation of women in tech.

Page added that “the only answer is we have to start early and make sure we get more women and girls excited [about] technology.” For the leader of a company that prides itself on innovation, on the desire to solve big problems, on “disruption,” this seemed a particularly pat reply.

As engineering and programming become increasingly important, we can’t keep conceding those fields to one gender, or falling back on answers that have proven inadequate.

Even if we do get girls excited about technology, the reality is that the dropout rates among women engineers and programmers have remained high.

If you’ve been doing something “forever” and it still doesn’t work, you need to try something new, or refocus your efforts. How about encouraging Google’s engineers to spend 20 percent of their time researching and proposing solutions for this issue?

Willingness to learn from other countries might also help. For some reason, China, India, Russia, and Eastern European countries turn out much higher percentages of women engineers than the U.S. does—and they’ve been doing so for decades. (My mom and stepmom are both engineers—raised and educated in Romania; many of my women friends in Silicon Valley are engineers—raised and educated in Israel and India.)

What happens in those countries, which have such different cultures, economies, histories, and educational systems, that prompts women to become engineers? What are the incentives that keep those women in engineering? Can any of those practices be translated for the U.S.?

As Heather Kelly reports in a CNN article titled “Google’s Quest to Get More Women in Tech,” the Silicon Valley giant has indeed been making efforts to address this issue. The company offers a variety of internships, scholarships, and other programs directed at women engineers and programmers. And due to concerted effort, the percentage of women attendees at I/O 2013 reportedly rose into the teens (in contrast to previous years).

But Google had to import some of them: Kelly writes that Google invited “talented women in the field from around the world” to the conference.

Google also held a “social for female I/O attendees,” at which participants “were invited to meet their peers, enjoy some wine and food from the Google kitchen, and then break off into teams to create unique projects using littleBits and arts and crafts supplies.”

What would Ellen Ullman have made of that? A software engineer, Ullman recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “How to Be a ‘Woman Programmer’.” In it she writes about her passion for her work—her “deep need to probe the mysterious space between human thoughts and what a machine can understand; between human desires and how machines might satisfy them.”

She also writes about the rampant sexism that she encountered throughout her career, and says things have gotten worse. “We women found ourselves nearly alone,” she writes, “outsiders in a culture that was sometimes boyishly puerile, sometimes rigorously hierarchical, occasionally friendly and welcoming. This strange illness meanwhile left the female survivors with an odd glow that made them too visible, scrutinized too closely, held to higher standards.” Or perhaps invited to arts and crafts events just for them.

To be fair, Google’s I/O didn’t just include arts and crafts socials—it also offered on-site day care for attendees’ kids. And the social event was probably an effort to combat the phenomenon that Ullman describes, of women feeling few and far between in the male-dominated world of developers. The invitations that Google extended to women developers from around the globe may even be an acknowledgment of the national dimensions of the lack of women in tech. But increasing the visibility of such women is not enough.

As engineering and programming become increasingly important, we can’t keep conceding those fields to one gender, or falling back on answers that have proven inadequate.

It may not be Google’s responsibility to come up with a solution to what is likely a broad societal problem, but I believe that Page and Brin are sincere in their desire to “disrupt” this reality. Google’s leaders drive a hugely powerful engine of change.

Is their seriousness of purpose in this area commensurate with that power? Because we need a better search for a solution to the underrepresentation of women in tech.

Irina Raicu J.D. ’09 is manager of the Internet ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She has also written about the issues surrounding Internet tracking and Facebook “likes.”

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