Fast Company

Why Girls Don't Want Careers In Tech

This week I was lucky enough collect an award at Red Magazine's Hot Women Awards 2011, which celebrates successful women in industry. What made the experience all the more rewarding was being able to spend some time with a group of women at the top of their fields. We even got to shake hands with Sam Cam.

I was particularly pleased to chat to two women who are leading the charge for female technology innovators everywhere: Cary Marsh, who founded MyDeo, and Kate Burns, the outgoing Senior Vice-President of AOL Europe and former head of Google U.K. Both are smart, impressive women who have trail-blazed their way to the very top of the tech industry and should serve as inspiration to all aspiring Lady Geeks out there.

Yet while their progress is heartening, it only puts into perspective the uphill struggle women face in an industry where only 18% of employees are female. The passing of Steve Jobs last month made me wonder how long it will be before a woman reaches the same exulted status. Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Page, Brin, and Bezos: All the technology giants of recent years are men.

Of course questions need to be asked as to what the industry needs to address the imbalance, and first instinct is to assume that, like many things, it's merely too used to being one big boys club. But I believe the problem goes deeper than that.

These days just as many women as men count themselves as tech users (see my previous posts) and teenage girls and teenage boys have almost identical Internet usage statistics. Yet when it comes to careers, boys are five times more likely to go into technology. Why is this? At what point are we losing our girl geeks to other industries?

The problem is largely one of perception. Girls tend to want careers that lean toward what they deem as "creative"--advertising, PR, and publishing all remain popular choices. Why should they take an interest in tech when all that's on offer for a teenager is a choice between an Information Technology class (spreadsheets, databases, PowerPoints, zzzzzsorry what were you saying?) and a games console (made by boys, played by boys)? It's seen as nerdy, dull and--dare I say it--male.

Frustratingly, those of us in the tech world know that it can be one of the most creative places a person can work. Instead of boring them to death, we should be introducing our young women to exciting cutting-edge skills like coding, software development, and games design at an early age and showing them that a career in technology is more about creating and building than it is about number crunching. Only then will we start to see a much needed influx of bright young women in the industry.

Until there is a real overhaul of the relationship between tech and women from childhood on up, then the Carys and Kates of this world will remain an endangered species. There is a huge opportunity to make sure our daughters and young girls are creators and leaders of technology as well as consumers.

Slideshow: The Birth Of An Idea

Fast Company asked six of the most creative ad agencies in the world to rebrand baby girls. Their mock campaigns recast girls as the No. 1 choice for consumers from China to the U.S.

Related articles:
Louis C.K.: The Next Steve Jobs Will Be A Chick
The Case For Girls

Belinda Parmar is the founder of Lady Geek TV. Please join the Lady Geek campaign to end the stereotypes and cliches towards women in tech and Like us on Facebook

[Image: Joana Pereira]

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20 Comments

  • John McGregor

    When technology is discussed, it often appears in terms of the internet, IT, etc.  I admit this may be a broad statement.  But seldom is there mention of Biotechnology, Molecular Genetics, etc.  Anecdotal evidence suggest that these are areas of technology that appear to be of equal appeal to both genders. 

  • CindyF Solomon

    Belinda - Indeed! "those of us in the tech world know that it can be one of the most creative places a person can work. Instead of boring them to death, we should be introducing our young women to exciting cutting-edge skills like coding, software development, and games design at an early age and showing them that a career in technology is more about creating and building than it is about number crunching. Only then will we start to see a much needed influx of bright young women in the industry."

    The tech world has focused on the features of the products, which are not inherently interesting to other side brained people.  However, how the products are used, how they impact the quality of life, how they make a difference in shaping the way we think, work, live, communicate with others, join groups and care for our children - these are things that are appealing, exciting and where differing perspectives can have an impact.

    There are now opportunities to study, for example Human/Computer Interaction, Innovation Design and Collective Intelligence; design thinking is a much needed, exciting and open field to have products designed from inception building in how they will be used and how they will contribute to/or inhibit future innovation and global quality of life.

    My children grew up sitting on our laps in front of computers in our home even before Windows & WWW! They were groomed to be coders and techies, to follow in their parents' footsteps - we even moved to Silicon Valley to guarantee their immersion....LOL! What are they studying now? Film making, graphic design, and maybe nano-technology - remains to be seen -but they all have embraced creative artistic expression rather than technology engineering - which baffled me as they have math & engineering in their DNA! They tell me that they are indeed following in their parents' footsteps - they always saw us being creative - and it was not the computer tech toys that were compelling - it was what we produced and how we collaborated that was intriguing...the destination the technology enables is more important than how it works.

    Let all children know that they can shape the future and write their own ticket by studying tech and that math is fun - seriously, see for yourself with videos by Vi Hart who visually shares her passion for Math concepts on YouTube http://bit.ly/tYG2Ly 

  • cathy arroyo

    I want to take a look at this over the perspective of the last 30 years.  I am a retired electrical engineer.  I am female.  Why did I choose a technology field?  In 1977, I was a dissatisfied fashion model looking for extra income and talked to a Navy recruiter about the Reserves.  When I took the entry test, he said I scored very high and could do anything.  I selected Nuclear Tech (no - sorry shipboard only rate "girls" not allowed).  I selected Gunner's Mate (no - sorry shipboard only rate "girls" not allowed).  I asked if I could do anything then why was I limited.  He kindly placed his arm around me and walked me over to a poster that listed all the Navy rates (jobs) and said "Girls usually select Personnelman, Yeoman (secretary), or Navy Corpsman".  I asked him to cross out all the rates I couldn't do because of my gender, took the poster and crossed out the girly rates (truly out of anger) and threw a dart that hit Electronics Technician.  The end result was a 6 year full-time (not reserve) enlistment to get into this heavily desired field to prove a point.  Sounds sort of silly, doesn't it.  About 5% of the students in the year long school were female,  I became one of the only women instructors at the school at that timeframe, and finished my 6 years in the Navy - finally shipboard.  I got out of the Navy, went to college and received my EE degree in 1987.  I took the Professional Engineer's exam and joined the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE).  I watched as women went from being a marginalized engineering minority in the workplace to a fully integrated part of the engineering workforce (in EE and computer science - but not so much in Mechanical Engineering).  NSPE has a week dedicated to bringing the field of engineering to the youth through the Engineer's Week program.  Any engineer can ask for a packet and take the initiative to work with a local school to bring engineering into the classroom.  I did this at my daughter's school from 1st grade through 8th grade.  As much as I tried to get the company to drive this program or other engineer's involved - it was a waste of time.  Teacher's welcomed it, but the company did not think an investment in the time and resources to inspire a pool of potential local talent was important although they supported my efforts.  The girls in the classes were as interested as the boys in what I presented.  Being female, I was a role model.  But there was nothing available in the curriculum to continue to interest them.  One later came to my company as a college engineering intern and told me it was my regular annual visits to the school that sent her to engineering school when all her friends took "traditional" routes.  It was cultural then - it is cultural now.  The tide is changing every so slowly because there is no other option given the power of social media and gaming and the influence in our daily lives of the exponential growth of technology.  But society has not made a conscious effort to provide girls with the options they have as adults at an early age. 

  • Holly Kolman

    Belinda, thank you for raising this topic.

    "Until there is a real overhaul of the relationship between tech and women from childhood on up" hits the nail on the head. In a recent parent-teacher conference, I learned from a female teacher who was a math major in college that American boys and girls have similar abilities in math until about the fifth grade. Then, boys and girls' paths tend to diverge, and a lot of girls lose confidence in their ability to do higher math and science. I didn't want to post here without some facts to back that up, so I did some research and found evidence from empirical studies by Harvard as well as an entire section of the Girl Scouts' website devoted to this topic. (You'll find it under "Mix it Up.")

    I believe in a world where technological advances (including medical advances) are skewed masculine with everything from an over-representation of violence-based video games to women dying during heart surgery because the instruments are the wrong size means women's priorities are being underrepresented, and that makes sense because people tend to develop things that are of interest to themselves. If that's going to change, it needs to change in fifth grade.

    One encouraging development is the number of tech-savvy women represented on social media. It has removed the stigma of being a female geek and raised it to "badge of honor" status. I am also encouraged to see the number of women who are early adopters of mobile technology. Mobile Brain Bank, based in Finland in response to the loss of mobile developer jobs, was started by a woman (Petra Soderling) and there are two university teachers who are also game developers that come to mind (Kimberly Unger and Jeannie Novak). Of course there are more, but they are still the exceptions and not the rule.

    Kind Regards,
    Holly Kolman
    @mobileHolly on Twitter

  • Dr Who

    You invite comments, but you aren't going to like this one. I'm sorry but I find this article total whining drivel. Women are just as good as men at almost everything. Sure there are some physiological and mental (left/right brain) advantages that one has over the other depending on vocational circumstances, but women are not discouraged about going into IT, they generally don't WANT to. It doesn't appeal to them as much as other vocations.
    When they want to enter the field, and when they want to excel, women generally can, just as men generally can. The women you met were exceptional achievers, demonstrating that women can do it if they want to get to the top. And it isn't easy no matter what sex you are. Few men get to the positions that those ladies have achieved.The Bill Gates' of this world conceived of an idea, and then worked really hard and totally dedicated their lives to their businesses and achieved fame and fortune, whilst millions upon millions of other men and women fell by the wayside. You don't get to be a billionaire just because you're a woman, nor should you. And yet there are billionaire women, many self-made.The pervading idiocy in this country whereby an industry is somehow obliged to have an equal number of males and females is no doubt one of the myriad of reasons our nation is bankrupt. If a woman wants to achieve she is more than capable of doing so in her chosen field. Sometimes there are prejudices and stumbling blocks.Wake up, it's the same for the men but the men don't whine about it like we do. By writing articles like this you are denigrating women by saying we are less capable and therefore should be helped, when in fact there are many industries where women enjoy a natural advantage. Fast Company should take this sort of sexism out of their business. Many of us are sick to death of listening to people complaining about their lives, while others in the world aren't even able to get food each day. Get over it.And yes, if you didn't figure it out, I'm a woman in the IT field. I am unlikely to make it to the status of Bill Gates, but it ISN'T because I'm a woman. It's because I have the ability to bear children and sorry, I LIKE that ability. Bill doesn't have it, perhaps he should be complaining in the forums about how disadvantaged his is?TL

  • MelB

    Um, you stated the same thing the article did. That is what this is about, girl's not *wanting* to be in this field because girls, generally, are unaware of what the field truly entails career-wise.

    Did you even read the article?  It says nothing about a woman being rich for being a woman, or getting something handed to her.  It simply says that the issue of women not growing up to fully understand what is generally known to be a "male" field of work.

    It isn't a complaint about women being less able at all, simply less informed.  I suggest reading the article better next time.

  • Newshound

    Yes there is a disparity of women in science and technology....but it seems far more pervasive in Western culture.  Find a woman in a tech job in the USA and 9 times out 10 she's Asian or Indian.  Maybe the better approach to the question might be what careers do white see as beneath them, and perhaps do males opt for technical positions in absence of disappearing skilled trades positions.

  • Linda

    You couldn't KEEP me away from the computer lab growing up. Seriously, I got saturday detentions for skipping gym to go program. Oh, and I'm a girl. There are plenty of us out there. 

  • Elena Yatzeck

    I like your take on the appeal of a "creative" job for young women.  We've been talking about this issue a lot at my company, ThoughtWorks, where we're lucky enough to have a whole initiative around hiring more women into our IT consultancy/delivery firm.  Things we've found out so far:

    - Girls, like everyone else, look for role models.  Women, however, are less likely to publicize themselves than men, and so we get a bit of a vicious cycle where we don't have a lot of role models out there, and we don't know about the ones we have.  It's hard to progress this way, when every girl has to reinvent the wheel, but every boy has dozens of tech heroes to choose from.  So as a first step, we're looking to our women to step up, make themselves known, be out there blogging and speaking, and make names for themselves.

    - Girls, like everyone else, look for work they will enjoy.  This is more important than whether they played with trucks or Barbies as children.  Again, a crucial step in attracting girls to technology jobs is to communicate what those jobs entail and give girls a chance to enjoy the "solving a logic problem" or "working collaboratively with other smart people" experience that will speak to them more loudly than vague stereotypes.

    - Girls, like everyone else, want to be achievers.  Today's young women can and should take advantage of their minority status in the tech world to get good at science, math, engineering, and technology, and make those skills differentiators for themselves when applying to college and for jobs.  The gap itself provides an opening for women if they'll take it.

    If you'll pardon the cross-post, I talk about this a little more in my blog.  Thanks again for the thought-provoking article!  http://pagilista.blogspot.com/...

  • risatrix

    I'm a female designer/developer and the problem isn't just what girls think. l know programming is creative -- but I'm not most sure *guys* (and they are mostly guys, still) want to use that word or the associated "artsy" words. That's the flip side of the argument you're making, that boys are drawn towards "important" (or whatever) professions, and men are very invested in the objective (or "rational" as the commenter puts it) nature of the profession. Furthermore, during the hiring process, HR people often don't understand the combination of art and science, and definitely present it more as the latter. So can you blame girls for having this perception if it's exactly what the industry is putting out on some level?
    To be honest, I'm seriously considering moving more towards advertising, where people do the exact same thing I'm doing and yet are called "art director." It's not because I care about the title, nor do I care if you call the job "creative" or not. But I'm tired of having discussions where people look at me funny if I don't stick to the pre-defined notions of how important and "innovative" (I believe that's the preferred term instead of "creative") we're all being.

    I agree that we should be introducing girls to tech at a young age, but the problem isn't just about what anyone knows, it's about self-perception and -presentation. And that's some deeply gendered shizzle.

  • Robin Keef

    I agree with the blogger. It is not that girls don't want to go into technology, it is that from an early age, they are encouraged to choose a more "female-friendly" path. This occurs in schools everywhere. Add to that the lack of visibility that women rock stars of the tech world receive, they have few role models to emulate. My daughters go to an all girls school in Chattanooga, Tennessee that has made a concerted effort to buck these trends. The school wisely chose to beef up it's focus on STEM curriculum years ago as it saw the trends in career opportunity rise in science, technology, engineering and medicine. As a result, 40% of graduates at this school choose a STEM major versus 7% of girls nationwide. I would love to see you and the companies such as those of the women you discussed take an interest in this school's success. Mentoring these girls before college and encouraging these pursuits early is the only way to reverse the trend you discussed. 

  • Frau_Feli

    I agree to the point that a lot of females are just not thaaat interested into working in tech.
    And I think, that is ok. 
    A lot of men don't work as a ballet dancer. Nobody minds that...

  • Jen W

    As a young female I agree with the point about women being more drawn to creative careers made above, but I'd also like to float an idea: Girls don't want tech careers because they are more attracted to defined paths at a young age than boys are.

    Women are more readily becoming entrepreneurial and seeking out positions with early stage tech startups, but at the high school/ college age, most (including the highly driven) are simply more focused on earning their degree and a spot in grad school/ job at a consulting or i-banking firm/ teaching position/ joining a volunteer corps, etc. than they are in building something completely new that they own. 

    Conversely, guys at a similar age often like to tinker, create and build their own thing. Even as a side project.  I can't tell you about a single high-achieving guy friend of mine who doesn't dream of succeeding by society's standard definitions, then going out and doing something even bigger on his own. Each of these young gentlemen has done some sort of sidework on his own (website building, computer building, drawing up business plans, running micro businesses, film editing, etc.) and has at least a skill set to launch from later.  

    This divergence becomes a positive feedback loop in hiring where tech firms love hackers, and guys love hacking. Guys are hired based on experience they already have hacking. Girls don't engage in this same type of creativity and are drawn to paths they have more experience in without ever considering tech beyond maybe marketing, social media management, or sales. Without female creative tech builder role models to identify with, a tech career never crosses a young woman's mind, whereas a definitive goal like admission to medical or law school "makes sense."

    And let's not forget industry image. I don't need to repeat cliché stereotypes here, but they do impact how girls and young women consider different industries and careers.

  • Ben J

    So is the title "Why Girls Don't Want Careers in Technology", or as the URL & content suggests, "Why Don't Girls Want Careers in Technology?"

  • Phil Williams

    I agree with your hypothesis that girls don't want careers in tech. Where we diverge is your assumption that it's a problem.
    Careers in technology do lean toward the rational process thinking part of the mind. And while often creative, they can also have a huge degree of tedium. Some women may exceed their male counterparts in their ability at these tasks. But if they don't want to, why is that a problem? If someone wants to be an interior designer or a pediatrician, why force her into tech?Is it because tech is changing what it means to live (clue: it is)... so we need more women having influence? Not remotely. With great tech companies like Apple creating products loved equally by both genders, and female gaming rising in double digit percentages, there's no urgent clarion call for more female input.Or are you saying it's because the guys in tech make all the cash? That would be a cynical sell. They'd be better off in investment banking.I think the author makes the mistake here of assuming everyone in her gender shares her likes and ambitions. Choosing a life career can be about ambition, but for many, it's more about what makes them happy in the day.There are differences in gender all over the place. Job selection is hugely influenced by our chromosomes.To riff on Louis C.K's article title above... The next Steve Jobs won't be a chick... and that doesn't matter at all. The next chick in the news will be a great Architect. Or a Senator. There's a job calling that is crying out for representation... our representatives. That really is a problem.

  • Frank Markow

    Carly & Meg made it pretty high up the tech world (or don't they count because they are Republicans... : )

  • Ray Porter

    Carly & Meg were managers (finance, mgmt, and economics backgrounds), not "creatives" of the tech world (like Jobs, Gates, Bezos, etc.).

  • Erin Schulte

    Frank--I don't think it's a matter of politics as much as it is a matter of geography; the author is based in the U.K.