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Thursday, September 15, 2011

What do women (in technology) want?

I have the honor of serving on the ThoughtWorks North America "Women's Networking Board," WNB, which focuses on bringing more women into our company, particularly as developers, and supporting them well once they join us.  ThoughtWorks isn't alone in thinking about this issue.  The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has sponsored research on "Gender in Science and Engineering" (GSE) for more than a decade, and a google search on "women in STEM" (that's "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics") provides a large number of useful responses before it devolves into pyramid schemes and pornography.  As all searches tend to do.

As part of my WNB duties, I've been interviewing my female colleagues on what motivates them to work at ThoughtWorks, and what they would like to see the company do to attract more women.  These conversations have been fascinating.  As an academic I once knew liked to say, "facts are friendly."  (He was a high-functioning psychopath, sadly, but I still like the quote).

Here are some preliminary insights I've gotten into the "STEM problem" from asking actual women about technology:
Agile software development is more social than most other methodologies.  I don't want to generalize that women are more social than men, but many women are repelled by the idea of working in a basement filled with black vinyl chairs, pervasive oversized gaming headsets, the stink of ancient sweat socks, and companions who grunt as their primary mode of verbal communication.  Companies (like ThoughtWorks) who do agile software development using small teams gathered around tables, encourage paired programming (and pairing of BAs, Devs, and Testers), often with access to daylight and herbal tea, should make themselves known to the female audience.
Companies who are trying to hire more women developers should advertise that fact.  It is empirically true that there are organizations out there where no sane person would want to be a woman developer, due to a pervasive misogynistic culture.  But there are plenty of companies (like, well, ThoughtWorks) who are NOT like that.  They too should make themselves known to women.  Women, like other people, respond well to a positive invitation.  Companies can differentiate themselves in the market by appealing directly to the female audience by reaching out to self-identified organizations such as the annual Grace Hopper CelebrationWomen in Technology International or Women 2.0.  
You can appeal to would-be female STEM-ers even at the high school level, if you are a company that is woman-positive and you offer agile development opportunities.  I tested this empirically over the past months by trying different appeals to a young woman of my acquaintance who is taking two hours of AP calculus and one of AP Chemistry per day--as a high school junior--and who tells me she "hates science" and "doesn't want to be a software developer."  I suppose she'll eventually take over the world instead, but here's what she suggested we all tell our overachiever high school women friends to get them to consider a job as a developer:
  1. "It's just like a co-ed study party."  Stress the social, group-effort aspect of computer programming.  Crush the stereotype of the fetid male-only dungeon.  
  2. "It will differentiate you on your college application."  
I can confirm that the recalcitrant young woman has now agreed to attend one week of computer camp to learn java next summer, just by being exposed to these two sentiments.  As she pointed out to me, if programming isn't for any individual, little harm can be done by presenting these messages.  But women who might not otherwise even try programming to see if they like it can be brought to the table with these two irresistible lures:  group effort and enrollment at the selective school of their choice. 

I would like to close with this cartoon from the inimitable Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: