Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It Begins at High School

A Unique Look at the Reasons Why Women aren’t Represented in the Tech Industry

Daniel Park

he lack of women in the sciences goes beyond the seemingly obvious problem of misogyny and even past our claimed biological differences. Being a male student interested in math & science in the Silicon Valley, I had a unique insight into the root of the problem where major technological advances began. Over the past 4 years, I have come to believe that the gender imbalance is a structural issue that begins in the male-dominated classrooms that discourages female participation.

In high school, I had a friend named Julia Huang – we had computer science class together in our sophomore year – and she’s a good example against women being uninterested in the sciences. Having an incredible work ethic, she studied more than anyone else to be internationally ranked in various math, science, and computer science competitions. And all her hard work manifested itself in the form of a college acceptance when she skipped her senior year of high school to begin studying at MIT as a freshman.

Even with Julia as a counter-example of the popular stereotype, it’s undeniable that there’s a bias towards men in the technology industry. There exist numerous explanations for this occurrence and I contend that it goes past the simple explanation of sexist hiring practices (Source 1). Although this has a kernel of truth, there are far more important factors at work that explain the striking gender inequality.

Foremost, the problem begins with the parents of confused, college-headed high school graduates, especially in the bay area. Parents (mostly Asian) would tell their sons: “You are going to study computer science in college and work your way up at a big company like Apple or Google.” And to their daughters: “You are going to study pre-med in college and become a doctor.” It’s shocking how prevalent this type of thinking has come to be in the Silicon Valley. My parents are no exception and it is no surprise that my sister is planning on being a doctor later in her life. I made a conscious choice to reject their plea and opted to study business/ economics because I wanted to work on Wall Street. As for the less-revolting, more complacent students my age, they listen to their parents and work tirelessly to land a job at a prestigious institution. Although hard to grasp at first, this influence from parents shouldn’t be ignored because it carries a lot of weight to the children, especially since computer science has tradition-ally been a male occupation.

Aside from parents, the biggest factor that affects the imbalance is group dynamic among students active in the sciences. Having been among such students, I can attest that girls are generally left out in group projects because when there are 9 guys and 1 girl in a class, the girl feels as though she doesn’t belong there. An environment that crowds out female involvement only perpetuates the problem because the younger generation would look to those before them and decide to pursue a different track. Many women justify this by arguing that because men dominate the top 100 places across all science competitions, it must be harder for girls to reach the top (Source 2). This could not be further from the truth because when the playing field is skewed to have a male population that’s 10 times bigger than the female’s, it’s statistically bound to have less female top-performers. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the engineer girls and feeds into the larger problem of being paid less in the industry and also being underrepresented.

In the real world, there have been some attempts by successful women to reverse the downward trend of female participation, most notably by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. She writes that the whole problem is bigger than just in engineering, because, “we know that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead” (Source 3). Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez joined Sandberg in her efforts to empower young women. “This is a word that is symbolic of systemic discouragement of girls to lead… We’re talking about getting rid of the negative messages that hold our daughters back,” Sandberg said (Source 3). Powerful women in the industry are working with others to change the gender imbalance in the workforce. “If you look at the world, women do 66 percent of the work in the world … We are 5 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs … We are 19 percent in Congress,” Sandberg explained (Source 3). It is clear that the problem is not one to be ignored but to be carefully considered by the most influential people in the world.

At the end of the day, the problem doesn’t lie with all males being sexist against women but rather the environment in which students are situated. Yes, some men in management roles are misogynistic and hire based on their biases. No, that’s not the only reason why there’s such a huge discrepancy in the number of men and women in the sciences. We need to fundamentally change the way girls participate in math/science competitions and encourage a symbiotic relationship between the two genders. Until we do so, women will never be at their desired positions in the technology industry.

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