The ‘Women in Tech’ Narrative needs more nuance

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

I have hesitated to write about this for years. Mostly because the people who push the agenda of attracting more women into tech and STEM mean well. This issue is also extremely personal for me as I was explicitly told by an authority figure as a young adult that I could not study engineering because I am a woman. You can hear me tell that story here. Because it is so close to my heart, I reflect often as to whether I am bitter about the initiatives because they weren’t around when I needed them. And surely, there is some of that trauma mixed into the feelings I have about the topic. Nevertheless, here are 5 reasons why the “Women in Tech” narrative needs more nuance.

  1. Most jobs in tech are not technical

There is another post on LinkedIn. It is a man trying to show allyship by encouraging women to apply to the technical jobs he has posted. He really does want to have more women in these roles, he just can’t find them. Seems that all the qualified ones are taken. The simplistic conclusion is reached, “We need more women in tech.” And yes, we do. But there are other reasons the women who are in tech are not applying for these jobs.

I have worked with ERP systems for 14 years and I almost always have to laugh when I read job ads for ERP related roles. Senior ERP project manager roles looking for people with degrees in computer science. Or they want a leader of the entire program to be an expert in one particular module of one particular type of ERP. This is perhaps the very reason these programs fail at such a high rate.

To lead an ERP project, you need to understand causal relationships. Sure, we need technical experts who can code in certain languages and can configure what is needed. But we do not need technical experts running the projects. Instead, we need people who understand complex networks and understand enough about the technology to ask the right questions. This obsession with specialization is causing our technology projects to be driven by people who do not understand how things are connected.

2. We seem to be more willing to understand this for men than women

I spent many years trying to climb the IT ladder. I had my sights on CIO. But every time I would get close to a higher leadership position, I would eventually be reminded that I do not have a technical background. And this is not untrue. I do have 15 years of exposure to every part of how various industries run global operations and improve themselves via technology; but no, I did not spend a few years in the late 90s learning how to code. What I find the most shocking though, is how many male CIOs I know who do not have a technical background either. It seems that it is easier to give the benefit of the doubt to a male who has learned by doing, than a female.

3. Technology is not an end, it is a means

There is something intrinsically flawed in the idea that we need to push people to study technology when our world needs people who understand the nuance that studying the humanities provides more than ever. As Christian Madsbjerg writes in Sensemaking: What makes human intelligence essential in the Age of the Algorithm:

When we focus solely on hard data, we errode our sensitivy to all the forms of knowledge that are not reductionist. We lose touch with the books, music, art and culture that allow us to experience ourselves in a complex social context.

Ideally, one should not be forced to choose between studying STEM and getting a well paying job, or studying literature and working as a barista at Starbucks. What our society desperately needs are people who understand both technology and the humanities. We need to be having entirely different conversations in our companies about what we are using technology to do, but we are not having those conversations because we are not inviting the nuanced thinkers to the table.

4. We need to stop shaming deep thinking

It happens like clockwork. Companies decide which problems they want to prioritize solving, then a roadmap for the technologies to help them achieve them is designed. In that very moment, a problem is reduced, and a technology project is born to solve it. Sure, it may come with some change management and empathy mapping, and an agile coach to tell you “it is all about people,” but it is a tech project. And woe is s/he who asks a question that is outside of the reduced scope of this project.

Naturally, I cannot speak for all women, but for me and many of the women I know who work in technology, this reductionism drives us nuts. We remember the original purpose of the project. We care about what happens after the project. I am not saying that men don’t. But I am saying that every time I ask a question that is outside of the reduced scope I get told that I need to either “be practical” or my question gets deflected by someone saying “it’s technical”. Yet when men notice the complexity and nuance, they are respected more for it. Is it because we all feel safe that their venture into the realm of nuance is not at the expense of understanding technical details?

5. Perhaps instead of trying to make women more technical, we should be trying to make tech more feminine

Finally, if we are going to spend so much time luring women into tech, we should be actively working to make the tech industry less action filmy. This is back to the idea that technology should not exist for technology’s sake. Next time you see a video for tech, listen closely. Is the narrator talking in a loud deep action hero voice about the power of the technology and the analytics capabilities without at all mentioning what the technology is used for? This is the type of macho tech crap we should be revolting against as a society.

But be careful. It is now becoming trendy to say the word “human” in technology ads so people feel more comfortable that all this humanities stuff is taken care of. Just because a company is making a montage with babies and pictures of people of various ethnicities smiling, does not mean the products are built with cultural sensitivies or with respect to the nuance of human contextuality. The only thing you can do is dare to think for yourself.

We are living in an age of scaled complexities. So much information is available all the time, but who can sort through it all? As Robert Pirsig said in Lila:

Moral quality is not objective….There has to be a certain kind of people who can look at [something] and say ‘that’s good!’ without having to look over their shoulder to see if someone else is saying the same thing.

We need to have technological advances that are influenced by people who understand dynamic quality AND its relationship with static quality. So please, dear girls, study what you want. Dear people who are studying STEM, read a novel. And dear job posters and leaders, look at people for their possibility not just their statistical probability. Maybe the people you need for your tech jobs, have always been there.

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Sarah Anne Freiesleben

Sarah Anne Freiesleben

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