Women in Tech
No doubt you have seen or read about the memo written by the former Google employee James Damore that claims women are less well suited for jobs in technical fields than men. If you haven't, you can read it here. The topic of women in engineering and high-tech (STEM) fields is an important one and I feel compelled to comment.
In the memo Damore claims that the gender gap exists in high-tech fields because women have more "openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas," have more "extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness," and generally women are more neurotic. Also, he claims that men have a higher drive for status. He presents these extraordinary claims as fact, not as opinion. He cites these as factors that limit the number of women who are in STEM fields. Any effort to increase the number of women working in these fields would amount to discrimination, according to Damore's thesis.
I say this is all a load of hogwash. Damore's arguments and conclusion fly in the face of reality. We have plenty of evidence that women can compete and thrive in technical careers.
I have worked with many women throughout my career. More than once a woman has been my boss, there have been women who worked for me, and women with whom I have worked alongside. At no time have I ever questioned the skill or knowledge or ability of any woman because of her gender. All the women I have had the good fortune to work with over the years have been thoroughly professional, and at times, perhaps even more so than their male counterparts.
Women have made a myriad of technical contributions. Without them many things we take for granted would not exist. Of course, you know about Ada Lovelace writing the first computer program. Did you know about Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper who built the first compiler for a machine-independent language (COBOL)? Hedy Lamarr, yes, the actress, invented spread spectrum technology. She filed a patent in 1941 for the "Secret Communication System," the original intent of which was to provide a way for the military to communicate via radio without the enemy being able to listen in. Barbara Liskov, a professor at MIT, invented what is known as the Liskov Substitutability Principle, the theoretical foundation of all object oriented programming languages. The list goes on...
If you haven't already, go see the movie "Hidden Figures." The movie portrays three African American women, Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer, and Dorothy Vaughan, who worked at NASA in the early 1960s and helped launch John Glenn into orbit as part of the Mercury program. While the movie takes some poetic license, these were real women who did important technical work. At a time when it was not easy being an African American or a woman in the workplace, much less both, these three women persevered until their talents and skills were eventually recognized. Because of their work we were able to send an astronaut into orbit.
Part of the story line involves a new IBM 7090 computer installed at Langley Research Center. The machine sat idle for some time because no one knew how to use it. Dorothy Vaughan, recognizing that this machine would eventually replace human computers (humans who performed computations were called computers back then), taught herself how to run it. She also taught herself how to program in Fortran. She went on to write code for the space program, and later, lead large-scale software development efforts at NASA.
I do not know all the reasons that women are under-represented in technical fields. I do know that it is the responsibility of this community as well as schools and parents across the country (across the world) to ensure that girls and young women are exposed to science and mathematics and to provide encouragement and mentoring which allow them to find careers that suit them.
We no longer ask if women can be successful in law, medicine, finance, or any other field. Why should we continue to question whether they can succeed in tech? Given the long history of important technical contributions by women, and the countless women with successful careers in technology fields, it's no longer debatable whether women can succeed in technical fields. They already have. Thank you, ladies.
Note: The image at the top of this article is a portrait of
(Augusta) Ada King (née Byron), Countess of Lovelace
by William Henry Mote, after Alfred Edward Chalon
stipple engraving, published 1839