In a company-wide memo issued this past July, recently fired Google engineer James Damore delved into psychological differences between women and men, which he felt could explain male-dominated tech industries. Damore thinks that women, on average, “generally [have] a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading,” due to a biological disposition that makes them more gregarious and cooperative, as opposed to assertive, a trait he attributes to men.
Damore includes that women are more prone to “neuroticism,” causing anxiety in high-stress work environments and potentially leading women away from the field. Attributing this gap to biological differences, as opposed to social norms, is not only wrong but also highly dangerous, as it perpetuates ideals that women are incapable of high-performance work.
Since social norms, not ability, keep women out of tech, there must be a shift in the expectations for and treatment of young girls.
Biological difference fails to explain male-dominated tech fields. A recent study conducted by California Polytechnic State and North Carolina State Computer Science professors indicated that women may outperform men in coding. Through examining submissions and users on GitHub, an open source software community, the study found that women’s submissions are more often utilized than men’s. The study concludes that when gender is unidentifiable, women’s submissions are more likely to be used. However, when gender information is available, male acceptance rates are higher, illustrating biases against women in the industry.
The Anita Borg Institute, a Social Enterprise that operates on the belief that women are vital to tech industries, further investigates social factors that impede women in tech. Though 57% of women study Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (commonly known as STEM) in India, after entering the workforce, nearly 50% leave positions in tech industries. Societal pressures, which expect women to be responsible for all domestic labor, make maintaining high-intensity jobs difficult. This drop is not a result of biological limitations, but instead illustrates a culture that expects, and in turn demands, certain behaviors and responsibilities for women, perpetuating the social infrastructure that allows men to stay in tech and pushes women out.
Various initiatives to bring women into tech acknowledge the current barrier of social norms and suggest solutions to disempower them.
Vidya Narayanan, former Google employee and current founder of UrbanAMA, believes that women in tech must mentor other women. Narayanan writes that Google’s diversity program is designed to fit quotas of certain diverse demographics, as opposed to creating real change. Therefore, instead of reserving positions for women within a male-centric field, Google should aim to change the field itself by bringing more young girls into STEM. Narayanan says, “To the amazing women already in tech, I beg you to expend your energy motivating and mentoring young women at the crucial stages of making decisions about a tech education,” as opposed to asking companies to simply hire more women to fit a quota.
Additionally, organizations like the Womanity Foundation, which aims to engage girls and women in developing countries in full economic, social, and political participation through educational empowerment, should continue to involve women and girls. Their program, Girls Can Code, helps fulfill this mission by teaching young Afghani girls coding. Launched in 2016, Girls Can Code operates in 15 schools across the country and aims to expand to four more schools by 2019. So far their efforts prove to be successful, as 75% of participants aspire to attend university, while 20% will participate in internship programs in 2017, illustrating the power of altered expectations and early exposure to tech for girls.
Small scale change can also greatly affect how girls understand their potential and ability. Families can encouraging girls to play with legos instead of dolls, teaching them that they have the ability to build and create as opposed to training them to nurture. Teachers can take note of girls’ initial interest in science, praising them for scientific minds as well as fostering scientific interest outside of the classroom.
Ultimately, Damore’s memo is incorrect, as women trail in STEM due to cultural, not biological factors. To combat gender essentialist ideals that circulate throughout the tech world, even in companies as progressive and prestigious as Google, there needs to be a change in the treatment of and expectations for young girls.