We’ve been hearing a lot about “women in technology” over the past few years. Some of the most memorable stories focus on scandals related to inappropriate behavior among male coders and within the tech industry. In 2013, for example, there was the Donglegate controversy at PyCon and the brouhaha over an inappropriate app at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference. This year a sexist invitation for a party at Tech Week in Chicago ignited such a backlash that the event was cancelled. These dramatic moments are punctuation points in the ongoing narrative about a global tech culture that seems unwelcoming to women and the specific issue of a lack of gender diversity in technology-focused firms (see, for example, this recent piece in the New York Times).
Then there are stories about the related counter-movement, particularly the organizations striving to encourage more girls and young women to develop computer skills and pursue technology jobs and careers. Many of these groups focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields more broadly, but there’s a particular emphasis on computer science in most of them. We have Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, TechGirlz, IGNITE™ (Inspiring Girls Now In Technology Evolution), and two different GITs: Girls in Technology, which is an extension of Women in Technology (WIT), and the independently-established Girls in Tech. Some colleges and universities are also pursuing specific initiatives to attract and retain more females in computer science majors (as discussed in this article).
I wholeheartedly agree that we need more females in STEM fields and support the individuals and organizations that are striving to break down barriers and create opportunities to improve the gender balance in technology fields and firms in particular. But I can’t escape this nagging question: Should the definition of what it means to be a “woman in technology” be so narrow? Do we really want to create a cadre of female coders and tech entrepreneurs? Is that what we want girls and young women to aspire to be? Is that the only way they can really make a strong professional contribution in the Digital Era?
I consider myself a “woman in technology,” and I am neither a coder nor a tech entrepreneur – at least not in the commonly-assumed sense. And I am regularly reminded that there are many women who are making strong contributions in technology-focused areas without being employed by technology firms or educated in technology-related fields. Here are some examples.
Lucy H. Koh, the federal district court judge in Northern California who has overseen many prominent tech-related cases, earned an undergraduate degree in social studies before going to law school. Liisa Thomas, who chairs the privacy and data security practice at Winston & Strawn, has an undergraduate degree in history. And Amy Ziegler, a shareholder and intellectual property attorney at Greer Burns & Crain, majored in physics.
Arianna Huffington, who established the Huffington Post, has an undergraduate degree in economics. And Robin Carey, the founder of Social Media Today, has a bachelor’s in English. These women may be media-focused entrepreneurs, but the fact that their media companies were built online – and in the case of Social Media Today, with a focus on technology topics – means that they’re also women in technology.
Megan Smith, the new CTO for the United States, has a degree in mechanical engineering. Brenna Berman, the CIO for the City of Chicago, has undergraduate and graduate degrees in public policy. Minerva Tantoco, New York City’s new CTO, has a bachelor’s in philosophy and cognitive science. And Rachel Sterne Haot, New York City’s first Chief Digital Officer who has now assumed a similar role for New York state, was a history major.
Even many women in more traditionally-perceived technology roles and companies did not start out to be coders or IT professionals.
Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer and IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty have degrees in computer science, but they may be more the exception than the rule. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, and Margo Georgiadis, the President, Americas at Google, both have undergraduate degrees in economics and MBAs. And Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, may have started out as a math and science major, but that’s because her goal was to be a doctor. After a summer job selling advertisements for a magazine, she switched to economics and then later earned an MBA as well.
Genevieve Thiers, the founder of Sittercity.com, ContactKarma.com, and OperaModa.com, has degrees in English and music (opera no less!). Gina Bianchini, another serial tech entrepreneur who is currently the founder and CEO of Mightybell, studied political science before earning an MBA. And Kristi Ross, the co-CEO and president at dough, Inc. (formerly tastytrade & dough), began her career as an accountant.
TECH INVESTORS AND ADVISORS
Ellen Levy, who was involved in LinkedIn from its founding and lists herself as an “investor, advisor, tech company exec” on the platform, has not just one but three degrees in cognitive psychology. Another investor and advisor, Jan Davis, started out as an English major before earning an MBA, and built her career in marketing. And Ellen Weber, the executive director of Temple University's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute and Robin Hood Ventures has a bachelor’s in economics.
As top-level leaders, these women may not seem like the most representative sample – but we should view them as symbolic, and as part of the vanguard. For each one of them, there are legions of women in less-prominent and lower-level roles and organizations who are forging careers as women in technology. And most of them are doing so without degrees in computer science, without being coders, and without creating or working for tech start-ups. That’s not to say there isn’t still disparity in technology-related fields, roles and firms – or the need to do more to create opportunities for women, as well as better gender balance and equity – but the pursuit of those goals may be better served by a broader point of view.
As well intentioned as the predominant focus on women in technology is, it’s potentially limiting and maybe even counter-productive. We must ask ourselves: Do we want women to code and be the founding heads of technology start-ups, or do we want women who will assume technology-focused leadership roles across a range of industries and roles? For me, the answer is the latter.
I’ll return to this idea in my next post by offering an expanded perspective on helping girls and young women define and pursue technology-focused and other Digital Era careers. In the meantime, I invite you to share your perspective. What does the notion of being a “woman in technology” mean to you?