“Women in tech”: what gives?

(Long post alert!)

The meme is old but the current phase may well have started with Tereza’s idea of starting an XX Combinator, an incubator for women entrepreneurs. New York based VC, Fred Wilson gave the idea wings on his blog. He was then quoted in a now-widely discussed Wall Street Journal article, in which Rachel Sklar criticised TechCrunch. That riled TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington who wrote a post arguing why women mustn’t blame men for their relatively scarce numbers in the tech entrepreneurs community. In my view, Arrington highlights a key point about women not putting themselves forward enough. It is borne out by many people’s experience, including people like Robert Scoble’s, who invite women and are open to approaches, but have seen few women turn up or promote themselves. A more specific – and actionable – point was made by Alan Patrick, who says that at the moment the low numbers of women may be a flowrate problem. Spoken like a true engineer, I say. Now before you point out that I have overwhelmingly quoted men’s point of view on the issue so far, here are some other views. From women. Cindy Gallop says nobody is blaming men, and that systemic solutions are needed. Jamelle Bouie writes “try harder” is not the answer, adding another voice to the chorus calling for systemic solutions.

So far so motherhood-and-apple-pie. Don’t we all know that systemic solutions are needed? We do. Don’t we all know that women are different from men – no implied normative labelling there – and therefore different approaches may be needed? We do. In all the widely read and most shared posts I cite above, we hear only three creative ideas: Scoble and Arrington asking women to come forward, and Tereza proposing an investment fund for women. I like Tereza’s idea, but as a minority myself, I am no fan of ghetto solutions or “specialist” offerings. I do not believe that positive discrimination of any kind helps women. Nor does positive discrimination or special dispensation of any kind help promote the cause of inclusiveness, going beyond gender segregation.

I also believe that “systemic solutions” have their place but can we really afford to sit around for another 25-30 years for these solutions to take effect? Calling for systemic solutions is also a get-out-of-jail-free card of sorts. Like the trolley problem, it makes it possible for us to distance ourselves from the myriad of moral dilemmas and the choices we make in our daily lives. What is needed is for us to take steps – in our families, in our neighbourhoods, in our communities – to ensure we capture the attention of young girls and attract them to science and maths for careers in science and technology.

Here’s my take on the issue. Most of it is borne out of my own experience as an engineer who diversified and has run her own business focusing on technology-led businesses for a decade now. All of the following requires us – who are upset by the state of “women in tech” – to make different decisions in our lives.

Agree on Definitions. And avoid self-limiting boundaries.

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”, said Socrates. Yes, another man, I note. One of the egregious things about this debate bubbling at the moment is that “women in tech” is mostly being narrowly interpreted as “women entrepreneurs who start companies, typically in the USA, and seek venture funding”. Isn’t that too limiting?

There are, for instance, numerous women biologists and with much innovation happening at the cusp of disciplines, physicists and engineers will find themselves working with these biologists with their special expertise. Are these not “women in tech”? An estimated 30% of engineers employed in India’s private sector are women. Granted not all of them start companies, but are they not “women in tech”? What about women leaders of science and technology driven businesses? Some, it may surprise you, did not have degrees in science at all. Are they not “women in tech”?

While the lament of women being relatively fewer in science and technology is not misplaced, the dimensions of that lament can be put in perspective, if we define “women in tech” more broadly. The broader perspective will also lend itself to more creative and wide-ranging possibilities for addressing the issue.

Oh, by way of some data, here are Fierce Biotech’s top 10 women in biotechnology – a “tech industry” that needs a solid grasp of science as well as of business cycles. The list does not include one of my picks for most inspiring women in tech: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder CEO of Biocon, an Indian biotech behemoth.

Eschew early gender stereotyping.

In the 18 years since I graduated from engineering, many of my friends have had children. I have had the chance to observe the children closely. With some stellar exceptions – and I have a working hypothesis for that, which I may write about another timeĀ  – most of my well-educated, professional friends have proceeded to imbue gender stereotypes in their children pretty early on. Girls are co-opted into baking, while boys are given errands including things like fixing their sisters’ bikes or polishing shoes. What’s wrong with baking? Well, nothing – I bake most weekends – since baking is a highly controlled chemistry experiment. But also one, where one pays a heavy price for tinkering and taking risks with the recipe. What has that got to do with girls in science? Well, research suggests that girls not being encouraged to tinker is directly linked to their not choosing science, maths and engineering subjects.

Now think of all the activities that are stereotypically considered “girlie” and “boy stuff”. Baking, cooking, sewing, knitting and most care duties, while allowing for some creativity, are not about tinkering. But computer games, opening and mending things, fixing bicycles, repairing fuses etc all require a lot of tinkering. Early gender stereotyping in bringing up girls does them no favours, if we are to address the “flowrate” problem of girls in science and technology.

What about my own experience? I didn’t tinker much as a child, but I was always allowed to be an apprentice to my father, who did tinker an awful lot. I learnt much by observing and then much more when I started living away from home at age 17. I have learnt to curb some of my desire to open things up but I can confidently say that I know intimately the insides of my car as well as my piano thanks to my fiddling and tinkering. I tinker with complex problems and issues in my mind longer than most people which may explain why I do not churn out posts on “hot topics” while they are hot!

Do we need role models? If yes, think laterally.

I started studying engineering in 1988. In India. About 18% of my class was made up of girls. Barring 3, who then proceeded to read for an MBA, all have remained in the workforce in “tech” careers in engineering, and in research and teaching. Most are in Silicon Valley, some are in India. Most studied for second and third degrees, many after their marriages, some while bringing up their children and managing their careers. Nearly all have children. On first glance, all odds were stacked against the emergence of this longitudinal pattern. But it is there for us to see.

I have never sought or cared for role models but if I had to pick, these women would be my role models. They remain committed to science and technology not only in their careers, but also take an open-minded approach to other pursuits they have undertaken in their lives. These, to me, are “women in tech”. Because they show how it is possible to be one. They can, and I have no doubt, do influence young girls around them positively.

For my part, I decided I wanted to be an engineer when I was about 8. I had, of course, been tinkering as an apprentice to my father. But more to the point, I followed the example of an older male cousin. He is everything I wanted, and still want, to be: an engineer, a sharp brain-box, a gifted cook, a whiz with a sewing machine (!), a talented musician. He now has two girls of his own – both are “women in tech” via engineering and medicine. One has recently started her own business in Canada. I find them inspiring and consider myself fortunate that I can mentor them and participate in their journeys.

Role models needn’t be far-away exotic characters about whom we read in magazines. They need to be picked from our lives. For their ability to show what is possible, and for their ability to mentor and guide young girls. The gender of the role model, I believe, is less important than what a young girl can learn from the role model.

Negotiate better to remove barriers in adult life, aka men and women need to cooperate.

I am not making this up. Women scientists do more housework than male scientists. But it is also true that male scientists regret limiting their parenthood choices than women scientists do. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research has found that at 40, 31% of men are childless. Her earlier research had found that 40% of successful women at 40 were childless. “So what?, I hear you ask. Well, perhaps women need to understand and respect that life for men in science and technology – and business – isn’t a bed of roses either. They make sacrifices too. In other words, there are some common pain points for men and women, and sustainable change can be better effected if solutions to these pain points are sought jointly.

For women already in the workplace, it is important to recognise that before we can negotiate harder and better deals for ourselves at work and outside our homes, we first need to negotiate better and fairer deals for ourselves at home. With the men in our lives. If we are lucky, we already have relationships and friendships based on common values. These relationships give us advice on and insight into complexities and motivations of people we meet in work situations.

In other words, women need to cooperate. With men. Women need sponsors and champions. To invest their time, money and social capital into our ideas. And to avoid the negative vibes that sometimes dominate women-only groups.

Accept that men and women are different. Life is better for it. Now let’s enable the choices these differences foster.

In a conversation with Alan Patrick (whom I mentioned earlier), I said to him: “Women have lives, men have jobs. Fact.” While I readily admit to the shade of hyperbole in that statement, it does contain much truth. Most women I know – including those in science and technology – seem to have rich lives. They have fulfilling, if sometimes challenging, work lives; they have relationships and families; they have rich social lives; they have outside interests such as culture or sport. Most men however have relatively simplified lives where work and weekends feature heavily. It is not because men don’t try. But my working hypothesis is that it is because men are worse victims of gender stereotyping than women are. It must be tiring for men to live up to these negative stereotypes.

May be to enhance the numbers of “women in tech”, we need to show them the possibility of a rich tapestry of careers. And we need to work to create structures – investment funds, mentoring programmes, whatever it takes – to enable such possibilities. These possibilities may not necessarily follow a set pattern but must allow for women’s different priorities. As life goes, women’s fertile years coincide with their early career years too. It makes sense, where possible, if women wish to start companies or businesses later in their lives, perhaps in their 30s or 40s.

I recognise that not all of these ideas will prove popular. But as a person who sees possibilities in cusps, confluences and convergences, I believe sustainable solutions to the “women in tech” problem will require us to take conscious, mindful, sometimes difficult decisions every day. For a long time. Now would be a good time to start.

Late edit: some excellent articles by women – and men – I found after publishing (I don’t have to agree with all I list below/ disagreement sharpens thinking!):

Stubbornella on Women in technology

Aparna on Empowerment begins at home

Jezebel on What do “where are the women” shitstorms achieve?

Leah Culver on Is there a gender divide in start-ups?

Jon Pincus gives some actionable advice to Arrington

JP Rangaswamy muses about inclusion in technology and discusses anchoring-and-framing

Rachel Sklar’s post on the current wave of the meme

Suzanne Lucas on taking responsibility

Geoff Livingston on mindfulness to find female speakers

Twist in the tale: Watson (contd.)

Continuing the story of James Watson, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories first issued a press release distancing themselves from Watson’s view on intelligence of black people and now have suspended him, pending further deliberations at the Labs.

Considering all his engagements are being cancelled by hosts in a hurry to distance themselves from Watson, the Cambridge Union Society may be the only place where he is apparently still scheduled to speak.

Several terabytes of data packets are floating on the web about “what he said” and “what is being done” by way of cancellations of appearances.

But while all this goes on, his book “Avoid Boring People“, which admittedly does sound like the title of a Dilbert comic, is in the top 100 books on Amazon-UK.

If the “what” of the whole story bothers you much more than the “why” does, here is a story for you to consider.

During my MBA, we had to watch a film as part of course materials. The film was called Skokie, named after the Illinois village where the story takes place. It is a Jewish majority village through which a Neo-Nazi group wishes to march. One survivor of a concentration camp decides that ignoring is not enough; he will take action. The story depicts the views of several generations from fear, bad memories, disgust, helplessness, concern to shoulder-shrugging indifference amongst teenagers in the village. You can probably read the synopsis much better here.

So what? If you have not seen the film, you cannot guess how it ends. When the film ended and the lights went back on, the boisterous, high decibel MBA group was in a shocked silence, something that affirmed the essential humanity of many in my mind.

After much national debate and court cases involving the ACLU, the Neo Nazi group pulls out. Their leader says that the objective of the march was to create greater awareness of the Neo Nazi movement. With so much public attention having been paid, at government’s and taxpayers’ expense, that objective had been achieved and the march was no longer needed.

Surprised? Now consider this! Is it possible that by discussing the issue over and over again, Watson’s idea of “racism” is being propagated much more than it might have done as any other interview in a British Sunday paper? And that the very same people are propagating it as claim to be horrified by it?

If it bothers everyone so much that Watson is being racist, don’t you think it is time to stop promoting and discussing the idea till the world is aflame?

Oh and by the way, will you be buying the book? Millions apparently are.

Whatever your answer: ask yourself why. “Why” is the essential question in Science and if more people asked it more often, the world might just have been a better place.

Scientists as "people"

Long post alert!

The Science Museum in London has cancelled a talk by James Watson, of Watson & Crick fame. The museum takes exception to his remarks made to the Sunday Times where he says that black people are essentially “less intelligent” than “ours”. At the time of writing this post – Thursday 18 October 2007 – Watson’s scheduled appearance at the Cambridge Union Society is still on. Cambridge Union Society is a debating society so such people, as Watson or Jean-Marie Le Pen, are almost grist to the mill.

Reader and fellow blogger Madhuri, who is a biology PhD and (ed.: until July 2007) a post-doctoral researcher in the US, has also taken exception to this remark by a scientist held in high regard, even as his shortcomings as a person increasingly raise questions about his judgement.

There are two separate issues here – one is the appropriateness of Watson’s growing tendency to be direct and in current terms, politically incorrect; and the second is the issue of intelligence. In this post, which I aim to finish in the next 15-20 minutes, I shall only write about the former, hence the title of the post: Scientists as “people”.

The questions to ask are:

Why do some people express opinions that outrage most people today?

Where do these views come from?

Is there a “right” way to judge their appropriateness?

Are these views to be taken seriously?

If these views are likely to cause harm, what is the mitigation, short of confining such people to an institution?

Watson is now 82. When he was born, eugenics was a well-funded branch of scientific research. He comes from an age where social norms were different and certain behaviours were acceptable. For instance, Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to enabling Watson and Crick’s “discovery” was glossed over for a long time in history. The sort of behaviour meted out to Franklin would – in theory – be unacceptable behaviour today, but it was acceptable then. To turn the issue on its head, today perhaps a woman scientist will fight back. Why did Franklin not make that choice? For part of the reasons, I refer you to the brief history of women in Cambridge in the comments section from an earlier post. Franklin’s contributions being key to the Triple Helix discovery puts to rest any doubts about her inherent capability as a scientist. But since 1901, only 3% of Nobel Prize winners have been women.

In 21st century reality, women researchers are still treated as second-class in many laboratories. A super-smart friend of mine was a mature PhD student in environmental chemistry, in Cambridge. She told me of how a young 22-year old male PhD thought it was ok to talk down at her, asking her to run his errands. She set him straight, but one has to wonder where he learnt it was ok to talk down to a colleague like that? As Ali G would ask “Is it because I is a woman?” Not an insignificant proportion of his bad behaviour was down to his maleness and his evident sense of being born superior. But some of it was definitely learnt. It is hard today to fathom a life where a man can go unchallenged for a whole 22 years! Perhaps that is how his father treats his mother? Perhaps his laboratory seniors and Professors overlook his social faux pas and thereby encourage them?

Larry Summers found to his peril that the scientific establishment’s treatment of women can never be explained away satisfactorily, whichever way you frame your argument. Empirical evidence shows that it is a complex of factors – most of them institutional – that has held back women’s progress and participation in science, as well as their rightful claim to credit for some of the most lauded scientific achievements of the 20th century.

Just like the state of women in science is a complex reality, so are the views expressed by Watson.

Some of it is down to his upbringing. Some of it is down to an establishment that prized his genius so much that it never rebuked him. Some of it is down to the fact that he is antediluvian and therefore espouses antediluvian views. This is not an ageist comment. This is something that scientists have been struggling to understand for a while.

Recent research shows that while younger people, who make an effort to be politically correct and fit with the evolving norms of acceptable behaviour, can change, older people genuinely find it difficult to change. This is down to how our brains age. An older research paper suggests that older people say prejudicial things because they just cannot help it. They lose their inhibitions as their brain’s ability to inhibit inappropriate thoughts diminishes. Recent research by the same Bill von Hippel of University of Queensland confirms the finding that as we age, our brains’ frontal lobes atrophy and so do the functions associated with the frontal lobes such as planning, reasoning, judgement, impulse control and motor control.

This may also explain why Watson thinks that if it can be done, girls should be made pretty. Hardly an appropriate remark!

So is there a right way to judge the inappropriateness of some remarks? Back to Watson and Franklin, to judge events from back then through a lens of today would be incorrect. We cannot revise history but if we do not learn from it and change ourselves, we will soon be repeating it, to paraphrase Santayana.

If these views are not to be taken seriously, what about the harm they may cause? Madhuri suggests that people with bigoted views still serve on funding committees and can hamper the chances of perfectly good candidates who do not suit their criteria of being “ours”.

Here is my take on it.

I would immensely prefer a Watson, a poor old dear with diminishing control over his frontal lobe and his mouth, whose opinions are out in the open, to a smart-arse who espouses just the right views in public and then goes inside and strikes out all minorities – gender, race, colour – from the list of potential beneficiaries of funding.

Do Watson’s views harm his workplace? Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories, which host Watson, have a diverse community of researchers, even though a vast majority of them are male. But there are signs of hope. There are some women as well as several non-white – mainly Indian and Chinese – researchers. Admittedly I did not click to see each researcher’s mugshot. But from the name list, it appears there are no black/ African-American/ Afro-Carribean researchers at CSHL.

Is this all down to Watson’s racism? I do not think so.

The United States passed its civil rights act in 1964 and by all accounts, the country still struggles with where it stands on race. Surely even scientists appalled by Watson’s racism can see that it is not all his fault.

Watson will be dead in a few years’ time, but if the youth of the country is still bigoted, we have a bigger problem at hand than just the utterances of an old man of DNA.