Women in Technology: Staying Technical and the Importance of Being an Expert

Nicki HeadshotBy Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of

This is the second article in this series, investigating why staying technical is important on the path to promotion – either as an executive or an eventual board member. Don’t forget to register for our upcoming panel discussion and networking event for women in technology on July 8th at 5.30pm.

According to the Anita Borg Institute report Senior Technical Women: A Profile of Success [PDF] by Dr. Caroline Simard, the numbers of senior women on the technical path vs. the management path don’t really correspond with the numbers of men in similar positions.

“We find that senior technical women are significantly more likely to be in a manager position (36.9%) than are men (19%); conversely, men at the high level are significantly more likely to be in an individual contributor position (IC) (80.6%) than are women (63.1%).”

What’s the reason for this disparity, and is it cause for alarm? At first glance, this data seems encouraging as women are making headway as managers in the technology space. Further investigation would reveal, however, that “management” means project management – not executive management. The Anita Borg Institute discovered that women are being led away from being technical innovators and instead are being heavily encouraged to manage people and processes instead of continuing to code and program – despite their degree training. The report explains:

“Interestingly, more women in the IC track (26.8%) reported having a non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degree than women within the management track (12.5%) – which shows that women in the management track have a high level of technical expertise.”

This same report states “60.2% of senior men describe themselves as an ‘innovator,’ versus just 38.1 percent of senior women.” There was a perception by the respondents of innovation as a masculine quality. On the other hand, while the majority of senior women felt they were not innovators, more than half did see themselves as risk-takers – about the same amount as senior men.

I think that there are three clear factors why women drop off the technical path.

  • Cultural messaging of what is “means” to be a techie.
  • The perception of the isolation of coding as a full time job.
  • The lack of support from most companies to keep women technical.

The messaging of what it means to be a techie

Women comprise less than 1% of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs. Yet they earn more than 50% of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and nearly 50% of all U.S. doctorates. The companies they start are more capital-efficient, produce higher revenue, and have lower failure rates than those led by men.

In fact, only 18 percent of college students graduating with computer science degrees in 2008 were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Vivek Wadhwa (a man, may I add), points out in a recent piece that messaging starts early in life, with your parent’s attitude of what you can and should do as a job having much impact. Perhaps girls are not getting the encouragement at home to go into these fields. Another reason, as reported in a recent NY Times article is that engineering has a serious image problem.

“There’s a really strong image of what a computer scientist is — male, skinny, no social life, eats junk food, plays video games, likes science fiction,” says Sapna Cheryan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has researched why few women choose computer-science careers. “It makes it hard for people who don’t fit that image to think of it as an option for them.”

It’s easy to assume we’re making progress. For example, note Mattel’s recently launched Computer Engineer Barbiecomplete with pink laptop! More seriously, the Obama administration has approached its STEM initiative in earnest, and recently appointed Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox and the only black female CEO in the Fortune 500, as a committee member of its STEM Board.

However Carol Bartz, President and CEO of Yahoo sums up just how far we still need to go. “As you look around the entry-level management positions, even just the ranks of engineers or product people, there just aren’t many women.” She continued, “So therefore, mathematically, it tells you it’s impossible for them to move up and run something.”

Dealing with Perceived Isolation

Feeling isolated as an individual contributor is definitely a problem accentuated by a lack of visible role models in technical roles.

In the NCWIT report Women in IT: The Facts, Dr. Catherine Ashcraft and Sarah Blithe bring up factors like isolation and lack of mentors as a cause for female attrition from the tech field. The report says:

“In The Athena Factor… 40 percent of technical women reported lacking role models, while nearly half reported lacking mentors, and 84 percent reported lacking sponsors or someone who would help make their accomplishments visible throughout the organization.”

“In fact, women who are isolated are not only less committed, but are 13 percent more likely than women who do not report isolation to also report being unsatisfied with their job.”

According to the Anita Borg Institute’s study Breaking Barriers to Technical Change in Corporations [PDF], one of the factors causing women to leave technical careers is the culture of “hero behavior,” which favors and rewards work marathons and all-nighters around project deadlines.

“…technical women are significantly more likely to be in dual-career couples than are technical men; therefore, they are more negatively impacted by this ‘hero culture.’ At the highest levels of the technical ladder, this ‘Hero,’ sacrificing mindset is sending the message that those who have family responsibilities need not apply.”

What are some ways women in technical roles can balance work/life issues, and overcome the hero-culture that maybe causing them to miss out on bonuses, promotions, or interesting projects? What structural changes can companies make to help women facing these issues? Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett has done some interesting work in this area also.

Fortunately, there are many positive roles models – many of whom has interviewed recently – who have provided their personal advice to rising stars in the field. It’s a matter of making those women visible. Also, there are fortunately some firms out there which are making an big effort to address keeping women technical and supporting women in their career planning and development.

Celebrating Women of Vision

Finally, to end on an inspirational note this week, I wanted to mention the women who were honored this year at The Anita Borg Women of Vision awards took place this month, with awards being bestowed to Kathleen McKeown for Innovation, Lila Ibrahim for Social Impact, and Kristina M. Johnson for Leadership.

There is nothing more inspirational than hearing the passion that these woman have for their careers and the honesty that is conveyed about their journey. Nothing in life may be easy, but we must share with younger technical women that some things are not only possible, but very worthwhile.

Leadership award winner Kristina Johnson was recognized for her leadership in academia and industry and her appointment as the Under Secretary of Energy with the Obama administration. “I could not refuse the opportunity to apply my engineering skills in service to others,” she said in her speech. Responsible for a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 83 percent by 2050, Johnson continued that, “Change is a challenge – together we can make a big difference. I am optimistic because we, as a nation, have always risen to the challenge and provided global leadership in the darkest of times.”

Kathleen McKeown, who received the innovation award, commented that, “Not taking ‘no’ as an answer has been part of my life from the beginning. I heard ‘no’ many times but saw that it didn’t always have to happen that way. It was good training for the realities of research.” McKeown acknowledged that she’s aware she serves as a role model now for young women studying computer science, saying that “I want them to see through my example that it is possible to be a woman and succeed in academics.” McKeown is a Henry and Gertrude Rothschild Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University.

Social Impact award winner Lila Ibrahim, spoke about the need to persevere when “pioneering (to change the world) can be lonely and frustrating.” She continued that, “It’s not just about developing the greatest technology. It’s about getting the right technology into the right hands with the right training. That’s the best guarantee that you can make a difference. But when you’re truly passionate about something and really care, wonderful things can be accomplished.” Ibrahim is General Manager of the Emerging Markets Platform Group at Intel Corporation.

Sharing the successful stories of women like these is one part of the solution to breaking down the myths and changing stereotypes about the field, and keeping women in the path to technical leadership.

0 Response

  1. Avatar

    One of the things that helped me balance my work and life is that my husband was willing to stay home with our son. This made it possible for me to work overtime when the job required it.

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    Add into the “Cultural Messaging” section the issue that most women research scientists and engineers self-select into focus areas that are narrow in scope (this according to the recent American Association of University Women study titled, “Why So Few?” (

    It’s tough to get well-known and acknowledged as a leading thinker for your ideas around a topic that few people can understand or relate to.

    A quick glance through the science section of bookstores tells it all: there are almost no women authors.

    I’m optimistic, however, (and this is something I’m dedicated to), that women will overcome the remaining internal barriers that hold them back — and that they’ll join their male colleagues in increasing numbers to become the new rock stars in their fields of expertise.

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    These are really great insights.

    We often refer to women and technology. I like how you’ve expanded this to women staying technical. It really is key.

    I’m in Boston, but would love to find a way to make it to your July 8 panel discussion.