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This article was published on November 12, 2009

What is keeping women out of tech? Do you really want to know?

What is keeping women out of tech? Do you really want to know?
Sarah  Stokely
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Sarah Stokely

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Sarah is a longtime journalist, editor and blogger turned web publishing teacher and communications consultan Based in Melbourne, Australia, Sarah is a longtime journalist, editor and blogger turned web publishing teacher and communications consultant. She teaches digital writing, editing and publishing at the University of Melbourne. She was the launch editor of Lifehacker Australia in 2007, and helped launch Australia's first politics and current affairs blog network,, in 2008. She volunteers for eDemocracy website, broadcasts on community radio station 3RRR in Melbourne, and has a dog named Samwise.

Duel between the sexes?Yesterday, Boris threw down the gauntlet and asked why so few women are applying their smarts in the tech industry. Why aren’t we rising to the top as web entrepreneurs, leaders and speakers? Is it true that “most women never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity?”

So, in the interests of getting all of us – men and women – thinking about why women are often less represented in the tech field, I’m taking Boris up on his offer of a right of reply, via guest post here at The Next Web.

As a longtime tech journalist and editor turned web publishing teacher and communications consultant, I’ve spent the last decade working in Australia’s male dominated tech industry. So I have experienced my share of frustration at the fact that the gender balance is so poor. In the open source tech community in Australia, women make up just 7 % of participants. I hate the fact that so many Australian girls drop out of maths and sciences at high school, that their enrolments in tech related courses at uni are so low, and that girls are often absent from tech events for students.

I teach web publishing, and I’ve tried hard to instill a ’startup’ culture in my students. It is an uphill battle – university courses are geared towards getting students to complete coursework, not incubating startups. But I’ve tried, nonetheless. Last semester, I invited Australian web entrepreneurs Duncan Rileyand Stephen Mayne to a one night ’startup camp’ in which students had to pitch their website prototype as though they were pitching to a VC. (No, I couldn’t find a female web entrepreneur in Melbourne to join the panel. That sucked too.)

I’m disappointed that despite so many of my promising students developing awesome web prototypes, so far they don’t seem inclined to take the next step into launching them as commercial ventures. I feel this is a touchy thing to say where my female students will read it, but to be honest, I’ve come to expect that my best female students, who are often the driving creative forces behind the web projects build in my class, are even less likely than their male counterparts, to take the leap into startup land. But I’m going to keep trying, because that’s why I do what I do. I want to help young people make awesome stuff on the web.

In short, I’m not unaware that there is a gender imbalance in tech, and I’ve put in a fair amount of time to organising events aimed at helping even up the gender balance. I have walked the talk.

So I feel qualified to point out two reasons why Boris’ article asking “What is keeping women out of tech” is just, well, unhelpful. It annoys me that so often discussion of the low representation of women in tech is blamed on women. It kind of makes me think of a guy with terrible body odour and bad breath sitting at a party, wondering why people are avoiding him, and then saying they must all be terrible snobs, it couldn’t be HIS fault. My other pet peeve is when people make huge generalisations about ALL WOMEN:

Don’t get me wrong. I love women and think they are smarter, faster and more organized than men. Unfortunately I don’t see too many women taking advantage of their skills and the opportunities presented to them.

Which might also be written as “Some of my best friends are women, but my goodness you’re all lazy good for nothings aren’t you?” Thanks for making my amazing, accomplished female friends in tech INVISIBLE.

Boris also seems to agree with the comedian he quotes who told a bunch of women at a networking event that since they hadn’t brought business cards: “I guess you all thought that if you show your breasts he will remember you.” How is this appropriate language for a business event? The gender of the speaker is irrelevant. I wouldn’t go to a business event and make a joke to a guy about if he wants me to remember him he should take out his penis. It beggars belief that I should even have to explain this.

It is perhaps this last point which is hard to convince people like Boris to understand. It’s partly because so many sexist behaviours happen again and again and again that women sometimes lose patience with demanding better behaviour. it sometimes feels you’d have more success trying to herd a colony of cats than change the elements within any given male dominated tech business or community to bring in more female talent. So, some smart women decide, as Boris suggests, to put their time elsewhere. Either by working outside of tech, or by declining to enter the same tired blogging debate in women in tech. Fran Molloy, a commenter on my blog, put it quite nicely:

No women in tech? Witness the rise and rise of ‘mumpreneurs’ who don’t have formal qualifications, don’t go to industry conferences, don’t self-promote “Look at me, i’m in TECH and I’m a chick, wow!!” but learn on the job, get the work done and get on with their lives.

My problem with Boris’ take on the situation is that he criticises women for never DOING anything, except showing up to complain about “getting sexualized in a business context.” But his argument basically boils down to complaining that no women come to The Next Web conference, without exploring why that might be, and how TNW might change things to get more women involved. It must be OUR FAULT.

If the purpose of Boris’ post was really to try to talk to women about their under representation, and maybe to encourage more women to attend The Next Web, I have to say it’s made me feel discouraged, rather than encouraged.

But the fact is, if we really want to change the under representation of women in tech, and make sure we attract the finest minds we can, someone needs to budge and admit ‘we need to change things around’. Pointing fingers at each other while saying “I don’t need to do anything differently” is going to achieve exactly zip.

So, I’m here to point out how we might tweak our conversation in order to move forward.

One great place to start is the Geek Feminism blog, which is full of tech women (many of whom are successful geek women and entrepreneurs) who take time out of their work and personal lives to try to encourage other women to succeed in tech. That approach is what impresses me, more than hollow complaints.

If you’re actually interested in making your software better by having a more diverse range of people working on it, or making the Web better by ensuring that we attract as many creative, entrepreneurial women to Web startups as we can, then ask some of the successful tech women around who’ve come up with ways to do that, within their own companies and communities .

I look forward to seeing the Web our daughters build. I’m helping teach them how to build it. What are you doing?

Sarah Stokely (About)


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