women in tech

Stop telling women they just need to know how to code

January 3, 2014: 9:20 AM ET

The lack of female tech founders is about a lot more than knowing how to hack.

By Poornima Vijayashanker

140103090127-female-engineer-620xa

FORTUNE -- Moore's law, which is really a conjecture, states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. It is safe to presume that this doubling effect also doubles processor speeds, because having more transistors on a chip means faster processors.

However, you cannot just cram more transistors onto a chip in order to double it's speed indefinitely. Computing speed is also based on things such as memory capacity and it is limited by factors such disk speed.

Just as you cannot cram more transistors onto a chip in order to double processor speeds indefinitely, you cannot expect that simply adding more women to engineering colleges and code academies will produce a Mark Zuckerberg, who will go on to build a billion-dollar company in roughly seven years. Even having women who have been hacking since they were teenagers isn't enough (and mind you these women do exist, I am one of them, and there are more than a handful of others in my generation).

Now if the goal is to produce a female version of Mark (or Steve, Jeff, Elon, etc.), and for the sake of argument I'll assume that this is a worthy cause, it's going to take change on many levels. Teaching women how to code isn't enough.

Change in Mindset

Please bear with me as I draw an analogy using history. In 1865 the U.S. government abolished slavery. While this was an achievement, it only afforded some level of economic freedom to African Americans. Nearly 85 years later they were still being treated as second-class citizens via segregation. It wasn't until the 1950s that segregation ended, and it wasn't until 2008 that we elected our first African American president. Doing the math it took 143 years before African American were supposedly on equal political footing!

Unfortunately, women weren't afforded the right to vote until 1920. Even after that, it wasn't until the late 1950s and 1960s that society valued educating women at the university level but, even then, entering the workforce and actually staying in it after marriage and having children was considered an anomaly; it was a sign of having limited financial means or social support.

Hence while freedom for women and minorities was proclaimed, the status quo was slow to change.

Actual change means having to vigilantly put forth practices to enable people to exercise their freedoms, and that requires a combination of education and social practices, which will eradicate social norms.

I'll be careful in stating that in Western societies, we finally believe in valuing education for women, but we now have to turn to social practices.

We can encourage women to participate and welcome them with open arms, but that won't undo the thousands of years of ongoing cross-cultural practices that reinforce a woman's primary role as a nurturer (and I am not just talking about nurturing children). To overcome this requires a constant and vigilant effort globally. What does this mean in practice? It means the following:

  • Men supporting the notion that their female significant other can contribute as an equal partner financially or be the bread-winner of the household.

  • Really leaving the choice of having children up to women. This requires eradicating the unspoken judgment passed on women who choose not to have children and truly having the right to choice.

  • Really leaving the choice of taking care of elderly parents up to women. Longevity coupled with financial strain often mean that women are left to care for elderly parents and in-laws.

  • Having supportive social and economic practices for those who do chose to have children and take care of aging family members, which will need to be reinforced by some body such as companies or governments.

In theory, all of this exists today. I say in theory, because if they actually existed, why would we be still left wondering why women aren't more innovative wealth-creators a la Mark, Steve, Jeff, and Elon? Please tell me how this is possible without a sustained change in society's mindset towards women?!

However, as status quo goes there is a mixed message being sent to girls and women, and I will take liberty in saying that only girls and women will truly understand this because they experience it daily from young through adolescence and into adulthood: "Find the right partner by a certain age, because we are still controlled by biology, and nurture your children while still contributing to the family financially." Depending on your cultural background add, "Please don't forget about your obligations to your aging parents and in-laws."

I will also take liberty in saying that some, not all, but some people, who continue to reinforce and propagate this mixed message are an older generation of women, which sadly, often include our own mothers! I'm not saying it to place blame, but to merely point out who and what we face throughout our lives.

This is one of the factors that has led females to being bred and socially conditioned to seek stability, not risk. There is an inherent risk involved in first choosing to pursue engineering (being the minority in college) and then entrepreneurship (being financially unstable). Those of us who have chosen a risky path are merely anomalies (not a bad thing). The rest are waiting and watching to see how we will overcome the personal risk we've taken. Will we be castigated if we fail to build a billion-dollar company and innovative technology? Or will we feel like we missed out on motherhood? Or will we be able to balance both?

Meanwhile, it is still socially acceptable for men to focus wholeheartedly on their career.

Our expectation is for women to make the choice to innovate and create wealth, but everywhere women look from media to social practices and trends, all we see and hear that true happiness lies in finding a man and making babies.

Something has to give.

Because if you want to be a wealth-creator and billionaire like Oprah you may need to be childless. But if you want to be all: an innovator, a wealth-creator, and have children, then look to Marissa or Sheryl, who have chosen good partners and have high net worths…

I know there are female innovators who are also wealth-creators and even mothers, but the media hasn't chosen to consistently herald these women. Another mindset that needs to change.

Change in Behavior

As technologists we know that change in behavior takes time. However, there are some who are open to change, and we call those customers our early adopters. They are willing to put up with the an early product that is unrefined and has a limited feature-set, because they have acute pains they need alleviated. They welcome a new product with open arms, and eventually become evangelists, supporting and promoting our vision. The same is true for women in technology today.

The women who are in technology understand the benefits to pursuing a career in it. We also have learned how to put up with mixed social messages we receive in exchange for freedom, flexibility, and the financial benefits. But it still takes an inordinate amount of self-confidence and wherewithal to stick around.

While we expect our products to become adopted by the mainstream within 5-7 years, we cannot expect the same timeline when it comes to social change.

However, we can apply the same practices of product adoption to building awareness and having women adopt a career in tech. Here are some of the practices:

  • Education: Continuing to prioritize the importance of pursuing a major in engineering. This requires effort at the high school and college level plus support from parents. Coupled with an awareness of what it takes to receive investment from VCs and angels to build a company.

  • Product iteration: Continuing to refine the industry and making its value be known.

  • Pricing: Offering scholarships or financial assistance to those who are particularly interested in pursuing degrees and careers within the industry. And funding female founders who want to launch tech companies.

  • Customer support: Providing quality of service through mentorship and including programs to help those with and without families.

  • Case studies: Showcasing role models and success stories through mainstream media channels.

  • Perseverance: We know it takes time to build a product, refine it through multiple iterations, build a company from it, and then transform that company into a business. The same is true when it comes to investing in human capital. We have to continue to work towards the end without necessarily knowing when the exit will happen.

So please, I beg of you, stop thinking and touting that the answer lies in merely teaching women how to code. It requires more than just that. For those of us who know how already know how to code, and have been doing since we were teenagers, we can attest to the daily internal battle we fight against the imposter syndrome, and the outward battle we fight against received mixed messages from everyone else.

Innovation takes a great amount of knowledge, effort, and focus. Focus can only come if there is a support structure around us to help facilitate it. If we are distracted by mixed messages, and a plethora of priorities, then it will be hard to expect for us to create products that improve human life and wealth.

The point of this post isn't to place blame, to single out anyone, or come up with excuses. It is merely to educate, and make the reader aware of the amount of effort that has to take place on an individual, social and global level if we really want to have parity of presence.

If you want to help and truly believe in the cause of having women in tech then educate, encourage and empower every day!

Finally, hope but please don't expect that all these efforts to yield a Mark, Jeff, Steve, or Elon by 2020, for it will only have been 100 years since we were given the right to vote in the US, we may still need an additional 43 years.

Poornima Vijayashanker (@poornima)is the founder and CEO of BizeeBee, a provider of membership management software for yoga studios and other fitness businesses. She also is an adjunct instructor at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, and creator of the Femgineer site (where this post first appeared). She previously was a founding engineer at Mint.com (acquired by Intuit). 

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.