A couple of weeks ago I was asked to give a talk to the inaugural class of Mexico City’s Citizen Programmer Fellowship. The six programmer fellows will each spend nine months embedded in a city agency where they will develop a technology project and promote more inter-agency collaboration. (Disclosure: I participated on the selection jury.)
To say that I was impressed by the calibre of the fellows is an understatement. Mexico City’s new office of innovation, the City Laboratory, received 150 applications, which were whittled down to a short list of 50, a shorter list of 20, and finally the six resulting fellows. They are impassioned, competent, curious, and eloquent. They demonstrate the rare combination of technical capacity, civic empathy and political savvy.
There is only one problem with these six fellows: they are all men. Indeed, only one of the 20 finalists was a woman. The question is, why? Here’s what Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider had to say last week when New York Magazine asked him, “Does the tech world have a woman problem?”
I think the tech world is just kind of — it doesn’t have a woman problem. Women in tech are great. There’s just not that many of them because tech is just a kind of thing that a lot of women aren’t that interested in, I think. I mean, I don’t think it has a problem. I’d worry more about taking away what makes tech great. The freewheeling nature of it is what leads to innovation. And my fear is that if we’re all going to police what we say, maybe we lose that innovation. And tech is important, it’s really important to this country and to the world. And I’d hate to see us kill the goose that lays the golden egg by turning it into a politically correct wasteland.
My talk at the City Laboratory was preceded by a much more interesting talk by Hewlett Foundation program officer Alfonsina Peñaloza. After our presentations, we grabbed a couple glasses of wine and were joined by Paola Villarreal, the director of the fellows program and one of the few influential women programmers in Mexico. Was Dickinson right? Did the Mexico City fellowship program attract so few women applicants because women just aren’t interested in technology?
Alfonsina made an important observation: washing machines are technology. In fact, as anyone who has ever attempted to use a modern washing machine knows, they are an extremely complicated piece of technology. But this doesn’t stop women from mastering the washing machine, and it doesn’t stop most men from inventing any excuse to avoid learning how they work. Women master the technology because they are expected to. And men avoid it at any cost because they are expected to.
Please don’t ask me to operate this thing
In 1911, Frederick Louis Maytag unveiled an electric version of his Pastime Washer, which formerly was powered by a hand crank. It was the first electric washing machine, and it was made available to the public the same year as the Ford Model T. For the rest of the 20th century, gender roles around technology were clearly defined; women were expected to master the washing machine, and men the automobile.
Alfonsina observed that most women avoid programming for the same reasons that most men avoid washing machines: because they are expected to.
Without some intervention, 21st century women will treat digital technologies the same way that 20th century women treated cars. Fortunately, in the United States there are a number of groups working to attract more women to programming. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology has a number of programs to attract more women to technology, including mentoring programs and the Google Anita Born Memorial Scholarship, which is available to aspiring women technologists everywhere (except for Latin America). There are hundreds of grassroots networks of women programmers including Women Who Code, Women in Technology, Girls Who Code, and many more. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of a single initiative in Mexico that aims to attract more women to computer programming. In fact, across all of Latin America, Chicas Poderasas is the only initiative I have come across that aims to bring more women to tech.
Even with mentorship, scholarship programs, and support networks, significant numbers of women won’t enter the technology sector unless cultural norms change. One encouraging precedent is the sea change in women’s sports during the 1960s and 70s. Prior to Title IX, which codified into law in 1972 that no one shall “be excluded from participation in … any education program” (including athletics), women were not expected to play competitive sports. Soon sports companies like Nike realized that they could double the size of their market by encouraging women to participate in competitive sports, and by designing products especially for women. By 1974, womenSports, the first magazine dedicated to women in sports, was published.
It required government regulation and the participation of major companies, but today in most countries we expect young girls to play a competitive sport just as much as we expect young boys to. In just a couple decades the expectations of gender roles changed drastically in the world of sports. The same can be achieved in technology.
As for me? I’m finally learning how our washing machine works.