As I grew up, in my mind, I saw the idea of a glass ceiling or a gender gap in the workplace as a relic. It was for the history books, something my mom and grandmother had to deal with, but never something I would encounter. In my generation - I'm 22 - women sometimes even take equality for granted, grumbling about a bygone era when guys used to be (chauvinist) gentlemen.
But, is the battle really over? Can we rightfully declare victory and move on with our daily lives? Lately, I've been thinking the answer's no. If you look at the actual statistics, they show we still have a ways to go.
While women account for 57% of all college students, only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women according to a 2008 PEW Research Study. Only two percent? It's easy to rationalize away differences in women's outcomes as differences in choices not opportunities. Women make less than men (76.5% of what men earn, according to a 2004 study), but maybe it's because of the choices women make. Many choose to slow down their careers to have children. Women often value having a little more free time rather than working longer work weeks. Women choose to go into "pink-collar" careers like sales and PR that pay less than more technical options (and I'm a little guilty myself since I'm on the marketing side). But if the choices are causing differences this stark we need to look at what's causing them.
Working in the tech industry in the Silicon Valley, I see the biggest divide in my daily life. I regularly go to iPhone and Android developer meetups and am one of the few girls there (and sometimes the only one). At the tech startup I work with I'm the only full-time female employee. But having been involved some in the recruiting process myself, I know the answer isn't sexism. Men are simply much, much more likely to apply for these jobs.
What is it about women or our society that makes tech seem so unattractive to the female gender? Perhaps I'm the wrong person to ask, since in many ways I'm the exception to the rule -- I had my own domain name by age 11, was programming websites by high school, and am currently working for a tech startup.
Instead of looking for issues in hiring or the workplace, I think we need to look at attitudes. A report was recently released from the New Image for Computing project that found that 45% of boys thought computer science would be a "very good" major for them compared to only 10% of girls. Girls need role models to show them that the tech world is not a boys only club. Our society makes it all too clear that everything "techie" from computer games, to programming, to gadgets, are centered around boys (just take a recent Droid commercial as an example).
Women need role models to show them that being involved in tech isn't a bad thing (my dad and siblings are the ones who encourage me). Yet, with such a huge gender gap, all women see at tech events and in tech companies is that tech is all about men. Only 5 percent of computer programmers are women, and women lead only 5 to 6 percent of major high tech companies in the Silicon Valley (source). That's part of the reason I'll be going to the Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference next week because there simply aren't enough times when girls in technology get a chance to form a common bond.
I don't have the solution. I wish I did, but I think the answer lies in bringing the issue out into the open. Let's not pretend that everything is completely equal and no work's left to be done. But let's also not simply blame the system and deem the situation impossible. Let's talk.