Women in Tech: Spring Forward or Fall Back?

One of my friends had a baby girl this week, which naturally raises the question of what kind of world she can expect to inhabit. I didn't know this until I had my first son, but parenting is the strongest act of optimism you can ever commit. You're placing a bet on the state of the world for the next century and taking the over on peace and prosperity. I'm a practicing pessimist, so that realization gave me the heebie-jeebies.

If my friend's newborn develops an interest in computer science, engineering or another technical profession, I'm afraid she'll find a world that actively discourages her from those pursuits because of her gender.

Timex Sinclair ZX81I've been a comp-sci geek since I stole my dad's Timex Sinclair ZX81 the minute I first laid eyes on it in 1980. From that day on, every step I took in that direction was encouraged and reinforced by my parents and peers. My father worked as an engineer and everyone I knew with an interest in coding and BBSes was male. (Correction: One girl wandered into the Dallas BBS community when I was 16. She was immediately subjected to a merciless barrage of awkward, mumbled pick-up lines directed at our own shoes.)

Some will say that the gender imbalance in tech is a natural consequence of males being more inclined to these pursuits. But looking back, I wonder whether I would have stuck with programming if it had been a female-dominated field in which family, friends and teachers all treated my interest as unusual.

A quarter-century later, the tech world is overwhelmingly -- sometimes even exclusively -- male.

Shelley Powers recently called out the Office 2.0 conference for its original 53-speaker roster, which included only one woman.

A conference I'd like to attend, the Spring Experience on Dec. 7-10 in Hollywood, Fl., has 38 scheduled speakers and describes them in this manner:

Presenters at The Spring Experience are recognized subject matter experts. They are published authors and/or committers on the Spring Project. No marketecture, no hype, just quality technically focused sessions to help you get the most out of Spring.

All 38 are men.

There are women involved in the Java Spring framework and related areas of programming, but the lack of a single one in the event's roster shows that organizers placed no priority on finding them. I spent an hour looking into the companies, projects and technologies mentioned in the bios of the 38 speakers and found 10 women well-qualified to speak at the event:

  • Portia Tung is a committer on the Spring Framework project team and an instructor at Core Spring bootcamps.
  • Dr. Helen Hawkins is a committer on the AspectJ Development Tools project and a member of IBM's aspect-oriented software development team.
  • Julie Waterhouse, another committer on AspectJ Development Tools, spoke at the Aspect-Oriented Software Development conference last year.
  • Deborah Hartmann is the agile community editor for the enterprise IT portal InfoQ and a speaker at Agile2006.
  • Dr. Rebecca Parsons, a speaker at several NoFluffJustStuff events, is a ThoughtWorks executive and comp-sci professor specializing in enterprise architecture.
  • Kathy Sierra is the author of Head First EJB and Head First Java and a former master trainer at Sun.
  • Fabiane Bizinella Nardon, a health care company's CTO and a member of Java Champions, gives frequent speeches on enterprise Java development.
  • C++ and Java instructor Angelika Langer is the "Effective Java" columnist for Java Spektrum and a speaker at numerous Java-related conferences.
  • Wendy Smoak is a committer on the Apache Struts, Shale and MyFaces projects and a member of the Apache Software Foundation.
  • Heather VanCura, a speaker at Europe's JavaPolis conference in 2005, is the marketing manager of the Java Community Process

I think it's time to expect technology conference organizers and invited speakers to care about the glaring lack of female leaders at their events. Spring's a Java 2 Enterprise Edition framework for hardcore professional development, yet I quickly found 10 female experts worthy of consideration. If each of this event's speakers had been asked a simple question, the embarrassment of the all-male roster could have been avoided: "Do you know any women in this field who ought to speak at the conference?"

Three weeks after Shelley Powers challenged Office 2.0 participants to ask themselves that question, the roster includes 12 more women.


Good post, Rogers. You help by staying on this. I was half expecting as I was reading to see you say you wouldn't be attending, but I guess there's a chance the lineup will improve.

We have a similar problem here in the UK with only about 20% of IT professionals being women.
Our leading professional body, The British Computer Society (BCS) is trying a couple of initiatives
to help redress the balance such as the BCS Women's forum

As for role models, the BCS have an award named after Lady Lovelace
- prestigeous enough to have Sir Tim Berners-Lee (2006) and Linus Torvalds (2000) as holders.(Lady L also had the Ada language named after her, of course).

I'm sure all these efforts are worthwhile - every little helps - but I used to teach programming and general computing stuff to 16+ year olds straight from school and we had about 10% of course applicants girls. I reckon that whatever happens to them has happened before they're 11.
Another BCS survey suggests possible image problems as the reason. Personally, I think a lot of it is to do with very early experiences with computers. Games tend to be boy-oriented. Maybe, just maybe, with messaging, texting and the Web, girls will find they can get as much out of computers as the boys - and that will feed through to course and career choices later. Having said that, my present boss is a woman (not the wife - the one at work), our Head of IT Development is also a woman - so the jobs are there and once in, I don't think gender makes any significant difference.

Obviously this is in our culture - things may be different in the US of A.

(Enjoy the blog BTW - keep up the good work.)


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