The future is coming at you hard and fast. It’s not just that your three-year-old computer is out of date, it’s that the latest apps won’t even run on your iPad from last year.
You think you’re really on top of things with your smartphone but if you haven’t saved everything to the cloud and can’t access your data on the fly, you are so behind the times. Your bank tells you that if you don’t want to manage your account online, you are going to pay a monthly service fee.
Even your dentist’s office wants you to book your appointments on the office’s website now. It doesn’t just feel like change is happening faster, it really is. And let me tell you, things are not going to slow down. Sounds scary, right?
Well, it’s even more frightening if you are a woman. You see, men have been building, designing and mapping out technology without women. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not by much. If you think today’s world discriminates against women, brace yourself.
Here’s a telling story, when the engineering team that created the original speech-recognition system first tested it with a woman, the system hung up on her. Why? Because there were no women on the engineering team, and the system wasn’t designed to recognize female voice octaves.
The pace of change, specifically in technology, will certainly accelerate in the next five to 10 years. Systems have moved on from speech recognition to recognizing faces and bodily movements. (We could really be in trouble here). If technology is the new frontier, it will seem more like the Wild West than Star Trek.
I tend to be acutely aware of gender bias. I have three older brothers so, growing up, not only was I treated like I could do everything that they could do, my family required it. Imagine my shock going for a business loan and having the banker lean in and say, “You might want to take these papers home to your husband so that he can explain them.” And that was last year! (I ran from that bank.) So when I started to notice that every email from my tech news feed seemed to be about men — the photos, the quotes, the awards — I started tracking.
Sure enough, every bit of coverage was about white males. Then one day, a picture of a pretty, young woman popped up in the tech news email. Could it be true, I thought, a female entrepreneur in tech? I read on.
Turns out she was a “feature,” an assistant they wanted to spotlight. Complete with cutesy Q and A, such as what was her favorite TV show. Ri-i-i-ght, I get it. From the “feature” to bikini “booth babes” at the Consumer Electronics Show, I was beginning to see why a career in technology might be turning some women away.
Research says things are not only bad, but they are getting worse. According to National Center for Women and Information Technology, women hold 56 percent of all professional jobs in the U.S. workforce, but only 25 percent of IT jobs. Only 11 percent of the executives at Fortune 500 tech companies are women. And while this might sound bad — 37 percent of undergraduate computing and information sciences degrees were awarded to women in 1985 — it’s actually getting worse. In 2009, just 18 percent of women earned one of these degrees.
What’s interesting is that it doesn’t start out that way in young girls. Consider the 90 percent of girls ages 11 to 16 who think computers and cutting-edge gadgets are cool, according to one recent survey. Teen girls are now using computers at rates similar to their male peers. But they are five times less likely to consider a technology-related career or plan on taking post-secondary technology classes.
A gender-diverse industry will create products and services that better reflect the interests of those who use (and pay for) these items. If women want to have a “voice” in the future, we need to find a way to encourage young women in computer science.
There are many exciting and important jobs waiting for men and women to build, design and map the future together.