Where Are the Women in Technology?

As a follow up to my essay on where are the women entrepreneurs, I felt it fitting that I address women in technology. In Silicon Valley at least, the two seem to go hand in hand.

A spate of recent research is shedding more light on the fact that a woman's environment affects whether or not she chooses to pursue studies in math, science or engineering. Nurture, it appears, matters.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) released information about three studies that shed light on why women are not found in technology.

Study #1 followed a group of math students and found that 30 years ago there was 1 girl for every 13 boys that scored above 700 on the math portion of the SAT. Today there is 1 girl for every 3 boys. The conclusion: Such a rapid rise means culture has a lot to do with achievement in math and science for girls.

Study #2 found that if girls grow up in an environment with opportunities to develop their spatial skills, they are more likely to consider a future in science or engineering. Dr. Sheryl Sorby conducted research over a decade with first-year engineering students at Michigan Tech and discovered that individuals' spatial skills improve dramatically when they take a training course. Spatial skills therefore are not necessarily innate and can be learned.

Study #3 was done by sociologist Dr. Shelley Correll at Stanford University. Dr. Correll's research found that women suffer from tougher self-assessments than men when reviewing their math and science abilities which then affect their interest in the topics. Dr. Correll analyzed a dataset of more than 16,000 high school students and discovered that girls claim their mathematical abilities are lower than boys even though they have similar past mathematical achievements as those boys.

If environment is such a large factor in whether women choose technology, how can we change the environment? Another study done by Dr. Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado suggests that the change doesn't have to be dramatic.

Dr. Miyake divided a group of students taking an introductory course in physics (283 men and 116 women) and asked one group to pick their most important value from a list and write about why it mattered to them. The other group, the control group, was instructed to pick their least important value from the list and write about why it might matter to other people. The students were told the exercise was to improve their writing skills and it was done at the beginning of the course.

The result was transformative. In the control group, the men outperformed the women on four exams in the course. But in the first group, men and women performed equally as well. The simple task asked of the students had nothing to do with physics but changed the environment of that physics classroom and therefore the performance of women.

The good news is technology is in women and these studies point to ways we can find more women in technology.