Despite the the fact that women, aged 25 to 34, represented the majority of the total Canadian university graduate population in 2011, they are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (STEM) career fields, according to Statistics Canada. Even though the percentage of women graduating with STEM degrees has increased over the past three decades, the number of women actually working in the field has barely changed during that time (20 per cent in 1987, which only increased to 22 per cent in 2015), reported by Maclean’s.
The absence of women in the tech industry has repeatedly been explained away with alleged biological reasoning, by men like Sigmund Freud to ex-Google employee James Damore, writes Gizmodo. The discourse that men like Freud and Damore claim is that women are biologically ill-equipped to deal with working in technology, and it’s endlessly circulated by *ahem* other men. Nothing summarizes this stance on women in tech industries better than Damore, who circulated a ten page memo in 2017 entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” in response to a mandatory Google diversity workshop. In the memo, he argued that “biological factors” are to blame for holding women back from succeeding in the workplace. There is no clear line to make that “biological” claim based on the research on women’s performance in laboratory settings and workplace environments, says a study reported in The Guardian. It’s time to end the debate. The very fact that some men are still leaning on such arguments to fight the integration of different gender identities in STEM fields is just inconceivable.
Being a woman working in the tech industry today means facing extremely disheartening stats: only 20 per cent (https://diversity.google) of Google’s technical employees are women. At Apple, 23 per cent of technical employees are women, and at Facebook, just 18 per cent. For women of colour, the stats are worse: in 2016 only three per cent of the computing workforce in the U.S. was composed of African American women. Apple, Google, and Facebook dominate Silicon Valley today, but the startling stats haven’t always looked this way. To understand the limited space women occupy in the tech industry now, we need to look at something else.
According to an article in The Verge, we need to look at history, not biology. Marie Hicks, a historian who researched women in the British tech industry, shares a story many people don’t know about women and computing. According to Hicks, in her book Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, women were fundamental to the development of computer technologies during and after World War II. They helped operate the Colossus, a code-breaking computer that contributed to deciphering the encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals during World War II. The Verge mentions that in the U.S., women programmed the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer.
According to Hicks, many people believe women were pushed out of the computing industry after the war ended because men came back to “claim” their jobs. However, Hicks states this is a myth in her talk about her book Programmed Inequality at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Women remained an integral element to the computing industry well into the 1960s and 70s. The reason for this is simple, writes Hicks: programming and coding was considered tedious, low-skilled work composed of repetitive tasks, which were believed to be suited more for women. Programming was thus widely perceived as a feminized form of labour. Beginning in the 60s, however, industry leaders in the government in the U.S. and Britain started viewing computers as complex and important. In her talk at IIT, Hicks says governments started actively pushing women out of the industry, now computers were considered “too complicated.”
The most important idea to take away from the history of the tech and computing industries in Britain and the United States is that the barriers blocking women from entering or staying in the field today are not accidental, and even less-so biological. Women face structural and institutionalized inequality. On a local level, Montreal could potentially be the next global artificial intelligence (AI) hub, it is necessary for citizens and leaders of the city to re-evaluate some strategies for integrating women in the tech industry. Learning about the limited place women occupy in computing sectors today and the history that precedes us is a good start.