What’s different about Computer Science

Among the most vexing issues on the topic of lack of women in tech is why is it different from other fields that have gone from being male dominated to gender balanced. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that virtually all doctors and lawyers were men. This disturbing chart in this story on NPR makes the point quite dramatically.chart women percentage

Starting in the early ‘70’s, simultaneous with the rise of the feminist movement, women began making steady gains entering the professional and scientific fields. Over the course of the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 women went from about 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of the class at US Medical and Law schools.   Even physical science graduate programs made strong gains. Computer science was on a similar trajectory then turned sharply down. Why?

As I dug into the numbers it gets even more discouraging. Not only are there fewer women computer science majors on a percentage basis, during a time when the field has experienced dramatic growth, the absolute number has been cut in half.

The downturn started in 1984 which happens to correlate with the introduction of personal computers. The hypothesis posed is that the early personal computers were marketed to men and parents of boys. An example of this is this early Apple ad.   Potentially these marketing strategies fostered a societal view that computers were for boys.

This was reinforced throughout popular culture. While we saw women doctors and lawyers on TV and in the movies, the movies that show programmers have nearly all male protagonists – everything from Revenge of the Nerds and War Games to Firewall and The Social Network.

It’s easy to follow the trajectory forward.  Boys have more access to computers and programming experience growing up.  Girls arrive at college with less experience then their male peers because they haven’t been programming on their own and are therefore at a disadvantage in the introductory C.S. classes. Even if they understand the theory the lack of hours of experience will be hard to quickly overcome. It is natural for students, their peers, families and professors to mistake this lack of experience with lack of aptitude. This was the finding of Jane Margolis, one of the foremost experts on disparities by race and gender in computer science, in her research at Carnegie Mellon.

Some colleges such as Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon are proactively dealing with this issue. They are making real progress – at Carnegie Mellon women in the class of 2014 comprise 40% of their CS majors. These programs at Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon can and should be replicated. Making CS part of a core required high school curriculum could level the playing field. While discouraging for computer science, the chart above shows that change is possible.  Like any major sociological change, though, there are not quick fixes. As parents, technology marketers and educators we need to step up.

Hitting our Stride

Last fall, Steve and I went back to Boston for our 25th HBS reunion.  We had an incredible turnout and great fun reconnecting with old friends from literally around the world. In addition, I just happily celebrated a milestone (50th) birthday.  Both of those events, I suppose, leads me to become more thoughtful on the topic of age and  work stage.

It was interesting to see the broad range of stages people were at in their careers. A few of our friends that were in semi or complete retirement mode.  At the same time many, particularly women, were just gearing up.   Several of our female friends were going back to work after some time focused on children with a few starting brand new enterprises.  For example it was great to reconnect with MaryAnne Gucciardi and discuss ecommerce strategies for her cool new startup DragonWingGirl.  Others hadn’t left the working world to parent but were clearly putting the pedal to the metal now that they are becoming “free birds” (a.k.a. empty nesters).  I could certainly resonate with that pattern.  While I have been continually intense in my career focus, the jump to entrepreneurship was a better fit for me when my kids were past the baby stage.

I am seeing a similar pattern outside of my alumnae network.  Since selling Catch.com as I have been exploring new startup ideas I have worked with, advised or met several 40’s and 50’s women embarking on an intense entrepreneurship journey.  Examples include Sarah Frisken of MadeWithMischief to Trish Costello of Portfolia and my former employees Tanya Roberts starting SheByShe and Melinda Byerly, founding Vendorsi.

I am thrilled to see such accomplished women as Janet Yellen (67) and Christine LaGarde (58) in literally two of the most powerful positions in the world.  While I cannot deny the uncanny abilities of Mark Zuckerberg in creating a multibillion dollar company in his 20’s, I must say that I’m glad that the leaders of the free-world’s financial system have a bit more experience under their belt!

Sadly, closer to home, another accomplished female economist, my cousin Pearl Kamer passed away at 74 during the height of her career.  The obituaries and eulogies, noted her impressive accomplishments as the foremost economist for the Long Island region.  They also remarked on what she was recently in the process of doing and what she could have still accomplished.  She clearly had more to contribute.  Her insights were astute – forecasting the real estate bubble and other key economic trends.

I get a thrill every time I see my former professor and thesis adviser Madeline Albright lecturing or on the talk show circuit making mincemeat of tricky questions or difficult presenters on the other side and I hope to have the opportunity to support Hillary Clinton running for and achieving the Presidency of the US.  The supreme court of our country includes among its three women an impressive octogenarian.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the toughest human beings on the planet.  Not only has she survived two bouts with cancer she was back hearing oral arguments 12 days after pancreatic cancer surgery and didn’t miss a day of work when battling colon cancer.  While in law school and right after the birth of her daughter, Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with cancer.  She attended class and took notes for both of them; typed her husband’s papers from his dictation; and cared for their daughter and her sick husband – all while making the Harvard Law Review.

I am fortunate to have role models in my family for prioritizing continued work and contribution.  My great-uncle Frank Kamer (father of Pearl) practiced as an attorney until age 98.  Both of my parents, and my father-in-law, all in their 70’s, are actively practicing as physicians.  In fact, just a few months ago, my mother who worked as medical director of the North Shore Hospital Drug Rehabilitation program for more than 30 years was offered a promotion to lead an even larger program at a neighboring hospital

I aspire to follow in their footsteps.  While able to leverage my years of experience, I believe that I still have much to learn and contribute.  With each new technology, market or situation I find myself on a steep learning curve which is what makes work so exciting.  For this reason, I find biases such as the ones described here  and here to be so distressing and damaging.

This article provides a more nuanced and explanatory view and explores solutions.  As bad as the biases may be in real life, the fact that the media portrays them as completely pervasive makes their impact even worse.  In fact, the reality of startup land is much, much more diverse than the media portrayal.  This was clear to me even at the recent Launch festival here in San Francisco.

There are many great startups being founded and managed by 40 and 50 somethings.  In February, I visited Paula Long, my former board member at SugarSync, cofounder of Equallogic and now cofounder of the hot startup DataGravity.  DataGravity raised a $30million series B led by Andressen Horowitz – they are innovating at the intersection of storage and big data – exciting and critical fields today.  I didn’t see a single hoodie or masseuse at their office in Nashua.

Of course, in addition to startups being founded and led by this demographic, there are impressive members leading some of the biggest and most important companies in tech – HP, IBM, Xerox and beyond – eg GM to name a few.

Lets be sure to get the story of these women as publicized as the male 20 something story.  Half the battle towards ending these biases is awareness and information.  I believe that seeing these role models frequently and in a fair and reasonable light would encourage young women to stick it out in their careers during the challenging baby stage or maintain their skills part time or even simply dive back in later.  This pool of talent has so much potential and our society and they have so much to gain

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Two Steps Forward One Step Back

There is a famous Jewish teaching that has been on my mind given recent events in both women in tech as well as in general business:

It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)

I wrote a few months ago about the HBS W50 event I attended – it was a gathering of HBS alumnae to celebrate, reflect on the progress (and lack thereof) of women in positions of leadership.  We were briefed on programs they have instituted to improve gender relations.  That program was highlighted in the recent New York Times piece

The article elicited mixed feelings from the classmates I have spoken with.  The consensus was that things as described in the article seemed significantly worse in terms of blatant sexism then when we were there.  It is incredibly disturbing to see regression on treatment of women. There was some question, however, if being married (or engaged) as the 3 local friends I spoke with perhaps shielded us from some of the issues?  Certainly there is some data to support this – the gender gap didn’t exist for married students.  Apparently since those students didn’t feel the pressure to find their mate amongst their class mates they could feel free to express themselves more fully in class.

But whether or not the situation at HBS is the same or worse than 25 years ago the most important point is that it is unacceptable and kudos to the administration for actively working on change.  That change is ruffling feathers and making people uncomfortable.  Perhaps there were missteps in the process – to be expected with such a complex problem but the point is that the status quo is not tolerable.

I was also encouraged to see the about face made by GoDaddy on their advertising tactics.  They finally figured out that it’s not good business to run derogatory advertising making your target customer feel degraded as described here.   Better late then never but progress.

Lack of progress, however, was on display at the TechCrunch Disrupt demo fiasco.  TechCrunch allowed (encouraged?) clearly misogynist demos.  I won’t link to them here because I don’t want TechCrunch to continue to benefit from such willful sexism.  This issue was so blatant that it almost defies a tactical response.  One cannot even discuss programs to target awareness and sensitivity when the behavior seemed so deliberate as to question any motivation for acceptance of women in the arena.  At least TechCrunch apologized.  At DefCon the sexist content is part of official programming – “Hacker Jeopardy” features a woman undressing.  Seeing people such as the CTO of Business Insider in reputable positions in the tech world defending offensive “brogrammers” is particularly upsetting and overwhelming.

It is easy to be discouraged and give up trying to right the situation.  But the glimmers of hope surround us.   Institutions such as HBS in a position of influence struggling to change and changing.  Nine year old Alexandra Jordan presented the hack “superfunkidtime.com” on stage.  Business Insider sent the aforementinoed CTO packing.  All of the aspiring girl programming I’m seeing in this year’s Technovation program not to mention the apps and the teams that built them in last year’s competition.  I’m looking forward to this year’s TechWomen program where I will once again be mentoring a Jordanian female technologist.

More importantly, the opportunity is huge.  Solving the gender gap in technology would go along way towards solving the shortage of programmers.  A 2007 Goldman Sachs report concluded that closing the gap between male and female employment would add 9% to US GDP, 13% to European GDPs and 16% to Japan’s GDP.

Feeling like we can’t solve the problem is not an excuse to not make progress.  Stepping away from “overwhelmed” to concrete steps, small or large.  It is not upon us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.

Life Is Not A Science Experiment

According to Wikipedia a scientific control is an “experiment or observation designed to minimize the effects of variables other than the single independent variable. This increases the reliability of the results, often through a comparison between control measurements and the other measurements.”

I recently read the  NYTimes article “The Opt Out Generation Wants Back In” and some of the ensuing discussion such as here.

I found myself engrossed in the individual stories – all of the women profiled were very clear about what they gave up and what the cost was – also what they gained and enjoyed.  For a variety of reasons, however, the losses were looming large in their minds.  There was a lot of implied “what iff’ing” going on – as if the alternate path was knowable.

I think it is human nature to compare ourselves and our decisions with others and that comparison often leads us to feel dissatisfied with our lot in life.  That comparison can feel particularly acute if one made the explicit choice to be on their current path and is observing the benefits others are accruing from the alternate choice.  We notice the benefits of their choice and the weaknesses of our own more readily than the inverse.

I am no exception to the tendency to “what iff.”  Could I have maintained my career opportunities if I traveled less and missed fewer school events?  How would that have affected my children – would they have noticed or remembered?  Fortunately I don’t find myself “what-iff’ing” my children’s general well-being being bettered by my not working – seeing who they are and what they are doing I feel very blessed.

As many of my friends are approaching the freebird aka empty nest state, I see a big range in satisfaction among those who opted out.  In some cases without regrets and looking forward to new activities professional and/or volunteer to occupy what used to be parenting time, in other cases with decidedly more ambivalent feelings.  The decision to stay home when kids were little and their job had little flexibility v. now that kids are older and their peers are in high-level and perhaps more flexible roles than expected may put that decision in a different light.

But the truth is that it is impossible to truly know what the alternate course would have yielded.  Life is not a science experiment where all variables but one can be held constant.  With a decision such as working outside the home v. staying home full-time or even the possibilities in between, the variable is clearly not independent.  It impacts all of our relationships in immeasurable ways.  Even the financial impact cannot be known for certain.

The most interesting part of all this to me is that there is any element of surprise.  I notice a sense of unreality filtering through the NYTimes interviews.  Almost as if there was an expectation for a “storybook” outcome – actually for both the opt-in and opt-out path takers.  Perhaps this contributes to the regrets and potential dissatisfaction.

More choices and more options for working parents are sorely needed but those options will still come with tradeoffs unless there is a built-in day-extender.

There is always a road not traveled.  By definition that road is not known and it is natural to be curious what it would have been like.  But the story does not (hopefully) need to end at midlife.  I believe strongly that regardless of past choices and the inherent challenges there is the opportunity to set new goals and forward objectives and embark on a different road.

 

The Danger of Assumptions

An assumption is something we take for granted or accept as true without proof.  Assumptions are a necessary and important part of life – without them we would waste a tremendous amount of time verifying every detail of life’s operations. Assumptions make daily living more practical in matters ranging from interacting with our family to driving a car and doing complex projects at work.

But assumptions can be dangerous – they can limit our options and creativity, even our growth and development.  My focus here, however, is when assumptions lead us to errors in our actions and judgement with negative consequences.  I’ll give an example.

Early on at SugarSync we identified the need to improve many of our written documents – marketing, support articles, product documentation etc.  We were still small and only had  budget for a part time contractor.  One of our team members knew of such a person from a prior technical company where she also was a part-time contractor.  She is a mother with young children, her husband traveled quite a bit for work and at the time she wanted a part-time flexible arrangement.  This was a great mutual fit and she joined our team in this capacity.  She was highly competent and well liked by her colleagues.  As SugarSync grew we realized that we really needed full-time efforts on this function.  It didn’t occur to us that she would be interested in such a role so we started recruiting.  A couple of months later (we hadn’t hired the full-time person, in part because they didn’t measure up) our contractor gave notice that she had a full-time offer.  How could this be?  She assumed that we must not have liked her very much if we didn’t offer her the position.  We assumed that she was not interested in full-time work or would have spoken up when the workload increased or when we posted the position.  Fortunately this situation had a happy ending and she joined SugarSync full-time but it was an unnecessarily close call with a lot of avoidable heartache and time spent by both sides on recruiting.

This was a reminder to all involved about the need for extra communication and especially about the need to validate assumptions.  These types of assumptions about an individual’s career goals are particularly risky and can be incorrectly influence by gender.  Assumptions that were once valid can become erroneous in even short periods of time.  People change, their situations change.  Marketplaces and business, especially in technology, are extremely dynamic making assumptions particularly risky.

I believe that consciousness of our assumptions is one of the key foundations of critical thinking skills.  Engaging in a Socratic thought process of “what are we assuming” “how did we choose those assumptions” and “what could we assume instead” can raise this consciousness and open up creative avenues for solving existing problems with new ideas.

Assumptions are at the heart of bias and stereotypes and recognizing and questioning our assumptions is the key to change.  I believe the overwhelming evidence that diverse teams create better results is founded on the higher likelihood of those teams to overcome false assumptions and biases.  Successful leaders foster an environment that challenges assumptions and associated limits.  Innovative companies by definition have successfully challenged widely-held assumptions.  That’s why my favorite saying on the topic is this one by Ken Olson “The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong”

I’d love to hear any examples you want to share of interesting or important false assumptions!

Why Read “Lean In”

I was fortunate last week to spend four straight days of focus on women in business and education.  One of the highlights was getting to hear Sheryl Sandberg talk about “Lean In.”  I had just finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago – most of the material in her talk came straight out of the book but it was nice to hear it directly.

My takeaway is this – the messages in the book are truly important for both women and men to hear.  They are well researched and presented with personal examples which makes the book enjoyable to read.

The messages that I found most significant that I wanted to reiterate are these:

1. Be cognizant of the negative images presented of working mothers in the media.  After all, it’s not a very interesting story to talk about how people are functioning well.  The vast majority of working mothers are portrayed negatively – either as having no personal life or as “always harried and guilt ridden think Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know how She Does It” (p.23).  Women are surrounded by headlines warning them that they can’t do it all, even though the data actually contradicts this – “Employed women reap rewards including greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and, in general, increased life satisfaction” (p.24).

Reminding ourselves that there is tremendous bias in this portrayal and noticing the role models who are thriving can help us aspire to the same.  As parents we can point them out to our children and remind our friends and colleagues. These societally driven negative perceptions will be self-fulfilling prophecies if we don’t guard against them.

2. Multiple research studies show that women underestimate themselves and society underestimates them.  When women underestimate themselves and when they attribute their success not to themselves but to others or luck (a related tendency) they, not surprisingly, do not aspire as high.  Our culture and the media confirmation perpetuates this.

Awareness of this self talk, boosting our female colleagues, friends and family and debunking unfair reviews by media and others are important to balance this tendency.  Keeping these biases in mind, women can ask themselves are they not applying for or accepting the promotion due to unsubstantiated insecurities?  Similarly, as managers we may need to seek out women and suggest they consider expanded roles, and certainly not hold it against them if they don’t apply as readily.

3.  Sandberg describes the success/likeability double standard that pervades our culture.  The research clearly shows that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women” (p.40).  Women are intuitive enough to sense this double standard and either consciously or unconsciously hold themselves back.  I’ve seen devastating consequences of this double standard for my women friends and colleagues – both socially and professionally.  It takes a very thick skin to put yourself in the fray and there is a price to pay.  This ties back to the underestimation point (above) as stated by to author Ken Auletta in the New Yorker “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense”

This barrier is a tough one to get over – we are social creatures, we want and even need to be liked.  Unfortunately, for now, we need to learn to withstand this criticism – not ignore it  – it is ok to let the feelings exist, but by not dwelling we can prove this myth wrong and work to change it – once again, awareness is the most important step.

There are other important messages in the book and I applaud Sandberg for putting herself out there in writing the book and for including her many personal stories.  Of course, her resources gives her options and support that most working mothers don’t have.  I found myself chuckling that her description of her and her husband’s marital division of household labor doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of things like laundry and cleaning (p.111).  Nevertheless, the main points and issues she describes and certainly the ones above are true for women of all socioeconomic positions.

As far as the criticism and controversy that has surrounded the book, especially at first (I note that it has died down – I think now that more people have actually read it) I find it to be the height of irony.  Many of the critics are displaying exactly the kind of biases  Sandberg writes about – certainly the likeability one.  I see no reason not to assume her absolute best intentions.  We should applaud her for applying her talents and ambition and “Leaning In” to support and encourage women and families.

Working From Home

The recent Yahoo policy banning working from home has become quite controversial spawning many articles and even a highway 101 billboard.  Over the years I’ve managed teams using a range of policies so I have some definite views about what works and what doesn’t in different situations.  And that is the key point…this is not a one size fits all theory but one that is specific to the business and it’s situation at the time.

It wasn’t so long ago that we did not have the tools to make working from home practical.   As I’ve written about here previously, in my early days at Informix – pre laptop, pre internet at home, I would need to go back to the office to work in the evening or weekends.  Those tools and technologies enhanced by web and video conferencing allow us to be extremely effective even when not in the office.

I’ve experienced varying degrees of remote work effectiveness during my career.  When I was at Netscape (post IPO 97-03), the success of the Mozilla project and browser development in general was strongly impacted by key developers who worked remotely.  Their talents would become obvious from their open source contributions and either they would participate long term as key volunteers or in several cases we hired them as employees.  Most of those individuals stayed working in their locations as far away as Europe and New Zealand.  We also had some star employees who had to move out of the area for personal reasons.  What made these situations work well was the proven talent and work ethic of these individuals plus the open source infrastructure to manage their contributions and assess their performance.  There was a critical mass of remote employees that meant that large group meetings were always set up with dial-in numbers and managers were trained to facilitate.  We even had one director who effectively managed a multi-location team from Boulder.  That being said, most employees were in the office most of the time and it was a very collaborative culture.

My next role, ironically given the impetus for this post was at Yahoo.  I was there from 2003-2004 – during the heyday.  It is interesting to note that people rarely worked from home during that time.

When I got to Check Point to manage the Zone Labs division I inherited a very liberal work from home policy.  In addition, Wednesday and Friday were supposed to be “no-meetings” days.   Early on my manager Eyal Desheh expressed concern about the productivity and work ethic of the team.  My first assumption was that he didn’t understand Silicon Valley culture and how this could actually work.  Unfortunately, his warnings were correct.  The issue wasn’t the work from home as much as a lack of drive related to many typical post acquisition HR issues.  The work ethic issues were far from universal but they were contagious and affected everyone and working from home accentuated the problems.  I quickly changed the work from home policy for the people who reported to me.  The “no meetings” policy was changed to not apply to my team nor managers in the engineering organization and it eventually fell away (although managing the amount of time spent in meetings, particularly for engineers is critical).  The transition was difficult and created lots of handwringing but it improved productivity quickly and morale soon after.

When I started at SugarSync I was glad to see that our culture was one of people working primarily in the office.  In January of 2009 we were 13 people – the challenge was great to just get the job done with such a small team.  We couldn’t afford missteps anoffice spaced missed communication and collaboration possibilities by not being together.  We kept that policy going as we hired – it is much easier if the ground rules are clear from the start.  We designed our new office to be a very open setup to foster collaboration.

This didn’t mean it was easy – SugarSync has several people commuting long distances.  We always have had flextime – working slightly earlier or later schedules to avoid the traffic but still we were generally in the office together during the main part of the day.  Of course this doesn’t mean we didn’t recognize that people have life issues that require occasional work from home – a sick child, dentist appointments, plumbing emergencies but those are the exception not the norm.

For a startup in a fast moving industry such as the cloud, the work environment is dynamic and high-pressure.  Challenging problems require creativity and quick teamwork to solve.  I believe we were much more effective at SugarSync by being together.  As the team grew the learning curve was shortened dramatically for newcomers working alongside the experienced people.  Once people were working in our environment and saw the benefits of close proximity and collaboration they understood why it was needed and embraced it.  One of my favorite questions to ask new hires was what surprised them the most about SugarSync – a frequent answer was how they thought we were a much larger team than we in fact were.  I think this was a reflection of the team’s productivity.

Is it always better to be together in the office?  For certain tasks that require extended, uninterrupted time, working away from the office can be more productive (assuming you have an appropriate environment for concentration at the alternate location).  Some roles, like sales or field support by their nature are not in the office.  Many people have critical points in time where they need more time away from the office perhaps due to a health or other personal issue for them or a family member.  Allowing them to work remotely allows key people to stay with the company and maintain project continuity.

So what’s my net on this important debate?  For me it’s clear.  If at all possible, have the team primarily working together in the office during work hours.  If there are critical hires you can only make (or keep) it might be worth considering exceptions recognizing the consequences and need to manage around them.  For a company in crisis or a turnaround situation (like Yahoo) or where there is reason to believe there are productivity issues (again like Yahoo) having everyone much more together in the office may be one of the keys to the turnaround.   For a fast growing startup in a very intense space requiring collaboration and team problem solving working in the office together is important.

Does this make juggling work and personal life less easy – perhaps.  This is why companies need to be reasonably consistent.  If the reports of Marissa Mayer’s in the office nursery are true I would find that to be insensitive to the other parents of babies who are coming to the office without that close access.  We must, after all,  lead by example.  The example that I tried to set was to work hard and collaborate together during the workday.  When not in a crunch time, to leave early enough to have a few hours, including dinner, with the family and then, if needed, get back on line after the kids went to bed (or were doing their homework independently).    As managers and leaders we need to figure out what works best for our businesses and our teams.  These observations are what I have found to be most effective.

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