Women in software & Frat house company "culture"

I had the pleasure of attending Business of Software 2010 last week. It was a fascinating conference, chock full of interesting speakers and lots of learning.  Seth Godin was there.  He's wicked awesome!

The attendees were mostly technical founders of small software companies.  Many were pre-venture financing, but many (most?) had no interest in venture financing and were bootstrapping. All were interested in learning how to build a thriving software business - whether the goal be building the next Microsoft, getting acquired, or just having a thriving business that funds a great lifestyle.

But here's an observation that struck me, powerfully, as soon as I arrived:

White Dudes Everywhere, As Far As The Eye Could See

About 85% of the ~300 attendees were white guys of all ages. Of the remaining 15%, about half were non-white guys, and half were women.

Where were all the NON-WHITE guys? 

In Silicon Valley, I am used to working with a LOT more Asian guys and Indian guys, in both technical and business roles. In fact, at many companies in this area, I've often found myself to be the only white one in the room.

Is this ridiculous skew an artifact of the conference being in Boston?  Or, well, ....what other explanations are there? I was truly puzzled.  In this respect, I do not believe the demographics of this crowd reflect the racial makeup of most software startups.

Where were all the WOMEN? 

I have truly NEVER been in such an overwhelmingly male crowd.  Seriously.  I even went to MIT in the 90s, majored in Computer Science, took Physics, and was in Army ROTC.  Yet I have never experienced such a sausage-fest.  The line for the men's room snaked down the hall, while the women's room had copious empty stalls!

Again, I was puzzled, and tempted to dismiss this as an aberration - not reflective of the true demographics of our industry.

But then I thought again and realized that in my experience at software companies, the percentage of women has been declining for years now. In fact, I suspects that the highest percentage of women in the software industry was probably around 2001 and has been on a downhill slide ever since.  My suspicions were further confirmed by the National Science Foundation, who found that the proportion of women studying computer science has decreased from 37 percent in 1985 to 19 percent today.   A huge drop of nearly 50%!

Fascinating, however, was the absolute conviction of many conference attendees (especially the younger guys) that there were far more women in the software field today than 10 years ago. This just ain't so, but perhaps each generation's default assumption is that they are more socially equitable than the previous generation. (kids today, tsk tsk...)

All this got me thinking: what happened to all the women?  Why is it getting worse?

The Typical "Why So Few Women" Theories

TechCrunch has been publishing a lot of articles that theorize on why so few software startups are founded by women.  Many apply these theories to software in general -- startup or not. The typical reasons given for women's poor representation include the following:

  1. Women prefer to focus on family & children instead of career, and software startups are too demanding to do both adequately
  2. There aren't enough women majoring in computer science fields in college
  3. Parents, and society as a whole, discourage their daughters from studying computer science.
  4. And the often-thought-but-infrequently-verbalized-because-the-speaker-would-be-evicerated idea that women are just not as smart as men when it comes to computers.

A lot of these theories just don't hold together from my point of view, especially when you consider that there are now fewer women in software than ten years ago.  Something changed.

On #1 "Women focus on families over career"

Has the situation for women really changed so much in the past 10 years?  Are we really accepting a statement that far less women are interested in their careers today than 10 years ago?  Further, this statement would seem to affect any demanding field, not just tech.  Yet, the percentage of doctors and lawyers (extremely demanding professions) that are female has increased substantially in the same time.

On #4 "Women aren't as good at tech"  

I'm not going to step in that one. I reflexively believe there is no difference in ability between the genders, but -- who knows -- maybe men actually do have some innate advantages. But regardless, I think it obvious that the most brilliant women will bring more to the software field than average men.  Mean ability might differ, but the ability distribution within each gender are wide, and the gender curves overlap mightily.

On #2 "Not enough female CS majors"

Is this a cause or an effect?  Is it related to #3? If the opportunities for women in tech are not that great, then it stands to reason that the number of women majoring in it would decrease over time.

On #3 "Parental & societal discouragement"

Well, maybe this is the real culprit: that parents and society at large discourage our girls. I believe that there is something here. But as a parent myself, I doubt that is because parents assume that their girls are too dumb for software, or that software is too unfeminine.  Instead, my intuition (no stats to back this) is that parents might discourage girls from the software business because, well, it just isn't that hospitable to women.

Now, I hadn't really thought about this "inherent inhospitable-ish-ness-ity" before. It's not something that I necessarily feel day-to-day in this industry.  The overwhelming majority of the men I've ever worked with are open-minded, are committed to equality in the workplace, and very much want to harness the intellect of top-performing women for their own gain.

(Not that I haven't experienced some outright sexism. I have. )

But maybe there is something else that makes this industry inhospitable to women -- something more structural than personal in nature.

I admit my thoughts are only partially formed on this point, and I hope to consider it more fully and post on it later.  But here is one (maybe minor) idea about "systemic inhospitability" to women in the software industry: the prevalence of "FRAT HOUSE CULTURE."

Frat house "culture" makes software companies inhospitable to women

Too many software start-ups attempt to develop a so-called "corporate culture" based on frat house living.  Beer bashes, video games, foos-ball tables, pickup basketball teams, free soda, fantasy sport leagues, mandatory scavenger hunts and team-building nonsense (inevitably on the weekend), etc.   Oh yeah, did we mention the beer?  FREE BEER!   Now THAT'S a WICKED AWESOME COMPANY CULTURE!

At the conference, the CEO from Atlassian, Scott Farquhar, spoke and spent a lot of time describing how "awesome" their corporate culture was because of all these "perks" or whatever. 

Also, Scott's powerpoint slides were dripping with gratuitous images of come-hither women, for no apparent reason (OK, to be fair, one of his slides had the world "model" in the title, used to mean "good example." So OF COURSE you should pictures of a bunch of fashion MODELS on the slide, right? Models - get it?). Yep, that's the CEO sending out the message, loud and clear: Atlassian is a dude-centric company with an immature and non-professional environment.

No thanks.

From my female (and older) vantage point, this all seems so stunted and sad.  Like a geeky 11-year-old boy's idea of paradise.  I know that many women don't fit into such corporate "cultures" (we were never meant to, after all) and never quite feel at home in them.  I know I never really did, although I've played along and not complained.

Maybe if instead of aspiring to this type of immature fantasy of the workplace as a perpetual frat party, software companies could attract and retain more top-performing women with better support for families and for having a life outside of work? Just an idea.

How about more equitable parental leave policies -- not just for pregnant women, but also for Dads and adoptive parents?  If you improve Dads' ability to contribute at home, you will TOTALLY improve lives for the professional women who married them. Or maybe offer more help with finding and paying for quality childcare?  Especially options for childcare when the kid is sick, or if you want us (Moms and Dads alike) to travel out of town at the last minute.

Conclusion

Hah!  Fooled you.  There is no conclusion here. I have no ground-breaking ideas or anything.  It occurs to me that the few ideas I've proposed are very mom-centric, and don't explain how to attract and retain women without kids.

Maybe you have some better ideas?  Please contribute them in the comments!  (Hopefully, they are ideas that are not out of reach for startup companies.)

And this post doesn't explore whether it is even essential to attract and retain top-quality women anyway.   Maybe it isn't. The software industry as a whole (plus that douchebag Michael Arrington) certainly acts like it isn't much of a priority. While I intuitively thinks it is important, aside from my own self-interest I dosn't really have a lot of proof.

What do you think?


This article was originally published semi-anonymously on the Cranky Product Management blog in October, 2010. I've updated it slightly for readability.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com