A recent study from MIT on gender and engineering found that women like to tinker with tools, same as the men do. That, to me, is revelatory. As a female data scientist working at a technology company with fellow female colleagues in all types of positions, I get to see that type of tinkering firsthand every day. The women engineers in my company are constantly fiddling with data, devices, and code to tackle complex problems.
On the other hand, like most people, I am aware of a society that pushes women away from technical work and into softer activities like secretarial or managerial work. The prevailing idea is that women are better at organizing things than fixing them. And this issue is not limited to computer science.
Even though I enjoy home repair, no one has ever given me a tool kit for Christmas. (For the record, I would love one, thanks.) And no one has ever told me I would get extra points from my partner if I could fix a leak in the plumbing. Yet I just finished installing a backsplash in my kitchen, and the level of difficulty was a bit underwhelming.
The unfortunate reality is that there’s still a barrier that separates women from technical and engineering work. It’s not a question of ability—it’s a question of representation. Women are just not seen engaging in these types of activities. Thus, since they are invisible, the assumption develops that it’s not the kind of work they can do.
The MIT study concludes that the sexism women encounter in technical fields discourages them from pursuing these fields further. The technical women I work with on a daily basis have all had to face challenges—both internal and external—to get where they are today.
In a separate study earlier this year out of Stanford University, the majority of women surveyed (all working in Silicon Valley) reported workplace harassment, biases, intrusive questions about their family lives, and negative judgments on their attitudes. As a case in point, an August article in the Economist about jocks in Silicon Valley, “The Revenge of the Nerds,” bypassed women completely, describing “the new techie” as “muscle-bound jocks” with “pecs to die for”—ignoring the existence of women engineers altogether.
The representation problem is not only important because of the harassment that women experience at work, but also because it deprives women of a life path for which many are perfectly suited. And companies that want skilled, creative, and passionate employees are depriving themselves of half of the potential workforce. Instead, they’re either harassing them out of a job or ignoring them completely.
Not only must women be encouraged to pursue technical work, but they also need to be supported as they enter the workforce. There needs to be an acknowledgment that women continue to face harsh conditions, and that companies need to provide them with support and mentorship. Women in technology need to organize themselves and sensitize their peers about their presence, the work that they do, and the kind of technical projects they would like to engage in.
This Christmas, maybe we can skip the perfume ads and show women receiving a gift that they really want: an external hard drive or a book on Unix programming. Let’s show women another possible path—one that involves building, fixing, and yes, even tinkering.
Eleonore Fournier-Tombs is a data scientist at RedOwl, a human behavioral analytics company that detects and stops insider threats.