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Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Role of Women in the Software Industry: A Global Disgrace

When it comes to gender equality, most industries, including (or maybe particularly) the software industry, have a lot of work to do. When we characterize the status quo from a statistical perspective, the current problem is daunting or even depressing:
  • A recent study of 11 high-tech American companies revealed that only 30% of their workforce is women
  • A relatively small percentage (of this already small percentage) of these jobs are technical (16%) or leadership roles (22%)
  • Some data indicates that these numbers are getting worse, not better
  • (for more information, see this great CNET article).
Anecdotally, most of us need do little more than look around the average conference room during a meeting to see an appalling representation of the gender gap. As a software product management trainer, my experience is that women only 15% of my students are women (something I'm committed to changing going forward).

In this post, I'll share my perspective on this problem and suggest a way that organizations can frame the problem as an initial step in addressing this unfortunate situation. I'm not an expert on gender equality but am passionate about the problem and hope my (possibly naïve) observations with generate much needed discussion.

Are men and women really different?
Although there is evidence that men and women have biological differences and are subject to the significant influence of cultur, I make the assumption in this post that any gender-relate differences, whether they are real or perceived, are essentially irrelevant to the discussion of gender equality in the workplace, i.e., I assert that men and women are equally capable of contributing positively to an organization's success at all levels of the organization. If you don't share this perspective, it is unlikely that the rest of this post will be persuasive or even meaningful.

What is the cost of gender inequality?
The value proposition of improving gender equality can be hard to determine in a scientific or objective manner, but a reasonable entry point to this discussion from my perspective is based on what I'll call "unrealized potential". The assertion that men and women are equally capable begs a critical question: "Can any organization afford to have an important voice underrepresented in realizing its potential?" I feel strongly that a key factor in determining the success of any enterprise is realizing the full potential of all its members, regardless of gender.

Addressing Gender Inequality
Although acknowledging that gender inequality exists and has an adverse impact on software organizations is an important first step, addressing this issue remains a difficult endeavor, replete with issues common to addressing other types of inequality, including age and race inequality. Given the best information I've been able to find, I simply acknowledge that gender equality is a real issue that has a significant, adverse impact business success and thus, in practice, on our society as a whole. As a corollary, I would say that if gender inequality is impacting society as a whole, we are all stakeholders in its resolution regardless of our gender {or any other factor}). 

One way to consider how the gender gap could be addressed relates to the level in the organizational hierarchy at which change is planned and implemented. In this post, I'll address the genesis of this change from two perspectives: bottom-up and top down.

Addressing Gender Inequality Bottom-up
Personal Commitment
I think the most important bottom-up driver for gender equality is awareness of the problem and a personal commitment from each of us to help eradicate it. This step takes some research, perhaps some training or professional guidance and, most important, some introspection. We are all stakeholders in this problem and must each play a part in improving the situation.

Women themselves can also play a part by taking advantage of opportunities to increase the leadership skills and strategic perspective. I believe that the role of product management can play an important role in preparing women for leadership roles given the breadth of knowledge required and the inherently strategic nature of this role.

I believe that product management is in a special position to address gender inequality as it provides an opportunity to developing leadership skills in women without immediately impacting an organization's explicit leadership roles. At the bottom of the post, I list how we product managers can help improve the situation.

Addressing Gender Inequality Top-down
Addressing gender inequality top-down means acknowledging that leadership's interpretation of the problem and its willingness to address it are absolutely critical. In short, organizational leadership must approach gender inequality with an open mind and accept multiple inconvenient truths.

Gathering the Data
A relatively straightforward step in addressing gender inequality lies in understanding via data the magnitude of the problem. Organizational leadership must define a reasonably simple model for measuring the participation of women in the organization. Gathering statistics on the number of women in the workforce and their representation in leadership roles is essential. The latter requires a fair and comprehensive definition of what constitutes leadership, whether measured by reporting relationships, accountability for business success such as influence on revenue. More nebulous measures such as overall influence on organizational decision-making might also be enlightening. If the data demonstrates that gender inequality exists, a likely outcome given generalized statistics, I believe there is a leadership imperative to address it.

Creating the right culture
Organizational leaders, in my opinion, have an obligation to create an organizational culture that acknowledges gender inequality as a problem and demonstrates a willingness to address it. Some organizations like Google are arranging workshops to increase awareness.

Proactive measures
In an attempt to address gender inequality, many organizations have embarked on programs to address it by setting gender-related goals. From the perspective of fairness, related policies can be controversial. While a comprehensive treatment of the desirability or efficacy of such programs is beyond the scope of this post, given the magnitude of the problem and its consequences, I applaud organizations that undertake such efforts. Organizational leadership is responsible for carefully considering such policies and, as appropriate, implementing them in a fair and transparent manner.

What can we as product managers do?
The good news is, we as product managers can help our industry address this problem. A few thoughts off the top of my head:
  • As I said before, make a personal commitment to addressing the problem (or at least not contributing to it)
  • Consider mentoring a women interested in product management as a career path. I'm doing it and have found it rewarding.
  • If you're in software organization leadership, put gender equality on the agenda and make it a priority
  • If you interact with girls that are still school age (your daughters maybe), encourage them to pursue math and science or other technical fields
  • If you're a product management trainer (I realize this is a small community), consider special programs that help address the (likely) gender gap in your courses. I'm in the process of doing this and couldn't be more excited about it!
I must admit writing this post made me unusually self-conscious. As I said before, I'm not an expert on the topic and have undoubtedly left out important aspects of the issue and its treatment. If this post encourages discussion on the topic, I'll consider it a great success.

Are you ready to address gender inequality in your organization? Are you already addressing it? Please share your experiences.


  1. Good post, Greg. I've been in product management the better part of my 20+ year in software development. As you pointed out, there are not as many women in the field. For product management specifically, I believe the role is particularly suited for women. It requires influence without authority which means excellent communication and collaboration skills. It requires empathy - walk a mile in someone else's shoes is what I always say. This is not only important for understanding the user you're building for, but also important in life.

    Interestly enough, you mentioned encouraging school age girls to study science and math, yet I majored in communications. As there is no degree in product management, per se, it should not require a computer science degree to get into the field. I started in technical support at Lotus/IBM. It was a great way to learn about technology as well as how to listen to users.

    Finally, I love the idea of mentoring and training. I am speaking to a group of middle school girls next week about product management and how I got into it. I hope I can shed some positive energy on to those young minds.

    Thanks for reading this. :)

  2. Thanks for the great response Donna. I worked at Lotus as well! Maybe that helped sensitize me to the issue (I found it to be a very progressive company in terms of diversity). Great luck with the girls! They're lucky to have someone like you to inspire them.

  3. First I have to say it is correct that on the software developer side we have very few women in my past two companies, but in the Prod and Proj Mgmt roles I would say there were actually more women than men.

    But one thing I would like to bring up as a serious question, has anyone bothered to ask women going in and coming out of college if they are even interested in going into the tech and/or software fields. My daughter who is 15 now has zero interest in the tech fields, I have consistently tried to get her to at least stick her toe into this area and she is having none of it. So I am not going to FORCE her to do something she just doesn't want to do because there are not enough women doing it. Just as my son, much to my chagrin, has not wanted to have anything to do with anything like electrical, building, cars/motors none of it and just because he is a guy and "should", because of some societal norm, be into those things I am not going to force him to do it. Just like I am not going to force him to go into Nursing or Fashion areas which traditional have more women in those roles just because there are not enough men in those jobs. Which by the way, you never hear anyone saying, there are not enough men in nursing, there aren't enough men administrative assistants we need to do something about that.

    Can we have some data around how many men wanted to go to college for tech/software and couldn't get in and how many women were in the same boat. And then coming out of tech school programs how men and women faired in getting a job in their tech field. How long did it take, did they accept something they didn't want because of some reason etc.

    After having some data in hand then we can have a discussion about what is going on. Let's not just say there aren't enough women in tech, maybe there exactly how many women in tech that want to be there.

  4. I agree that no one should be forced to follow a career path Jeff. My concern is that women's expectations are being lowered before they become college age. My personal assumption is that the gender gap in IT cannot be explained by some inherent lack of interest on the part of women.

  5. I actually did a presentation and led a talk with primary school kids (grades 3-6) about technology and product management, last year. Interestingly there were more girls that wanted to study IT after my talk because I (apparently) made it sound cool for girls to do (although I wasn't being gender biased); And all I did was explain the many possibilities that studying IT can lead to.

  6. I actually did a presentation and led a talk with primary school kids (grades 3-6) about technology and product management, last year. Interestingly there were more girls that wanted to study IT after my talk because I (apparently) made it sound cool for girls to do (although I wasn't being gender biased); And all I did was explain the many possibilities that studying IT can lead to.

  7. Love it Ursula! I hope more people follow your lead. Inspires me to think about a program like that where I live.

  8. When I graduated from college in the 80's, our engineering class was 95% guys. When my daughter graduated in 2013, her engineering class was 73% guys. Some progress has been made, but not much considering it has been 30 years... My sister graduated from college with a computer science degree in the mid 1980s and it as a rarity for a female at the time...
    There are professions that seem to attract genders. Women are 75% of public school teachers and 90% of nurses. A few years ago, women were getting 57% of all bachelor degrees.

  9. Interesting stats Seamus. I agree concerning the rate of change: We have a lot of work to do!