Microsoft Build and Women in Technology

A student panel at the Microsoft developer conference highlighted some of the diversity problems in the industry.

I’m at Microsoft Build this week, and Microsoft had an earlier analyst event with a mixed group of young adults who have been identified by the company as people with great potential. I learned a great deal from this panel about how colleges were preparing their students for business, and it really wasn’t good news. I also learned not only why women weren’t going into technology but developed a theory on how to fix the problem aggressively.

We’ll start with women in tech and move more broadly.

Women in Technology: Changing Times

On the panel were two men and three women, and while they spoke to the problem, they showcased the solution. The problem they seemed to agree on, and they were from all over the world, was that young women believe that technology is a man’s field and thus aren’t interested in entering it. It is simply not what they want to do. It appears to be kind of social groupthink. People want to go where other people like them, and since they don’t believe there are many women in tech, women don’t want to go someplace where they are going to be alone and excessively different.

However, in looking at the panel you could see that Microsoft had aggressively sought women out to populate it – mirroring what most technology companies are doing at the moment. In other words, while the colleges and universities only had about 7 percent women in their technology programs, according to the panel, tech firms, to make up for their unbalanced male/female mix, are trying to hire a majority of women. This means that, as a woman with a technical degree, right now there are far more jobs than people. Even in this tight job market, women are pretty much assured to get their pick of jobs.

And as the focus increases, there will be programs designed to retain women as well. For parents this means there is less likelihood that their child will bounce after graduating and end up back at home jobless, which has been happening a lot. Finally, women in technology have an elite status now due to their comparative rarity. Status is a high motivator for both men and women, suggesting the path to get more women into tech is a combination of assured employment, choice and increased status.

The Problem: Mentoring

However, I did pick up on a problem with the panel. They were asked what they wanted to do when they left school. The men both had a plan (likely because both had more experience), but the women all said some form of “we haven’t thought that far ahead yet.” Microsoft kind of picked the best of the group, and it showcased that when you have a deeper pool, more men to choose from, there is a higher likelihood that the top tier will be well mentored. But given that women only accounted for 7 percent of the technology students at their respective schools, they were falling between the cracks. This isn’t a gender issue – it is a mentoring issue. If we can’t improve the mentoring for the women, the diversity problem doesn’t get fixed. It really was very pronounced. Generally, women at this age are more mature than the men. Given the opposite was true on this panel, it showcases the men are still advantaged.

This is actually far more serious than it sounds because to do well in a technical job and advance on merit (as opposed to just being pushed up to meet diversity goals), you need an educational background in-line with the area of specialty you’ll find yourself in. Without this focus it is far more likely that the women on the panel will eventually gravitate out of a software engineering path and over to staff roles, which are more traditionally women-heavy thus not fixing the diversity problem long term at all.

It is clear the various schools (and these included MIT and Berkeley) simply aren’t doing enough to help their women tech students find fields in technology they are interested in early enough to materially impact their class choices. That is also likely true of most men, but because we are trying to fix a diversity problem, the industry can handle a lot of unqualified men. On the other hand, it needs a higher percentage of women to be qualified in order to drive change. This lack of quality assurance with women in education is working against the effort to increase diversity.

Education and Mentoring Going Forward

It is great that Microsoft is getting young adults involved in their developer events like Build. This will help students see the kinds of jobs that are out there and likely help women in particular find interest in the field. But they showcased that not enough is being done either to draw women into the industry early or to help them choose fields to assure they’ll stay in this industry once they graduate. While every technology company I work with is aggressively trying to fix the lack of sexual diversity in their firms, if colleges and universities don’t step up their efforts to assure the quality of women candidates, then any change will likely be short term and not have the strategic impact needed to fix this problem definitively.

In short while it is clear woman can be motivated to enter the technology market through the application of status, more assured jobs and advantages in advancement, unless they are mentored better their performance in the jobs will eventually cause the effort to fail.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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