Building Networks of Equal Opportunities

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Getting more women into the IoT workforce requires a level playing field, not an easier one.

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The other day, I was interviewing a female executive with a Fortune 100 technology company about an Internet of Things talent-recruitment program that her company, in partnership with a few other industrial titans, is initiating. Their goal is to foster a large and capable workforce of programmers, engineers, marketers, data scientists, designers and other key individuals needed to meet the near- and long-term projections for a very large, robust IoT industry.

I had just returned from my umpteenth IoT industry conference populated mostly by white men, and so asked I this executive what efforts were being made to encourage a more racially diverse and gender-balanced population of IoT professionals. She said her company’s approach is to partner with organizations whose sole focus is fostering workplace diversity, and she noted that this also includes recruiting military veterans.

“Great,” I said, adding that perhaps the efforts many educators have been making in recent years to encourage more girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers will start to pay off soon, with more women entering the tech world. Her response left me rather gobsmacked. She said that because many of the foundational programming tools have become far less complex, professionals who work in those programming environments do not need as much skill in mathematics as they once did.

“We think now is probably the best time for women to think about [a career in] IT,” she said.

Wait. What? I countered that the whole purpose of STEM is to destroy long-held stereotypes that math and science is male terrain, and the notion that females are somehow less capable of mastering those disciplines.

To be fair, the larger point this executive was trying to make was that it’s important to have a mix of employees who studied technology, as well as those with a liberal arts background, and that creative thinkers bring a great skillset to the tech industry. She said IT is due for a rebranding, and that it’s “not just for geeks.”

A rebranding would be great, as long as it emphasizes that women are as competent in the skills needed for tech work as their male counterparts.

Here’s why I feel this way: In early February, researchers from Cal Poly and North Carolina State University issued the results of a study (not yet peer-reviewed) involving GitHub, a repository and sort of online workshop for open-source software, where members propose revisions to open-source code in order to improve or fix it. The researchers found that when women made contributions to GitHub, but did so using a profile name and image that obscured their gender, the GitHub community accepted their contributions more often then they accepted those from men. (The researchers ascertained these programmers’ genders by researching the e-mail address tied to their avatars and linking them to other online profiles, such as those in Google+, that identified their genders.) When female coders used names and profile pictures on GitHub that revealed their gender, their contributions were less often accepted than men’s contributions. You can read the paper here.

And in late February, the D.C.-based advocacy group Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released the findings of a survey it conducted with more than 900 U.S. residents who have won prestigious awards for their creations or have applied for international patents likely to have significant economic impact. The study found that among the U.S.-born innovators, minorities and women make up only a small percentage. In fact, it found, women represent just 11.7 percent of U.S. innovators—a smaller percentage than the female share of undergraduate degree recipients in STEM fields or STEM Ph.D. students, or working scientists and engineers.

The findings of the GitHub study suggest that gender bias exists in the open-source software-development community. In a report based on a 2014 survey of programmers in another online community, researchers described “a relatively ‘unhealthy’ community where women disengage sooner, although their activity levels are comparable to men’s.” These are two examples of a larger canon of research that draws links between gender and academic or workplace success in the sciences, suggesting that women may have higher hurdles to clear than men. Perhaps if women could hide their genders, they’d be more willing to invest the decades of toil and defeat it takes to be an innovator. But I’ve got a better idea: even the playing field and remove the gender bias that tells women, whether spoken or inferred, that they’re not as capable as their male counterparts. Then, I think then we’ll see a real change in the definition of a geek.

Mary Catherine O’Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.