Sheryl Sandberg has become something of a poster child for women in technology. One of the first women to become a self-made billionaire, because of her position at Facebook and the success she has brought to the company. Some, like Sylvia Ann Hewlett, feel she has led a charmed life that is out of the reach of most women, but is that true? I don’t know what is in Ms. Sandberg’s background that entitled her to a charmed life. She grew up in South Florida had strong enough grades in high school to get into Harvard. There, she met then professor Larry Summers who became a mentor. She worked with the World Bank, then returned to Harvard for her MBA and went to work at McKinsey as a consultant (As a side note, McKinsey’s home page states boldly “Women Matter.” I couldn’t agree more). Also cited is that Sandberg is married to the man who developed Survey Monkey. Remove that she is a woman and it seems to be the resume of any top performer. The question is why would we see these things as out of reach? Aren’t we all in fact able to create lives such as these if we believe we can and open ourselves to the possibilities and opportunities presented to us?
It is, in fact, one of Sandberg’s messages in her commencement addresses and TED talk for women to stop attributing their success to luck (or blaming their lack of success on a lack of luck) and start seeing themselves as “awesome” – which is the view of many male peers who see themselves as worthy of their success.
Part of what Ms. Sandberg talks about is making bold decisions and steps, and it seems she had to have made those bold moves in order to be where she is today. She certainly didn’t think being COO of Facebook was out of her reach, or taking a senior position at Google was above her level of competence. And, now that she is there, she isn’t acting as though she’s in rarefied air. In fact, she seems to be making it her own mission to bring more women into tech.
I can’t help think of the children in the “accordion families” who are choosing to stay home rather than find a way to leave, and the parents who aren’t pushing them out. It’s easy to stay home; it’s harder to take the bold step and make a move. One wonders if the children aren’t being encouraged to be bold, or worse, to be frightened. Could you imagine if Mark Zuckerberg were told to stay at Harvard and graduate then take a low level job and go for the security. How would we know about our friend’s most recent vacation or baby photos?
But seriously, even though tech has been booming since the late 90s there remains a dearth of women in the industry. We have outliers like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina and now Sheryl Sandberg, but they remain the outliers – which is odd given what we’ve seen in terms of female penetration in fields like law and medicine.
A recent article by Lesley Farmer talks about the lack of girls pursuing technology. The odd fact is women are by far the greater users of social media, which is part of the reason for Sheryl Sandberg’s success at Facebook – she gets the users in an intrinsic way which enabled her to create a deal with P&G. If girls enjoy computers and the social aspect of it, why doesn’t this translate into more women in tech, as would happen naturally when we gravitate toward careers in areas of our personal interest?
Dr. Farmer speculates part of it has to do with ongoing gender stereotypes about women in math-related fields, but another part is just a lack of education about the roles technology plays in many careers. Girls may see video games and computers and not understand how many other ways there are to incorporate technology into a career. Dr. Farmer notes that “girls tend to think of technology-related careers are linked to computer programming, mechanical operation and systems operation, not realizing that more than 2/3 of jobs incorporate technology and further, that a lack of technological expertise will limit their career choices.”
She goes on to say it is parents who need to open this door for their daughters – to enlighten and educated them to the role technology plays and will continue to play – and to teach them to go for it even if it isn’t traditional. We all know our children’s areas of interest and we do encourage them to find a way to incorporate those interests into a career or vocation. And this is how subtle gender bias can be. If our sons and daughters are on the computer the same amount, do we see it as a possible career for both, or only see it seriously for our sons. As an example, my friends with sons never thought to introduce me to what became one of my daughter’s favorite activities – a kit called Snap Circuits. She was using it at school and wanted one at home. When I told my friends about it, those with sons were well aware of it (their sons loved it too), but never thought about it for a girl. These are women I consider forward thinking and feminist-minded. Snap Circuits, by the way, is a kit with hundreds of activities to build using circuit boards to make alarms, sirens, spinning tops and so on. Way more fun than television or a video game.
Let’s challenge our own biases and stereotypes and expand our views of how our daughters can incorporate technology into their career choices. Let’s explore with our daughters how their interests can become a vocation. Let’s study the women who are in technology and the jobs they do. And let’s encourage all of our children to be bold. Our future, and theirs, depends on it.