Women in IT

Courtesy: New York Times

Audrey MacLean describes herself as an accidental technologist, an accidental entrepreneur, and an accidental investor. But at the age of eight, she made at least one plan: She would earn a college scholarship. Ms. MacLean, 59, executed that plan  and went on to help start Network Equipment Technologies, which went public in 1987. Later, she was a founder and chief executive of Adaptive. She has given seed financing to numerous successful start-ups including Pure Software (founded by Netflix’s Reed Hastings), AdForce and Selectica.

Q. Technology is often described as a field that’s inhospitable to women. Has that been your experience?

Ms. MacLean: When I entered the industry, it was burgeoning. Though being a woman was a novelty, it was growing so fast the opportunity was there, just as the opportunity was there for women during World War II. Tech is a true meritocracy. Either you have the goods or you don’t. There’s less concern with gender, race, color and creed. I really truly believe that, despite data on the dearth of women in technology, tech doesn’t have a barrier up to women. In fact, if anything, women who are technically prepared have an advantage.

Q. What’s that?

Ms. MacLean: In my class, I require the students to form teams to do a four-person project. I don’t assign the teams. I’ve noticed the guys seek the women out as teammates. I think the women are particularly good at bringing the team together and at presenting, which are extremely important skills when developing a product. Female engineers are also sought after. Women make up half the population, and companies want user interfaces that appeal to all buyers. In addition to generally being more collaborative, women have an intuitive sense of usability that leads to better products.

Q. So, what explains the discouraging statistics on women in tech?

Ms. MacLean: If more women prepared themselves academically for tech jobs, they’d get hired. Just like more doctors are women because more women have entered medical school. Women need to take advantage of technology courses at the university level, and not all major in communications or fashion design. It’s not that those things aren’t worthwhile if you like them, but your career opportunities will be greater in I.T., including those in green tech and medical tech. If women don’t get the required technical skills, they won’t be positioned to move into core, general management roles with technology companies. C.E.O.’s don’t come from H.R. They come out of product development and marketing.

Q. What would get more women to choose careers in technology?

Ms. MacLean: We need to get girls interested in computing by first grade. By fifth grade, it’s game over. Computing has an image crisis. A boy geek subculture has grown up around gaming that involves violence. It’s not something little girls aspire to. It’s not about lack of educational opportunities for women. Smart girls graduate from high school with straight A’s, go to college, and find themselves surrounded by guys who’ve been hacking for 10 years. So they’re way behind. They get discouraged, and go into law or medicine.

Q. What’s the solution?

Ms. MacLean: At both the educational level and the business level, we have to come up with games and contests that appeal to first- and second-grade girls. Not car and war games. Let them design games that change the world, or save the planet.

Q. Can tech really save the planet?

Ms. MacLean: Whether you care about solving terrorism, curing cancer, or any other problem, tech can solve it. It’s not just tech for tech’s sake.

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