I love LEGOs. So, when I saw the page yesterday of the new LEGO Minifigures (sent to me by Lucy Sanders, the CEO of National Center for Women & Information Technology) I threw up a little in my mouth.
Like me, Lucy is a LEGO enthusiast, but she was not happy to see how women (or minorities) were represented in the LEGO Minifigures sets. Sure, there is a female snowboarder, a female tennis player, and a lifeguard, but the rest of the female Minifigures are a hula dancer, pop star, cheerleader, witch, and nurse. And that’s it. While I have nothing against nurses, entertainers, or athletes, these mini-figures are perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes about both women and men.
At NCWIT (where I am the Chair of the board) we’re grappling with the problem of how to attract, retain, and promote girls and women in technical education paths and careers. Many K-12 teachers who want to introduce their students (girls and boys) to computing and engineering use LEGO products like Mindstorms and Technics and LEGO energetically markets their products for this purpose. That’s a good thing.
However the ridiculous Minifigures perpetuate standardized, simplified, and damaging conceptions of acceptable pursuits for women. Such perceptions have contributed to keeping women away from many types of jobs, including computing. These are not harmless toys – they are sending messages to girls and boys about where they belong on a daily basis. If you doubt the serious impact of this exposure, I encourage you to learn more about stereotype threat, especially the work of Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson.
At NCWIT we’re working hard to make computing, technology, and business more inclusive. C’mon, LEGO. Your products are a great avenue for educating our young people, but your Minifigures are stuck in the past. Get rid of them.
My long time friend Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, wrote a blog post today titled A New Kind of Partnership for Return Path. In it he talks about his recognition, as Return Path has grown (they are now around 250 people), of the gender imbalance in the software engineering team (women are around 15% of total engineering team.. He knew about NCWIT from my role as chairman and Matt and his team decided to join the NCWIT Workforce Alliance to engage in helping address this issue.
Matt and his team then did something that blew me away. They provided the sponsorship of the first-ever NCWIT/Return Path Student Seed Fund. This will program will provide seed funding to groups of technical women at universities across the US to advance the goals of women in computing. There are so many things about this that are exciting to me, including the focus on students, seed funding, and the linkage to NCWIT’s overall goal.
We’ve got a huge NCWIT announcement coming in a few days that Return Path is also involved in as one of the founding members. I’ll post more about it, why it’s so important to me, who’s involved, and what you can do to engage – probably over the weekend.
Return Path – thank you!
The blogo-twitter-sphere erupted this weekend in response to an article in the WSJ on Friday titled Addressing The Lack Of Women Leading Tech Start-ups. I missed most of it as I was pretty heads down this weekend going through the final page proofs of the upcoming book “Do More Faster.”
TechCrunch / Arrington wrote a post Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men. Fred Wilson followed with Women In Tech and Women Entrepreneurs Discussion. My partner Jason Mendelson did a video interview on the subject with EZebis.
Lots of controversy but lots of useful discussion. Which is good.
The meme of the lack of women in tech (or software, or entrepreneurship) appeared in several places today. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years and deeply involved in this issue. It’s very satisfying for me to see a meme like this pick up speed and appear in a bunch of thoughtful articles and discussions. If you are interested in this issue, I have three articles from the last 24 hours that I encourage you to read.
Let’s start with a high level discussion in the San Jose Mercury News article titled Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech. The article does a nice job of framing the issue and the last few paragraphs bring up the idea that the “paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.” A similar concept is that parents of young girls (junior high / high school) discourage (or “don’t encourage”) their daughters from exploring computer science.
Next is a chewy blog post by Eric Ries titled Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business). Eric tackles a bunch of concepts around diversity with a focus on gender diversity (although a lot of the constructs are applicable to ethnic and racial diversity.) The comments to this post contain some good additional refinements to the discussion. In reading through the comments, I find it interesting to see how loaded the word “diversity” is as some of the commenters seem to confuse “diversity” with “equal numbers of all types” or some kind of specious politically correct construct. Eric also includes a tremendous short presentation by Terri Oda about how biology (doesn’t) explain the low number of women in computer science.
Finally, Fred Wilson’s excellent post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon has a comment thread started by Tereza that talks about an idea she calls XX-Combinator (a seed accelerator for women).
For those that question the lack of data surrounding this area that is driving some of the current thinking, the amount of actual research that NCWIT has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or done over the past five years is substantial. As with much social science research, there’s a big gap between the core research, the conclusions, and long term behavioral change, but as Lucy Sanders (the CEO of NCWIT) is fond of saying, we are five years into a 20 year shift.
As Fred Wilson likes to say, often the best content for blogs is in the comments. In this case, it was in an email I got from Boaz Fletcher in response to my post Web Sites and Books for Novice Programmers. Boaz made a very interesting observation:
“As for learning how to code, I think good storytellers make the best programmers. I used to freak prospective employees out by having them write a story for me instead of the “what’s wrong with this code?” tests. But it showed me who was able to think well, organized, creatively, and filled in the details.”
He also had an insightful comment about teaching kids to program.
“I had an exchange with someone in the industry about teaching kids how to program – or, more appropriately, how little there actually is to start kids off (think Alice or Scratch). Considering the ubiquity of computers in our lives, I think it’s untenable that most people are just passive users of the things. It should be mandatory to teach kids how to program. They don’t all need to become software engineers (never mind that I think most software engineers today, aren’t) but a basic understanding of how to build something simple and useful to them. Think about “shop” in junior high – hands-on manipulation of the physical world. So you may never need to lathe out a wooden bowl again, but at least you can hang a picture straight. Kids can browse the net, but don’t have a clue why their computer gets stuck when they’re trying to print a webpage.“
I’ve been thinking and talking about this particular construct a lot lately, especially in the context of NCWIT. A person younger than 15 years old has never experienced life without the existence of the web. Their view of the world, especially 29 years from now when they’ll be as old as I am today, will be radically different because of how the computers and the web are integrated with their life.
I never took shop in high school. I’m not mechanically inclined (or skilled) at all. Not only can I not hang a picture straight, I’m not sure I know what to do with a power tool. And forget changing the oil in my car. When I reflect on things I wish I had done more as a kid, it’s tinker with mechanical things so I’d be more comfortable with them. In contrast, I’m completely comfortable with anything that’s “not physical” – I like to say "I’m only interested in it if I can’t touch it.”
We are definitely living in a world where both are important, but the not-physical is becoming increasingly pervasive. Making sure that young people are tuned into this seems critical. When I think hard about this, there’s real insight in Boaz’s comment about the power of storytellers.
I had an amazing day on Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina. I attended the Bank of America Technology Stars of the Future awards ceremony for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. If you’ve been following along on this blog, you know that I’m chairman of NCWIT (the National Center for Women & Information Technology). I’m proud of a lot of things that NCWIT does, but after attending the Aspirations in Computing awards I think it has moved to the top of my list.
We gave awards to 2^5 (32) young women (all in high school) for their computing-related achievements. At the awards ceremony Lucy Sanders (NCWIT’s CEO) and I read out descriptions of the accomplishments of each winner. They are remarkable young women doing awesome things with computers, especially around robotics and research. Bank of America – who sponsors the awards – was a gracious host, put on a delightful event, and awarded each winner $500 and a laptop (most of which were opened and up and running before the evening was over.)
I got to Charlotte midday on Friday. After hiding in my hotel room for a few hours grinding through email and phone calls, I went out to dinner at Mac’s Speed Shop with Lucy and Ruthe Farmer (the excellent NCWIT staffer who runs the entire awards program) – we had beers and BBQ (veggie BBQ for me) and managed to avoid the bikers. I crashed hard and slept 12 hours, waking up in time for the intro lunch with the award winners and their parents. At lunch, I sat at a few different tables, met the young women, and heard a few stories.
After lunch, Bank of America did a full afternoon of show and tell for the attendees at their innovation labs. I went for a three hour run in Charlotte – basically heading south for 90 minutes and then turning around. It was a perfect day (60 degrees and sunny) and I got a good feel for a bunch of Charlotte’s neighborhoods. During the run, I pondered how incredible the young women were that I’d met. The cliché “these kids are our future” definitely applies and whenever I encounter young people like this it gives me a renewed sense of hope and optimism.
When I got back to the hotel, I called Amy and asked if she’d be game for us to add on to the award and give each winner a $1,000 scholarship for college from our foundation. Not surprisingly Amy agreed and, as part of the award ceremony, each winner got this as a special bonus award.
Among the seniors that I met, one was going to Wellesley (where Amy went to school) and five have been accepted to MIT (two have committed; the other three cornered me to talk about my views on MIT). Stanford, Caltech, Columbia, and a bunch of other schools were well represented. I’m pretty sure that every one of the winners is planning to go to college, although a few have several years to go before they have to decide as there was one freshman winner, a few sophomores, and a number of juniors.
I invoked my superpower Sunday morning and slept the entire flight home, partly as a result of recovering from my Saturday run. A day later I’m still thinking about the great things all these young women did and the incredible futures they have in front of them.
Finally, a huge thanks to Bank of America for their ongoing support of NCWIT and these awards.
I’m extremely impressed with Vivek Wadhwa’s posts on TechCrunch. He’s been blogging periodically for them since last fall and has shown that he’s willing to take on difficult, controversial, and complicated issues and discuss them in data driven and systematic ways.
Recently, Vivek wrote a post titled Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem that resulted from a research project he did with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (I’m chairman). I thought the post was excellent. The comments, however, were really enlightening to me. The amount of anger and hostility, especially irrational attacks, surprised me. Well – I guess it only surprised me a little – it mostly disappointed me.
After that article, Vivek sent me an email with the following questions “why did you originally get involved with NCWIT” and “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?”. The first one was easy – I pointed him at a post I wrote in September 2005 titled Why the NCWIT Board Chair is a Man. I then spent some time thinking and emailing with Lucy Sanders *the CEO of NCWIT), about what we have learned to address the question of “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?” My goal was to boil my answer down into a very simple set of suggestions, as NCWIT has several programs in their Entrepreneurial Alliance that address this problem. In my experience, a simple answer is much better than a complex one, especially for people who haven’t yet thought hard about the problem but are interested in it.
I came up with two specific things that I’ve learned over the past five years and have incorporated into my brain:
1. We simply need more technical women in the software industry. If there were more, there would be more starting software and Internet companies.
2. Existing entrepreneurs and VCs can help a lot by encouraging women to become entrepreneurs and then supporting them when they take the plunge. It turns out that the simple act of encouragement (from parents, teachers, peers) is hugely impactful across the entire education and entrepreneurial pipeline so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is also important in the startup phase.
At some level it’s that simple. The implementation and execution of these two (related) concepts is really difficult. So, when I read Vivek’s post this morning titled A Fix for Discrimination: Follow the Indian Trails I realized he had once again totally nailed it. The example of how Indian entrepreneurs, first as individuals, and then through TiE, became a force in entrepreneurship through the US and the world, is a great one. And it’s an excellent analogy for women (and other groups that feel discrimination in the entrepreneur ecosystem.)
Once again, the early comments were disappointing in their anger and hostility. However, given some of the stuff I’ve heard over the past five years through my involvement in NCWIT, they weren’t a surprise to me this time.
I’ve been involved in helping start a number of non-profits. One of them – National Center for Women & Information Technology – has surpassed my wildest expectations. Lucy Sanders and her team have done an awesome job of building a coalition of over 170 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits working to improve U.S. innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability by increasing women’s participation in IT.
I’ve been chairman of NCWIT since its early days. As with most of the non-profits I’ve been involved in helping start, the board of directors evolves over time. Unlike for-profit companies, each stage feels like a step function as you add new board members who bring a new set of capabilities, range, and diversity to the board.
Stage 1 for NCWIT’s board was a group of early board members who simply helped get things going. There was a lot of evangelism for NCWIT, a lot of ad hoc help, and plenty of ambiguity about roles and responsibilities. The board members were extremely enthusiastic and supportive – we wouldn’t have made much progress without them.
Stage 2 for NCWIT’s board was an effort to build some formality into the board. We included several members from our larger investment partners, a handful of folks that played specific functional roles, and began to organize around a set of board committees. Some of these committees were effective; some weren’t. The consistency of board communication increased and while there was still plenty of ad hoc activity, in general things were more organized.
Stage 3 for NCWIT’s board has just been launched. We just announced the appointment of eight new board members.
It’s an incredible set of people that cross the boundaries between entrepreneurship, academia, and established technology companies. They are joining a well established board that has a great working tempo. I’m really psyched about the next stage of NCWIT.