The W in Tech

When we started our original foray into gender and design with the FemmeDen, our conversation revolved around how the majority of engineers and designers were men—about 85%—and how the profession was founded by men on male values.  We were seeing sections of design where women were far outnumbered and either succeeded by ‘becoming one of the guys’ or were miserable and eventually left the field. This problem abounded in the field overall, but with specialties, like automotive design and technology, the situation was far worse.

We wondered whether this could be central to the problem why women don’t relate well to many products. If women weren’t at the design table, who was ensuring their perspective was captured in design? We believed we were on to something, especially when we saw desperate statistics, like the one coming from the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show that revealed only 1% of women felt that electronic products were designed with them in mind.

Since our first conversations about gender and design, we have talked to many about the importance of understanding women with products, especially in fields like technology where women are significantly overlooked. Things seem to be looking up; almost everyone has recognized the need to better design for women, even if they are onboard only because of the power of women’s purse strings. However some very disheartening news came out this fall highlighting that for female designers and engineers, particularly in technology, things might not be getting better at all, and in fact might be getting worse.


First a study was released by startup CEO Kieran Snyder that looked at 248 primarily positive performance reviews from employees working at 28 technology companies. Within these overall positive performance reviews, 2.4% of men were given personality criticisms while 76% of women’s personalities were criticized. The inconsistency is so large that it is almost impossible to believe anything other than bias can be at work, which is pretty damning for the technology workplace. A similar study of military reviews found, “The greater your past accomplishments, the lower your current performance evaluations if you're a female subordinate, but not if you're a male subordinate.” Together, these studies hint that women can’t win in the workplace, despite a recent push for women to ‘lean-in’ to counter gender discrepancies at work.

Kieran Snyder continued exploring the situation of women in technology when he wrote a compelling article in Fortune Magazine that summarized his findings from collecting 716 stories from women who have left the tech industry. He concluded, “Women are leaving tech because they’re unhappy with the work environment, not because they have lost interest in the work.” He found that although some women did report overtly discriminatory workplaces, more problematically, most women simply noted mounting problems with an uncomfortable, homogenous, and inflexible workplace.

Many people claim that the problem lies not in the workplace, but in the lack of trained and talented females in STEM fields. Snyder challenges this claim with strong facts, but even beyond that, it appears that the pipeline only became a problem as the workplace shifted. A new book, The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson was launched in October and traced the history of computer scientists. The first pioneer in computer science was in fact a woman, Ada Lovelace, in the 1830’s and the first programmers were teams of women in the 1930’s. Isaacson tracks the popularity of computer science and mathematics degrees with women in the early part of the 20th century, where 40% of those degrees went to women, through a steady decline to 17% now, which correlates to technology now being seen as a man’s thing and the workplace becoming more male.


If our challenge is to ensure that products are better designed for women in the marketplace, but the companies that build these products are suffering from biased workplaces that push women out, where do we start? I would argue that we must begin with redesigning the engineering and design culture in the workplace.

- whitney hopkins