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Posts Tagged ‘Women in technology’

We started this series of three posts, concluding today, with the story of “Lena,” the so-called first lady of the internet, named for a former Playboy model whose image in 1972 became the gold standard of sorts for compression algorithms used in the efficient transfer of digital images.  In the follow-up post (here) we noted the paucity of women in programming at that time, and the study that led to the shift towards an intrinsic bias towards men that has dominated the programming employment picture for decades.  Those posts were based on the work of Emily Chang in an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and a new book entitled Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley.  Today we’ll conclude with some of Ms. Chang’s thoughts on the recent past and the subject of women in tech.

Chang points out that in Google’s early days, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page sought to hire women for key positions, and succeeded wildly when you consider that they brought on board Susan Wojcicki who helped build Google’s AdWords and AdSense, two products that formed what Chang calls the “near-perfect business model” that today drives Google’s $100 billion business.  They then brought on Sheryl Sandberg who had been chief of staff to Larry Summers at the U.S. Treasury to help transform Google’s new self-serve ad operation that’s now “bigger than any ad agency in the world.”  Today Sandberg is CFO at Facebook.  Finally, they brought in Marissa Mayer as a product manager for Google’s search page.  She would eventually become CEO at Yahoo.

But despite hiring some of the most powerful and successful women the tech industry has seen, by 2017 Google disclosed that only  31% of its employees were female, and only 25% of leadership roles and 20% of technical roles were filled by women.

The issue, according to Chang, has much to do with what happens when you start to scale hiring.  Industry standard recruiting models collectively feature many of the same school job fairs, the same recruiting websites and they subscribe to the same ‘questionable’ theories about what makes for a good engineer.  Google eventually concluded that the hiring velocity caused them not to be as ‘thoughtful’ about the hiring process, nor cast as wide a net, as they could.

Determined to make changes, in 2015 the newly rebranded Alphabet, Inc. hired several women to key positions and ended up with a management team that is 40 percent female.  As yet, none of the company heads of Google’s 13 key divisions are women – but still, it’s progress.

The lesson from the past though is clear: Women like Wojcicki, Mayer and Sandberg brought wider skill sets to the company in its earliest days, and they succeeded wildly as a company.  Notes Chang: “If subsequent managers at Google understood this lesson, that might have quieted the grumbling among engineers who had a narrow idea of what characteristics made for an ideal employee.  Google’s early success proved that diversity in the workplace needn’t be an act of altruism or an experiment in social engineering.  It was simply a good business decision.”

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If you haven’t already, be sure to read our prior post before this one.  It’s the brief historical story of Lena, the early quality standard for algorithms that enable the transfer of digital images, and the precursor of today’s ubiquitous JPEG picture-file format.  If you know Lena’s original story, then please read on.  (Our post is excerpted from the work of Emily Chang of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and her new book “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley.”)

When Deanna Needell, now a math prof at UCLA, first encountered “Lena” in a computer science class, she quickly realized that the original image model was nude (she was culled from the pages of Playboy in 1972) and it made her realize, “Oh, I am the only woman here.  I am different.”  Needell says, “It made gender an issue for me where it wasn’t before.”

Her male colleagues, predictably, didn’t see the big deal.  Said one, “when you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore, it’s just pixels,” in a statement that naively laid out the problem of sexism that Needell and her colleagues tried to point out.  But with so few women among the ranks of the programming class, it’s no surprise.

It wasn’t always that way.

As we’ve pointed out previously a post here, the early days of programming were predominantly fueled by women.  In that early, post-WWII era, programmers were mostly women, and the work was considered more of a clerical nature, and thus ‘better suited’ to women.  Only later, when the economy turned down and computers looked to be a key tool of the future, did men begin to enter the programming ranks, eventually even pushing women out as the image of computers and programming pivoted to something more suited to “introverts and antisocial nerds.”

In one pivotal study in the 1960s, two psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry profiled 1,378 programmers, of whom by the way only 186 were women.  Their results formed the basis for a “vocational interest scale” they believed could predict “satisfaction” – and thus, success – in the field.  They concluded that people who liked solving various types of puzzles made for good programmers, and that made sense.

But then they drew a second conclusion, drawn, remember, from their mostly male sample size, in which they concluded that happy software engineers “shared one striking characteristic” according to Ms. Chang: They don’t like people.  They concluded in the end that programmers “dislike activities involving close personal interaction and are more interested in things than people.”  As Ms. Chang pointedly notes then… “There’s little evidence to suggest that antisocial people are more adept at math or computers.  Unfortunately, there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that if you set out to hire antisocial nerds, you’ll wind up hiring a lot more men than women.”

So while in 1967 Cosmopolitan was letting it be known that “a girl senior systems analyst gets $20,000 – and up!” (equivalent to $150,000 today) and heralded women as ‘naturals’ at computer programming, by 1968, Cannon’s and Perry’s work had tech recruiters noting the “often egocentric, slightly neurotic, bordering on schizophrenic” demeanor of what was becoming a largely male cadre of coders, sporting “beards, sandals and other forms of nonconformity.”

Tests such as these remained the industry standard for decades, ensuring that eventually the ‘pop culture trope’ of the male nerd wound up putting computers on the boy’s side of the toy aisle.

By 1984, the year of Apple Inc.’s iconic “1984” Super Bowl commercial, the percentage of females earning degrees in computer science had peaked at 37%.  As the number of overall computer science degrees increased during the dot-com boom, notes Chang, “far more men than women filled those coveted seats,” and the percentage of women in the field would dramatically decline for the next 25 years.

We’ll finish out this series of posts with a look at the state of women in tech today and what that might mean for tomorrow, so stay tuned.

 

 

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Emily Chang is a journalist and weekly anchor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and the author of “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley.”  Recently, she penned an article there about an old (in tech terms) digital artifact by the name of Lena Soderberg.  Lena first became famous in November 1972 when, as Lenna Sjooblom, she was featured as a centerfold in Playboy magazine.  That spread might have been the end of it but for the fact that researchers at the Univ. of Southern California computer lab were busy trying to digitize physical photographs into what would eventually become the JPEG (or .jpg) format we all know from Internet images today.

According to the lab’s co-founder, William Pratt, now 80, the group chose Lena’s portrait from a copy of Playboy brought to the lab by a student.  The team needed to test their photo-digitization algorithms on suitable photos for compressing large image files so they could be digitally transferred between devices.  Apparently their search led them to Lena, the 21 year old Swedish centerfold.  Go figure.

Lena ended up becoming famous in early engineering circles, and some refer to her as “the first lady of the Internet.”  Others see her as Silicon Valley’s original sin – the larger point of Ms. Chang’s article – but that’s a topic for another post.

Apparently, Lena’s photo was attractive from a technical perspective because the photo included, according to Pratt, “lots of high frequency detail that is difficult to code.”  That would include apparently her boots, boa and feathered hat.

According to Ms. Chang, for the next 45 years, Lena’s photo (seen at the top of this post), featuring her face and bare shoulder, served as “the benchmark for image processing quality for the teams working on Apple Inc.’s iPhone camera, Google Images, and pretty much every other tech product having anything to do with photos.”

To this day engineers joke that if you want your image compression algorithm to make the grade, it had better perform well on Lena.

So to a lot of male engineers, Lena thus became an amusing historical footnote. But to their female peers, it was seen as “just alienating.”  And it has a lot to do with some of the inborn gender biases that permeate the tech industry to this day, where the majority of employees are still male.

That’s a much longer extract from Emily Chang’s essay that we’ll try to sum up in a succeeding post.  Stay tuned…

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Did you know that all six of the first programmers of America’s first computer, ENIAC, were women?

Did you know that the proportion of women earning degrees in computer science peaked in 1984 at 37%, and has since declined to half that percentage?

Or this (according to an article by Christopher Mims in the Dec. 11th edition of The Wall Street Journal): “Memos from UK government archives reveal that in 1959, an unnamed British female computer programmer was given an assignment to train two men.  The memos said the woman had ‘a good brain and a special flair’ for working with computers.  Nevertheless, a year later the men became her managers.  Since she was a different class of government worker, she had no chance of ever rising to their pay grade.”

These facts from Mims’ article would probably come as little surprise to many women today.  The sad truth is, with such a low rate of female computing grads, it’s no surprise that at companies as large as Google and Facebook, only about one engineer in five is female.  (Over our own thirty year history as an ERP services firm, our level of female tech support specialists has hovered around 50%, varying from year to year, but lower on the pure ‘programmer’ side.)

But according the Journal, a growing number of women and other minorities are working on the issue.  U.K. history shows that simply educating more women and other minorities to be engineers won’t solve the problem.  At its genesis, computer programming was initially thought of as menial labor and it “was feminized, a kind of ‘women’s work’ that wasn’t considered crucial.”  The U.K. government considered these workers to be of the low-paid “Machine Operator Class.”  Later, women were pushed out of the field during the postwar era by the then-common belief that women should be denied entry into higher-paid professions because they would leave once married.  Instead, the government set out to develop a class of “career-minded and management-bound young men.”

Turns out, the males were often less qualified, and left the field, viewing it as ‘unmanly.’

In fact, a shortage of programmers actually forced the U.K. government “to consolidate its computers in a handful of centers with the remaining coders.  It also meant the government demanded gigantic mainframes and ignored more distributed systems of midsize and mini computers which would give rise to the personal computer, according to Univ. of Wisconsin Professor Marie Hicks, in her book “Programmed Inequality.”

As a result, the U.K. computing industry imploded down to a single firm by 1968 – and the dream of personal computers was probably delayed by a couple of decades.

One of the women pushed out, Dame Stephanie Shirley, built a tech firm in the 1960s made up almost entirely of women with family-friendly benefits like working from home.  (It was eventually sold to a rival in 2007 for $1 billion.)  Shirley said when she founded the firm, she was seeking not wealth but “a workplace where I was not hemmed in by prejudice or by… preconceptions about what I could or could not do.”

As to progress today: Stephenie Palmeri, a  partner at Venture Capital firm Uncork Capital says raising the ratio of women in tech requires having more women in positions of power, both as investors and as executives.

Adds Dr. Hicks, “Without external influence, you can’t expect a system that prizes ‘culture fit’ to change.”  You can’t expect to rise in a meritocracy that does not reward everyone equally.

Today the challenge is all the greater: companies are racing to build artificial intelligence systems to propel smarter hiring, and the need to eliminate bias has never been greater.  AI learns from pre-existing notions of what constitutes a ‘good employee’ much like the personality tests given by many firms in the past.  We can scarcely afford to build in biases that inherently limit the opportunity for a level playing field at all.

 

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