Saturday, May 19, 2007

"Dearth of women in VC ranks traced to less interest in tech." huh?

I couldn’t help but notice Constance Loizos’ article, “Dearth of women in VC ranks traced to less interest in tech”, in a recent edition of Mercury News. Talk about a misleading title. On the lack of female Partners in Venture Capital, Loizos goes on to write, “Part of the answer may lie in the fact that, from a young age, women appear less interested than men in technology.”

While I understand what Loizos was going for, I take issue with the thesis. What does it mean for women to be “less interested than men in technology”? This reminds me of Larry Summer's explanation of why there aren't more women in the upper echelons of academia.

So regarding the lack of interest women have in technology: Is this an “innate” difference (a la Larry Summers)? Or is this something else?

Now that I am immersed in technology, I often wonder why I or any of my really smart female friends never took a computer science class while we were in high school. At Stuyvesant, a math and science magnet high school, there were plenty of computer science options, including an advance placement computer class. And we were bonafide math nerds. We took extra electives in math, were enrolled in BC Calculus (that's Honors Advanced Placement, thank you very much. heh). Heck - When I was in middle school, I even took a summer class on BASIC and would spend hours writing dinky little programs on the Apple IIGS I had because I thought it was fun. What happened? Where do women with the right orientation for computer science veer off path? Is it as simple as saying that we're "less interested"?

Of course not.

Preferences are shaped not only by the biomolecular make up of our bodies but by our societal context. It's a silly example, but if you compare the taste buds of someone in Vietnam who likes to snack on fried grasshoppers with the taste buds of someone from Manhattan, you're not going to find a significant difference. Yet the person living in Manhattan would not choose the grasshoppers over a slice of pizza any day of the week. "From a young age, Manhattanites show less interest in fried grasshoppers."

Is context everything for preferences? No. There are real, physiological differences between male and female brains. But there is also an element of performance to gender (Judith Butler, anyone?). If my friends or I had had some close female friends in AP Computer Science, we would have been far more likely to have considered the class. Instead, we walked by the Computer Science lab every day without giving it a second thought.

I'm not complaining, but I hope it won't be the same scenario for women at Stuyvesant now and that it won't be too long before an Intro to Computer Science class is required curriculum along with Biology, Chemistry, Math and Physics. I think this will be an important step.