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The Gender Divide - WM Commentary

Posted on 9.30.2013

The world’s digital divide was an important and serious discussion many years ago. The term was used to describe the discrepancy between people who have access to — and the resources to use — new information, communication and media tools (e.g. the Internet), and people who do not have access to those resources and technologies.

The world of course has changed since that phrase first entered the lexicon, but while the digital divide has lessened somewhat, it’s still present. Facebook’s recent initiative with its Internet.org partners including Qualcomm and Ericsson has put the technology disparity in its sights, hoping to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people that are still not yet connected, as well as addressing the necessary technologies required to accommodate the 1,000 times more Web traffic (of which there are many) that will result. Yet another, perhaps more insidious, divide remains.

I started thinking about the digital divide — as well as the concept of division in general — in another context recently. It’s not only access that separates some from technology, it can also be gender. The technology industry has, at least historically, been predominantly male (although it’s most certainly shifting). Only 2 percent of open source developers and only 28 percent of B.S. degrees in Computer Science were women. Why exactly? A study from the Level Playing Field Institute found that workplaces like tech startups can be “hostile or unpleasant environments” leading to those employees seeking out other companies or even other industries to work.

The divide was well highlighted and illustrated with quite the hullabaloo in early September 2013 when a presentation at an event for tech startups featured a mobile application that was, shall we say, if not salacious in nature, then certainly sophomoric. It’s not necessary to go into the details of what that app actually did, but let’s just say that it objectified women, surely making the females in attendance uncomfortable, which included a 9-year-old girl presenting at the event. Who would want to subject themselves to that and what does it say to that 9-year-old girl?

The lone positive result of that now regrettable presentation was that it refocused the attention of many within the sphere of technology (and elsewhere) on the ongoing gender divide in the technology industry. That focus is, of course, a very good thing as I believe that this damaging divide is keeping the industry from reaching its true potential. More women are entering technology industries — as well as its supporting industries like online advertising, Web design and Internet marketing — and more women are making their digital marks than ever before. That shift will undoubtedly continue in the future — but are enterprises ready? It will require a cultural shift within enterprises, one that values the content of the résumé and the completeness and quality of work, more than a worker’s default anatomy.

Closing the gender divide just doesn’t fall on the shoulders of the men in tech. Women in the field need to commit themselves to speaking to groups like Women in Technology or breaking out of their comfort zones to present at — or even organize — career days in underprivileged areas. Young girls in poverty are even less likely to know what technology careers are available to them or the roads they have to take to get there. When they don’t have access to technology, it’s even more difficult to imagine building a future around it.

There is still a battle raging between the digital have’s and have not’s, and there is still a shortage of women in the technology sector — at least those that feel respected and confident enough to participate, compete and innovate.

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