One of my reviewers for the Modern Management Made Easy books asked a fascinating question:
I've never seen this many women in management or in senior leadership positions. Do these stories reflect your experience?
Yes, the stories reflect my experience. Let me offer a little history.
My History, Not Anyone Else's History
I started to work as a programmer in the mid-1970s. In school, 1/3 of my graduating class for Computer Science was women. (Okay, there were only 6 of us, and 2 were women. See, 1/3. Hehe.)
I was often the only woman in my hardware classes. Yes, the Computer Science curriculum had several required Hardware Engineering classes. I'm pretty sure my math classes had more women.
I had one female instructor. She did not have a Ph.D., so she was an “instructor.” All the rest of my professors were men. You might not be surprised—she was one of the two professors I learned the most from. (I mostly taught myself because the professors were so horrible at teaching.)
Up until the mid-1980s, women comprised about 1/3 of the technical people I worked with. Up until the mid-80s, many of the software engineering jobs were for special-purpose machines or applications. Plenty of people worked in “IT,” which was strictly the business process automation for the company. I didn't work in IT, so I don't know enough about the ratio of women and men.
Then, in the mid-1980s the personal computer arrived. Before that, very few people had computers in their homes. The people with personal computers could (and did!) program at home.
And, because the companies marketed these personal computers to men and boys, many boys who had families with sufficient disposable money got a start programming before they went to college.
By the late 1980s to early 1990s, the field changed, at least in the United States. (I didn't know about other countries then.) Fewer women graduated with Computer Science degrees and fewer women applied for software jobs.
Women Quickly Dropped out of Studying Computer Science
I was surprised by how few women programmers I met, just a decade after I graduated from university. I started asking around. The men all boasted about their high school days.
I was not impressed with their so-called expertise. Too many of these educated people had no idea how to work as a collaborative team. The idea of a code review or a design review? They didn't need review—their code was just that good. (Let's not even discuss pairing or mobbing.)
These men believed in the cowboy coder, lone hero. They acted as if they were indispensable or 10x developers.
Make no mistake—I was certainly not immune from arrogance when I graduated from university. I suspect we all need a little arrogance to succeed in this industry. However, I was willing to work with other people. Most of these men did not see any value in working with other people.
Remember: None of them had ever seen any reward for working with other people. All their rewards arose from solo work.
When I had the chance to hire women and non-white men and women, they had similar stories:
- Their parents didn't buy a personal computer because they didn't have the disposable income. Or, they thought that computers were just for boys.
- As a result, they didn't start programming at home, in high school. (Later, in junior high or middle school.)
- Each of these people felt behind before they even started.
What's so bad about that? Can't people catch up?
Maybe. I suspect you need a little obliviousness. (I excel at obliviousness.)
If you didn't start programming at home, you might well be lost when you took your first programming class. Especially if the professor taught to the people who already had programming experience. Not the people without experience.
And, if you didn't demand more information, as I did, you might well drop out of the computer science classes.
Consider the System
There's an entire system here we can consider:
- Almost all the professors in Computer Science were men. (I didn't care about that, because I grew up in the reality that “men worked” and “women stayed home.” I knew that wouldn't work for me.)
- No one chose these men for their empathy or teaching skills. Most of the time, universities select professors based on the professor's research or academic publishing record.
- Young men started their intro Computer Science classes with experience and enthusiasm.
- Young women started these same classes with curiosity. There's a big difference between experience and curiosity.
- Professors are human. They tended to show preference to people who already understand the material, e.g. the men. What happens to the women in these classes? Too many of the women leave.
That started the idea of programming as a male-dominant field—in the United States.
Personal Computer: US Effects Differed from International Effects
I'm pretty sure much of the rest of the world took until the mid-late 1990s or even the early 2000s to be able to afford to buy personal computers. That's another 10-15 years. Those people tended to learn about programming at university with others—not at home alone.
And, if you look at other country's cultures, you can see the US might rank the highest on Individualism. We love the idea that each of us can make our own destiny, alone.
I started to travel internationally as a consultant in the late 1990s. I was surprised by the diversity of the teams I saw. Most teams had several female developers. And, depending on the country, teams had people of color, too.
And, the managers? Not an even 50-50 split, but many more women managers than in the US. Even at the C-level, internationally.
There were (at least) two reasons for those changes. Everyone started off on the same footing in their studies in school, and many of the European-culture companies didn't fall for the myth that they should promote the best technical person to management. (See Book 2 for what you can do about that myth.)
I'm sure there were other cultural factors, especially around power distance and uncertainty avoidance.
The more I traveled, the more I saw diverse teams and managers. Even when those teams worked in resource efficiency, they created terrific products.
Outside the US, people at all levels seemed to realize management was about people. Not tools, not technology, and definitely not process. People.
Management Is About People
As long as you care about people, you can be an effective manager.
If you don't like to work with people, I don't see how you can succeed as a manager.
Being able to work with people isn't enough—managers also need to understand the risks their teams encounter. And, the managers need to understand the customers who buy or use the products their teams build.
That understanding is all about systems:
- Visualize and understand the team's system.
- Use the greater organizational system to benefit the team and the product.
Understanding these systems? Definitely a challenge, but not a challenge limited to one gender.
That's why women can excel at managing technical teams and teams of people who solve technical problems.
Managers help create an environment where people can discuss those problems and resolve them. If managers can't talk with people, how can they create an environment where the people with the problem can support each other as they solve the problem?
Yes, the manager’s job is to create an environment in which everyone can do great work.
People manage themselves. Teams can learn to manage their interactions so they can create great products and services. And, the organization can deliver on the organization’s purpose—especially if it has diverse teams.
Can anyone be a good or great manager? Yes. That ability has nothing to do with a person's gender or economic background.
That's why the people in my Modern Management Made Easy books have female and male names. Many women are technical. And, many technical women excel as managers.