The Bureau of Labor says that by 2026 we will be short 1.2 million engineers. Right now, the majority of developers are men. So presumably it’s a crisis that women are not in STEM.

Microsoft is thinking that filling the funnel with girls is the way forward. Microsoft decides the Wonder Woman movie has a female protagonist, so girls will identify with her. And Microsoft announces it will solve this engineering shortfall with Wonder Woman. Coding lessons for girls! Turn your tech skills into superpowers!

But the majority of people who saw the Wonder Woman movie were male. And, the majority of those viewers were ages 25-44. So Microsoft targeted girls who want to code with a character from a movie only 2% of girls saw.

Which is because it’s likely based on a porn fantasy. But whatever, as a gimmick for coding, Wonder Woman was a huge failure. Luckily we don’t need Microsoft to encourage girls to write code because girls do as well as boys in grade-school coding classes. And girls do as well as boys in computer science courses in college, but girls don’t stay in the major. They don’t like it.

A study from Accenture shows why: girls aren’t interested in the abstraction. “The content of coding projects is typically less engaging for girls, who often prefer health and real-world problem-solving challenges.”

This study is consistent with a study that asked Harvard Business School students what motivated them, and what was the best part of their work experience. Male students were more likely to say they were motivated by competition and female students were more likely to say they were motivated by collaboration.

Stuart Reges teaches computer science at University of Washington and he shows that women and men coded at the same rate until the 80s, when women began to have other professional opportunities. Now, Reges says that after decades of all sorts of initiatives, women are no more than 20% of tech workers in any country, even in societies with otherwise remarkable gender equity.

Finally, research also shows that the less power a woman has in society, the more likely she is to choose STEM. So instead of assuming girls are oppressed and therefore do not code, why not assume girls use their power to choose not to code?

Jacquelynne Eccles found that women primarily choose non-STEM careers because they have strengths that men often lack. Eccles found that if someone has high math skills and only moderate verbal skills, the person will choose a career in STEM. However if they have high math skills and high verbal skills, the person will choose a non-STEM career. Female math students were of course more likely to be in the group with high verbal skills. Eccles concludes that women who are good at math shift away from STEM because they have so many more career opportunities than men who are good at math.

Encouraging women to go into STEM is a waste of money. Any woman who wants to can study STEM. No one is stopping women. Women are choosing not to. So stop trying to get more women to go into STEM and just leave the women alone.

What we do need from the world is marketing that gives girls credit for making good choices. The real superheroes are the ones actually listening to girls, instead of telling girls that their goals aren’t the right ones.

74 replies
  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    We need to balance pay. A lot of relational jobs are poorly paid because we undervalue those skills, which is part of the reason women are encouraged to go into STEM.

    Reply
  2. OrdinaryBob
    OrdinaryBob says:

    Maybe women choosing careers explains why women are so under-represented in bricklaying, and steel mills. This whole gender thing is a tempest in a teapot.

    Reply
    • Jules
      Jules says:

      Or maybe women choose not to go into those careers because many of the men who currently work in them are assholes who are unpleasant to work with. I work in construction and after 15 years I no longer go on site because I’m tired of being butt grabbed and whistled at and condescended to. Best brickie I ever worked with was a woman and her crew were both brilliant at their jobs and polite, tidy and respectful to everyone.

      Reply
  3. Joe Fecarotta
    Joe Fecarotta says:

    I love this article so much! I have a daughter and we homeschooled letting her choose anything she wanted to do. We gave her experiences in coding, art, soccer, cheerleading …the list goes on. She is now a very happy art instructor on the way to being a world famous storyboard artist :-) let people choose their own paths.

    Reply
  4. Sam Williamson
    Sam Williamson says:

    Your closing sentence is perfect: “The real superheroes are the ones actually listening to girls, instead of telling girls that their goals aren’t the right ones.”

    We live in a strange society that is creating untested values and forcing them on others as though these new values supersede our past.

    I’m an INTJ (yeah, yeah, I know you probably won’t believe me, but I am), and I owned a software company for twenty-five years. And I thought I loved it, but I sold it fourteen years ago to do non-profit work … and I don’t miss the work at all. I miss the people.

    We teach society to value career, title, and income, when at the end of our lives, we all realize our greatest value should have been (and maybe finally is): family and friends; relationships.

    Reply
  5. Cherie
    Cherie says:

    So do all STEM fields center around programming? I have several female friends that majored in and took jobs in various engineering fields and they needed few programming skills. I know plenty of IT folks who skills don’t center around programming or even include more than the basic understanding, nor are they required to program in their IT jobs. I think you’ve narrowed STEM fields to a very small subset to support your proposition.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great question. I sorted through a lot of research, and sometimes people look at STEM fields on a spectrum of more math to less math. There’s a study from Eccles about girls who don’t have friends in high school are most likely to choose STEM majors in college. It’s a really interesting study because it didn’t matter if girls had science teachers mentoring them or had great math skills or good research projects. What mattered was if they were isolated socially in high school.

      But the data was hard for me to work with because it focused on “math-intensive STEM fields”. So that did not include psychology, ecology, biology, etc. I thought a lot about that, how to write about that. I didn’t like that Eccles categorizes chemistry as math-intensive even though it’s more than 50% women. I don’t get the logic. It seems to me that if chemistry is math-intensive but mostly women then her definition of math intensive isn’t good.

      I guess what I’m saying is that you ask a great question and I kept asking it as I wrote this post. But I decided that the bottom line is the only women who choose computer science feel like they have no other choice. And given that so many papers support these findings, it’s upsetting to see all the money being spent on getting more women to go into computer science.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Cherie
        Cherie says:

        Thank you for responding but do believe that STEM as it currently stands encompasses so much more than programming (not necessarily including excel in programming although technically it probably is). I’m not at all surprised about girls not wanting to go into the computer science field. And rather than require someone (i.e. girls in this case) to “conform” to a field curriculum as it stands, maybe the academic system should alter the field to entice folks with those broader interests. IMHO, academia too often assumes that you’ll get on-the-job learning for those non-technical skills that many professions require once you get past the entry level jobs. The skills that then become even more important to ones success than the technical skills. And those STEM areas of study that rely heavily on programming might benefit by keeping folks in the field if they think past job 1 in the curriculum development. I really believe society as a whole benefits when women are on the design teams for those public restrooms that we use, the cars that we drive, the desks that we sit at, the phones that we use, and on and on and on.

        Reply
      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        “..the bottom line is the only women who choose computer science feel like they have no other choice.” This sounds a bit facile to me, not to mention a bit insulting. It also seems to derive from historical ignorance. Grace Hopper must be rolling over in her grave.

        The first programmers were women. The first experts in computer languages were women. The field of computing only turned to being male-dominated after it became lucrative; then it was time to cut women out.

        This history is backwards from how people these days have been taught to think. People assume that programming has always been lucrative, always been male-dominated, and despair at how they can’t attract more women to it.

        The problem is not that women never wanted to be programmers, but that women were chased out of the profession by the brogrammers.

        This stood out to me from the article you link below:

        “More important, the point about mathematical reasoning seems wrong given new evidence. It’s the presence or absence of other strengths that seems to matter. Quite simply, women who have mathematical aptitude tend to also have non-mathematical aptitude. These women are probably drawn to fields like social and personality psychology, where both types of aptitude matter. However, men who have mathematical aptitude (and interest) tend to solely have this aptitude.”

        The problem isn’t that women can’t or don’t want to do programming. Maybe a bigger problem is that they don’t want to be around guys who solely have this one aptitude, and have created a world where that’s all that matters. Maybe it’s not programming that’s a turnoff, but programmers. Maybe if we focused, instead of teaching mathy girls to code, on helping mathy boys expand themselves socially, the brogrammer culture could be dispelled and women would want to be part of the club again.

        If you want to learn more about the evolution of brogramming, you might start with the article in Fast Company, or watch Finish Line Features’ documentary Code. But I’ll just pop in this quote from Grandma COBOL:

        “It’s just like planning a dinner… You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

        Hopper wasn’t a programmer because she couldn’t do anything else. She was a Yale PhD, a math professor, an inventor… she retired from active service (as a navy rear admiral) at 79, the oldest commissioned officer on active duty.

        Reply
        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          My mom was a COBOL programmer. She had no other choice. As in: that was the only professional job actively recruiting women. In the 70s and 80s it wasn’t couldn’t as in aptitude. It was couldn’t as in opportunity. After that, it was couldn’t as in aptitude because women had the opportunity to outpace men (which women did do). It’s a good nuance to explain better, so thank you for pointing it out.

          That said, everything you wrote actually supports everything I wrote — they go together to explain how women got to where we are.

          Penelope

          Reply
  6. Etienne
    Etienne says:

    I agree. I’m a male but I’m pretty strong in both math and verbal skills. I went to college for engineering bc it offered safe career prospects and I found myself bored even though I could do the work. I wanted to tackle larger societal problems that intersected with tech issues rather than just meddle just in the nuts and bolts of tech. I find that generally women (not to stereotype) are better organizational leaders and interdisciplinary thinkers than men (again not to stereotype). It makes sense to me why they prefer strategy or community building roles in tech, and other careers related to broader issues of education, public health, and political relations. It might have to do with the gender roles we are socialized into, but those roles also reflect thousands of years of human relations so they are hard to break. Also, some roles are simply based in practicality, such as field engineering jobs (ie petroleum engineers) that require some physical strength that many men are more likely to have than many women, just by the laws of nature.

    Reply
  7. Joe E
    Joe E says:

    To further support your point:

    “Last year, researchers in the US and UK found that countries with an existing culture of gender equality have an even smaller proportion of women taking degrees in science, technology and mathematics (STEM).

    “It is a paradox … nobody would have expected this to be the reality of our time,” says Professor Gijsbert Stoet, one of the report’s authors.

    He argues that since Nordic countries have a generally high standard of living and strong welfare states, young women are free to pick careers based on their own interests, which he says are often more likely to include working in care-giving roles or with languages. By contrast, high achievers in less stable economies might choose STEM careers based on the income and security they provide, even if they prefer other areas.”

    https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190831-the-paradox-of-working-in-the-worlds-most-equal-countries

    Reply
  8. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    As a woman who worked in academia, the corporate world and the NGO world, I can say unequivocally and emphatically, that the most oppressive people I ever worked with were women. No contest. While a few chauvinistic men were in the mix, the vast majority of women were truly awful. I had more respect , freedom and mutual cooperation from and with men at all levels than with 90 percent of women. Not a fun fact but a fact. The worst part is they see themselves as “mentors” and promoters of women. I have my theories…but that’s all they are.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think a lot of women would agree with you. And there is data to explain this situation. Women who have power in the workforce are those who do not stop working to take care of kids so they can rise up like men do. Those women are outliers — the majority of women stop working to take care of kids. Probably because the majority of women have high communication skills (per Eccles).

      One of those links up there shows that the more equity a society has the more likely a woman is to stop working outside the home. Additionally, the more highly educated a woman is the more likely she is to stop working to raise children.

      https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11150-013-9199-4

      This means that the women who have power in the workforce are not only outliers but probably have worse social skills than the women they are supposedly mentoring. The women at the top would be good mentors for women similar to them — outliers — but that’s going to be the rare case.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Katarina
        Katarina says:

        Outliers in what sense? Nastiness? I didn’t need any mentoring and I wasn’t trying to climb my way into their positions. I didn’t have kids at the time. I was not in any way an actual legitimate threat. And yet, the behavior by these women was completely focused on asserting some sort of psychological dominance…in different ways. Many even intentionally reduced my salary. What does th research say about this?

        Reply
        • Gla
          Gla says:

          Yes!! Exactly this! As a woman engineer (not in programming), I have experienced worst treatment from women at work. The crazy, competitive, insane women. I’m ENFJ so very social and nice. In the wrong career and wish I was a housewife. I’m not trying to climb the ladder at work. Still, some women have been trying to literally off me at work.

          Reply
          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            This topic is unfortunately the elephant in the room and rarely honestly addressed. I appreciate Penelope allowing it to at least be mentioned. All we hear is about injustice to women but in fact, the injustice I experienced was always from women. Most of the women I know say the same thing. When I was a manager, I vowed to be the complete opposite. I managed people in different countries and the work was grueling and demanding. My philosophy was to always, always back them, give them the benefit of the doubt if something seemed “off” and to give them freedom, total freedom. No micro-managing. Ever. The job was very difficult and only super smart people would be able to pull it off. Super smart people need freedom. We got the job done.

            Besides the topic of women being turned on or off by STEM, there are a lot of women not willing to play the corporate games. Because I grew up with a single mom, I never doubted the role of a woman as bread winner. We never talked about some disadvantages she had because she was a woman. My two sisters and I have always sought out opportunities to work as independently as possible. We make our trade-offs, we love our freedom and we respect other people’s freedom.

            Rewards don’t always come in dollars. This is something that people in other countries value. When I was a graduate student in Germany in the 1980’s, all I heard from Germans was that Americans “work too hard”.

            I have immediate relatives in STEM and its mostly based on personality…I had to LOL when you said you were an ENFJ as I am, too! So maybe the issue has more to do with MBTI type than anything else! I married an engineer (electrical) who is also an expert programmer. He has taught countless students, many of them women…the vast majority of them not American. So let’s think about what we mean when we say men and women. Maybe we mean American men and women. Maybe we mean all different kinds of things that we don’t realize we mean.

            Thanks for responding to my comment! I totally respect your desire to be a homemaker…when my son came along, I chose homemaking and I LOVE IT! Homeschooling…and many, many other pursuits. I’m teaching a high school world geography course for 18 homeschool students…I have a lot of experience to bring to the discussion, not to mention guest speakers from around the world.
            No one is in charge of me! FREEDOM!!!!

            Gotta have it.

          • reezam
            reezam says:

            I have wondered about this for years…thinking it was just me who couldn’t seem to get along with the sisters in the workplace. So it’s refreshing to hear that others have experienced the same. Women often act with deadly toxic force against fellow worker women above, below and alongside them. Whilst smiling and pretending to be friends. Yes, women are super-relational but this means they also know where the soft spots are and how to connive and deceive. I don’t know why this has be so.

        • GenerationXpert
          GenerationXpert says:

          Katarina – I’m curious if you’re around my age (born in the early 1970s). I had a hell of a time dealing with Babyboomer women until about five years ago when they finally started retiring. It was like they wanted to be the only female in the board room and it was annoying and exhausting. Now, the women I work with are around my age or younger – as are the men – and we just don’t have to deal with that Boomer crap anymore. I think that’s why Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi both annoy me. They just remind me of every freaking female Boomer boss I’ve ever had.

          Reply
          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            I’m actually from a little farther back than that. You make an interesting point. (For some businesses, I’m definitely a senior citizen and I think it hilarious and I am discovering discounts! It’s really great!) Are we shocked that people with fragile egos, male or female, are usually awful to work for? Egomaniacs make life difficult wherever they are. Ambitious people usually get into management positions, and ambitious people usually have fragile egos. This is why I am amazed by people who want their kids to be “high achievers” and end up with some “high ranking” jobs. I never cared for that and that is the last thing I would try to push on my son. If someone tried to do that to me, I’d really be very irritated. We all have to choose for ourselves what we want. We have to figure out how to get it. And all the people of that Boomer generation who are “on top” always assume everyone wishes they were like them…that everyone wants what they want. They can’t fathom that millions and millions of people don’t want what they want. They don’t want anything that these “successful” people have. At this stage in my life, I can see so vividly now how much I never played by the “rules” that were supposedly in place. Somehow I got around. I think my son picked up on that and is more like my husband and me…he will find his own way.

            I’ve never been of the mind that I am going to change the world…or even one person around me. I can barely change myself. Speaking of believing you can change the world, the Boomer female “you can have and should want it ALL” propaganda didn’t work on me. I guess what you and I experienced was dealing with people who “wanted it all”, thought they could get it, never could, but convinced themselves they did…and then had to convince the world that they did.. Hence the definitely EXHAUSTING experience of just being around them, let alone working for them. They don’t usually say it, but everything about them screams, “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” LOL!!!!!!! This is their legacy!

          • Katarina
            Katarina says:

            I sent a lengthy response but apparently it didn’t go through…I’ll spare you this time! I’m somewhat older than you…you make a very interesting point! Thanks!

        • Gla
          Gla says:

          Katrina, thank you. I would have loved to have a manager like you! I value freedom too and find my own way. Us ENFJ’s can be very resourceful. It’s a very important skill to have.

          Reply
  9. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Like those girls, I have chosen to study and do what I like. I am within a year of retirement.

    Looking back, the way I was able to disregard the economy and career wages was by being very stubborn and idealistic about what would make me happy.

    My university degree is still being offered, but the college certificate, continuing education certificate, and two college diplomas (one was a direct university transfer) that I earned are no longer being offered because, presumably, not enough jobs.

    I am pleased I did it my way.

    Reply
  10. Tina
    Tina says:

    The fact that more women don’t want to go into STEM doesn’t mean that girls are not oppressed, it means our society traditionally undervalues “women’s work”, e.g. teaching, caregiving, nursing, homemaking, customer service, communication, relationship building and other soft-skills. Roxane Gay had an excellent response to a man who argued that women are no longer oppressed (and in face men are disadvantaged) as there are more women entering graduate programs than men these days. She said that women need to pursue a graduate degree to achieve pay parity with men. That speaks to my experience where I have a law degree and my male partner who did not graduate college can make as much money as me working in landscaping. The take away here should not be it’s a waste of money to encourage women to go into STEM, but that we should pay women more in their chosen professions.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I just wrote a reply, and then I deleted my reply. I decided that your main complaint it that women don’t earn as much as men. But women actually earn *more* than men until they have kids. This is Bureau of Labor data. After women have kids women take care of kids more than men do, so given similar jobs women take a salary hit and men don’t.

      It’s not that women are forced to care for kids, it’s that we choose to care for kids. We saw this during Covid. Women who could have told their husbands to take 50% of the child care responsibility chose not to. There are so many essays and op-eds from women writing about why they took on the responsibility. And the data now shows that when women could return to work they decided to stay home and take care of the kids and the men decided to go back to work. We could have predicted that this would happen because this is the decision women make when they have power in society.

      A question I have for you is why should women who are devoting so much mental and emotional energy to their family get paid the same amount as people who devote all that mental and emotional energy to their job? There will always be people who want to give everything to their job. They deserve to be paid more. The people who have kids and are still devoting everything they have to their work are almost always financially supporting a spouse who devotes everything to the family. They have made a choice to divide labor that way. Why would we say that’s not fair?

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Patricia
        Patricia says:

        If women could tell our husbands to take on any percentage of child care, our lives would look very different. Often, they say no, or cause so much conflict it isn’t worth it, or passive-aggressively do a half-baked job.

        Reply
        • ru
          ru says:

          I found that, what, the parents (both parents) are willing to give into child care support, is usually different from what the child actually needs to develop their abilities.

          Most families who have 2 working parents are stuck at basic level. Which is getting food on the table, eating together and then argue who will be the back up parent to do dr appointments, and who will do drop off/pick ups. You can’t move past this level when either of the parent ask, ‘what about my self-actualization needs?”

          The next level of support is learning support for kids. For a chance that they can do great things, they have to experiment, they require a safety net on top of being fed and sleep. Kids doing a path that the parents never walked is naturally unsettling, so who is there to catch the kids if neither parents can find the time to observe the kids? Kids would like to pick moms for this whether moms want the honor or not.

          I would imagine it’s so comforting to see your mom being your #1 person in your corner, no matter how old you are.

          Families will always have conflicts. moms have the unfortunate burden of picking the right fight

          Reply
      • Not that Melissa
        Not that Melissa says:

        In our culture, AFAB women and girls receive so much more training in how to be caretakers it’s not even funny. What if we started training AMAB, boys and men to the same degree?

        It’s like, have you ever used Instacart? When your shopper’s got a male name, you know they’re going to ask you a million questions and still mess up the order. But when the Army needs someone to do the grocery shopping, we give him a promotion and call him a quartermaster.

        At the moment, it’s relentless to carry the mental load of running a household and managing a career but lots of women pull it off until they need to do the kind of intensive caregiving that our society has been pushing them towards. To say nothing of the horrendous culture of the American workplace.

        Reply
  11. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,

    I wish it were as simple as it seems. We go where we feel we belong, and we ignore things that we feel are not for us or that we do not identify with. I am not convinced that the societal cues to which we are all subject, present egalitarian options to females. Programming begins at birth, and is more difficult to reverse even when one is mature and aware of its impact.
    By and large, girls are still brought up to be homemakers and caregivers, and boys are not. Stem is a man’s world, and is unwelcoming to alert, intelligent females. Perhaps one day it will not be so, but for now it is, particularly in lower income settings. We still need efforts, albeit misdirected efforts like Microsoft’s. That effort was likely headed by a male… just a hunch.
    Mytwocentsworth,
    D

    Reply
      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Um. The T in stem is tech. And that’s my whole career. And your comment is literally the ubiquitous insidious type of comment that men make that women in STEM learn to ignore because the comments are so frequent that if we got upset every time we would become mentally unstable.

        Penelope

        Reply
        • Joe Shaw
          Joe Shaw says:

          Penelope,

          Apologies for my original comment. It was harsh. I should have said viewing tech as a man’s world has not been my experience, and left it at that.

          I was replying to harris497’s assertiion that STEM is a Man’s world, not your article. In case I was not clear.

          T is my whole career, too, and I’ve had more female bosses then male in my 25 years as a developer for multiple fortune 500 companies, two of the largest universities in the country, and one sh**ty insurance company in North Carolina.

          I completely agree with your article, with the exception that tech is a man’s world. Programming, maybe, but tech as a whole … no. Not in my experience, anyway.

          There are a ton of women in PM roles, Analyst roles, design and communication roles, etc

          The one thing I’ve seen in my career has been good, young female developers who try to stand out early in their careers by stepping up to present a project or design a ui., etc…softer skills. They do good work and the managers peg them for those tasks in the future, leaving the coding and architecture tasks to the men. Its never seemed to be an “Oh. You’re a woman. Here, make the PPT deck pretty!” Its almost always been a woman volunteering for a task the men don’t want, then standing out in that task, then getting more of that work.

          Over time, these women get really good at design-y talk-y things while the programmers build. Then, when it comes time to promote … the programmer men get the tech lead and manager roles and the women get frustrated and get a job in something non-techy. Like HR or Financial Planning.

          Not always, but often enough.

          When I mentor folks – men, women, or in between – I encourage them to watch out for the ease with which they can be pigeon-holed. Take control of your career. Don’t let it take control of you.

          I’ve worked with some STUPID SMART young women who held the line and stayed in dev despite many alt tech opportunities. Some have even passed me up. Not because they were women, but because they are better.

          Reply
          • Kat
            Kat says:

            While I don’t love your first glib comment, I have to agree with your longer one.

            Penelope (and readers) – check out this talk giving advice to young women coders to really consider the implications of working as a technical person but focusing *too early* on soft skills.

            https://noidea.dog/glue

            Now, as someone who’s worked in both S and T, it feels that (some more successful) tech is much better for women than the biological sciences. Projects are shorter, more collaborative, and hours are more flexible. Pay is higher without a proportional increase in hours. I moved fields for both the pay and the flexibility, and am very glad I did. Having children, and coming back, will both be easier.

            And I do a good amount of “glue work” mid career, but try to be thoughtful about what it can give me.

          • Joe Shaw
            Joe Shaw says:

            Kat,

            In this case Glib = trying to post from my phone while putting the kids (5 of them) to bed. Normally, I have a better filter for [things that aren’t what you mean and sound offensive]. but the kids chew on my filters and make it hard.

            from what you said … I would say my experience with more women in my area of tech could be due to the fact that I’ve almost always been in the shorter-project / collab space. There might be a dearth of women in the straight up corp IT./ let’s-sustain-this-useless-asaset-because-we-always-have side of the house. My perspective ain’t THE perspective.

            I’ve only got one good eye. It can’t be.

          • Jules
            Jules says:

            This happens to women in design and construction too, although in this case the roles tend to be the managing the production packages and dealing with contractors requests while the men swan around fidgeting with models and schmoozing clients. Time after time I see young talented women taking on these roles because they see them as critical – done badly, the building doesn’t get built well or on time – but they are thankless and unglamorous (involving hundreds if not thousands of hours checking and rechecking drawings and training others to do better drawings) and so when the building opens these roles are forgotten…except to notice that Sarah did a fantastic job at it and to put her in the same role on another building. Ten years later, Sarah is reporting to some muppet who couldn’t draw a construction detail if his life depended on it, but “he’s a good designer”. The problem is the definition of a good designer…

      • harris497
        harris497 says:

        Joe,

        My apologies for the generalization, “stem is a man’s world, and is unwelcoming to alert, intelligent females.” I should only have referred to programming, I said it to make a point about difficulties young females have in what remains a male dominated field. The point was much better stated by FLM, “There are people who discourage women from succeeding in STEM fields or even choosing them. Women struggle with sexual harassment, mysogenesis, and often hostile work environments in STEM fields and opt for less oppressive work environments with better pay.”
        I defer to your greater body of experience as explained below.

        Reply
    • Anon
      Anon says:

      STEM for girls has existed for a long time . . . but apparently only for girls who were accidentally, or incidentally, encouraged.

      I have 2 daughters, born during the 1960’s. One is a physicist, the other is a mechanical engineer.

      A few years ago I asked one of them about how that happened, and she said that — at home — they didn’t feel ‘pigeonholed’ into girl typecasting. And that they had felt as if the ‘rents were convinced they could do anything they wanted.

      Maybe the atmosphere at home has a lot to do with it.

      and p.s. neither one of them is or was “into” coding.

      Reply
  12. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Wow. Thanks for this article. You always think of things I didn’t think of or didn’t think of in that way. Love it. Your last line here especially resonated with me: ‘The real superheroes are the ones listening to girls not telling them their goals aren’t the right ones.’

    Reply
  13. Maria
    Maria says:

    Or perhaps the research us flawed in the same way it was flawed when men assumed Wonder Woman was going to inspire girls.

    Women deal with sexual harassment, mysogeny, and often hostile work environments in STEM and choose to find less oppressive work environments with better pay.

    Reply
  14. G
    G says:

    Perhaps wonder woman was geared towards the men who deny opportunity to women in the engineering field (because their attention to detail is superior) and the STEM studies are geared at keeping women out by leading them to believe their unqualified or should follow social “norms” instead of being the pioneer in their desired field?

    Reply
  15. Tara
    Tara says:

    There’s a lot to this that makes sense, and I also think software engineering needs a redo. Computer Science isn’t the best degree to become a software engineer. Oh, it has useful information, but there isn’t an emphasis on the coding, which is the fun part. And the coding is usually in C++, which isn’t that fun.

    I switched from English Ph.D. to software engineer at 40, but I went the bootcamp route, which is collaborative, and I learned Ruby, which was literally designed to make developers happy. It allows for more creativity. Moreover, you can later learn other languages fairly easily.

    I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and I’m one class shy of a CIS degree, which I’ve taken on the side, because I wanted to, but I tried to take Computer Science classes. They not only weren’t interesting, but they weren’t relevant to what I actually did, day to day.

    I am certain what you say is so about why women don’t choose STEM, but I also think the curriculum leaves a lot to be desired. I’m a senior software engineer now and have trained junior engineers. The best have been two women from bootcamps, one who just won her company’s excellence in engineering award. And there have been a couple men with C.S. degrees. They took a lot longer to get going. They’re doing fine, but…I think how we traditionally prepare software engineers needs an overhaul.

    After 8 years doing it, if I don’t find C.S. classes interesting or relevant to my job, why would it attract people who want to become software engineers. It really is too abstract of a degree. I’d like to see fewer abstract Computer Science degrees (I barely use math, and it’s a math degree) and more creative, thrilling software engineering-focused programs. It is so fun, and they hide that in those damn degrees.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really like this summary of why training for CS is irrelevant to real world CS. It reminds me of law school. The test to get into law school selects for people who specifically would not enjoy doing the day-to-day work of being a lawyer.

      Penelope

      Reply
    • Nicole
      Nicole says:

      ^^ This 1000%. I started off as a CS major but it was so boring I was practically suicidal. I changed my major but kept working on open source projects just for fun. I was still able to get a job as a junior engineer after graduation because my github portfolio mattered more than a computer science degree. I almost didn’t make it though. The harassment women have to endure in tech is real. I was doxxed and got rape threats after I introduced a new feature to an open source project that a bunch of people didn’t like. The male engineers who also helped develop this feature just got called names like ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’. I had to quit the project and install a home security system.

      Reply
  16. Tashi
    Tashi says:

    This ignores the research done on women and math – when bias in early socialization is removed, women are more likely to want to study math. Plus, married to someone with a PhD in a STEM field, the stories they have of how many women they know dropped out/didn’t get funding/ moved to industry due to systemic bias and lack of support. There ARE people stopping women from thriving in STEM fields or even choosing them in the first place.

    Reply
  17. FLM
    FLM says:

    There are people who discourage women from succeeding in STEM fields or even choosing them. Women struggle with sexual harassment, mysogenesis, and often hostile work environments in STEM fields and opt for less oppressive work environments with better pay.

    Reply
  18. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Warning: controversial comment
    Thanks for highlighting the choice aspect.
    This is in fact similar to what the infamous James Damore was trying to say (but expressed in a way that could be taken out of context)
    in that women/females are NOT ‘not as good’ but generally CHOOSE not to purse that type of career.
    That’s not to downplay that there are regrettable factors that also tend to drive them out as well even if they are interested, but that and how to help address it, is a different topic.

    Reply
      • Kristi
        Kristi says:

        The conclusions are the science, though. Part of evaluating the validity of a claim involves determining whether the study being cited actually measure the concepts being discussed, whether and how strong a causal claim can be made based on the design of the study, and whether that study can be generalized to other contexts and populations. And most of the academics quoted in the article disagree with the validity of Damore’s claims. Some allude to well-known confounding factors and others say that he generalizes past the point of making valid claims. That’s science. There are two quotes from researchers in the article that are somewhat supportive. Wiederman calls his argument “reasoned,” which doesn’t necessarily mean “correct,” and Fine rightly points out there are many social conditions that could influence the choices being used as indicators of innate qualities. She calls his memo “nuanced,” an interesting word choice, and makes more of a free speech argument than anything else. She’s saying she has seen similar claims within the range of academic debate; not that she necessarily agrees with Damore.

        Reply
  19. Stanislav
    Stanislav says:

    I recently took Jordan Peterson’s “Discovering personality” online course.
    And in one of his lectures he said exactly this (loosely quoted) “Research shows that the more egalitarian a society – the more the gender gap. So it is actually social pressure/oppression that shrinks the gap between genders.”

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes. True. It’s really frustrating to me that people assert the opposite without citing research. I’m not a Jordan Peterson fan. But at some point, you have to just accept science as science and accept if it makes people you hate right. Just adjust and move one. Maybe this is what it felt like to be the Catholic Church reading Galelio.

      PenelopeK/I>

      Reply
  20. Bart
    Bart says:

    Of course women are still oppressed in the workplace!!
    There are so few women garbage people. And I can’t remember the last time I came across a female Janitor! Those roofers sweating their hearts out in the summer and battling the cold in the winter are almost always men. The plumber who stuck his hand into my (dirty) toilet to fix a stuffed toilet was male and I can’t ever recall ever seeing a female plumber. Ditto for my electrician and anyone who has ever installed my Air conditioning systems.

    Why are we oppressing women so much from all of these male these jobs? Oppression, oppression, oppression.

    Reply
  21. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    As a female Engineer, I agree with most of your points but not your conclusion. Women do tend to be more interested in real world problem solving. However, Engineering is real world problem solving. The study treats coding and engineering as if they were the same thing – they’re not. Coding is just the mechanical process of entering instructions into a computer. Engineering is more of a creative science. The problem is that computer science curriculums emphasize the mechanical process of coding (because it’s easy to assess) and not the creative science of engineering. – this is where you start to lose women. It’s not that women aren’t interested in becoming Engineers, they just aren’t interested in memorizing syntax and libraries that are easily googleable and built in to every IDE. I think the reason why men have an easier time getting through all that is because coding (aka memorizing syntax and libraries) is like a measuring stick that you can compare against other measuring sticks – and that’s how they manage to stay engaged.

    Reply
    • Joe Shaw
      Joe Shaw says:

      I’d like to see some studies about what engages women vs what engages men in the workplace. I’ve been a developer for over 25 years and, outside of the few things I’m using RIGHT NOW, I have nothing memorized. Chances are, once I’m done with [current thing], I’ll have to stackoverflow my way through it in 6 months if someone asks me what the flip was going on in my code.

      If I had to guess (and I’m not a social scientists, so my guess is as useful as a bag of jelly beans), I’d say that being a part of a team that has some kind of mission is what engages men. Like capture the flag, but not necessarily militaristic. I worked for Disney World up to a few months ago, and one of the projects we worked on was developing apps to help people in the resorts manage cleaning schedules, booking mishaps, and maintenance issues. When the pandemic hit, they furloughed almost everyone in the resorts. When things opened up, nobody knew what they were doing because everyone was new. Most of the people working there were Spanish speaking and most of the managers were not. Everything was pen and paper. People were working 80-100 hours a week and burning out. Our mission was to make it so THOSE people’s lives didn’t suck. We did that. That goal is what drove us.

      That might just have been me and the people I work with. We didn’t get promotions out of it. We didn’t get extra money or even recognition. We made people’s lives easier, and that was enough. Yes, I’m a competitive person, but not in an “I win. You lose” way. more of an “I win, We win … Or you win, we win” way. I want to do better than my past work and I want to do better work than my teammates, but I want them to try to beat me as well.

      Not exactly “stick” measuring, if you catch my drift.

      Reply
  22. Dylan Tweney
    Dylan Tweney says:

    I think lots of girls do go into STEM majors in college. Few of them make it out, though. Is that because they don’t like or can’t deal with abstractions? Or is it because they get tired of all the boys being super aggressive/competitive, talking down to them, and staring at their chests?

    In my limited experience, STEM culture is as obnoxiously male as frats are, just in a more geeky direction. The same kind of competition for alpha status and the same way of treating women as prizes, rather than collaborators. I didn’t like it much and I don’t blame girls for not wanting to deal with it. Fix that, and then you could have a fair comparison of aptitude.

    Reply
  23. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think it’s fine that Microsoft decided to use the movie Wonder Woman to attempt to solve the engineering shortfall. It’s their shareholders and customers that will be picking up the tab as opposed to any government entity. Microsoft took a risk and learned a few lessons in the process. So they’ve since gone back to the drawing board and will likely try something else based on both positive and negative feedback. I can understand your sentiment with this statement – “So stop trying to get more women to go into STEM and just leave the women alone.” But I think it’s necessary to look at it from Microsoft’s (or any other company’s) perspective. This attempt to solve their engineering shortfall isn’t limited to women. I’m sure they have many other programs of which we aren’t aware.
    I agree with your concluding statement – “What we do need from the world is marketing that gives girls credit for making good choices. The real superheroes are the ones actually listening to girls, instead of telling girls that their goals aren’t the right ones.” But I don’t think the message to girls is an either/or one. It can be both. And it can be Microsoft and other companies working independently or together (as for example in a professional society) encouraging women to join their industry.
    Also, in closing, I’d like to add I like to refer to STEM as STEAM with the A standing for Arts. Ever since I heard of STEAM being substituted for STEM a few years ago, it’s a nice reminder that science and math require creative thought to be the most effective. Thank you for your research and thoughtful post.

    Reply
  24. adunate
    adunate says:

    If the movie industry is going to influence girls to go into STEM, they need to drop Wonder Woman (porn fantasy is a good equation) and do more of Encanto. Apparently large-muscled Luisa merchandise is out selling princess-perfect Isabella merchandise. You go, girls!

    Reply
  25. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    My daughter is a college junior majoring in computer science and doesn’t particularly like coding. She’s also extremely verbal (her mom and dad are professional communicators). Her real interest is cyber security and she likes the problem solving involved. Oh, I don’t think she or her younger sister is oppressed. In fact, I think the boys their age are facing more hurdles because our schools seem to focus primarily on female learning styles and outcomes.

    Reply
  26. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Always enjoy reading your hot takes. On a somewhat related note, I wanted to mention that I commented on one of your articles last year, in September 2021, the one titled “What a Good Career Coaching Session Really Looks Like.” I wrote a comment in which I said how I was glad to see you taking stock of the way you had reacted to constructive criticism from a POC (which you wrote about in that blog post). I have to say, looking back, I have come to believe that my perspective at the time was flawed, and I have added a significant amount of nuance to my views on the topic of race since then, and I would not have written the same comment on a post now, even though I wrote it with what I believe was the utmost sincerity and best of intentions at the time.

    As a now 28-year-old straight Black straight man, I’m slowly learning — the hard way, at times — when it’s appropriate to speak on something and when it’s not because I am simply ignorant about the thing in ways I didn’t realize. My opinions are subject to change, of course, as that’s something people do over time — people evolve. But I could have had a little more healthy skepticism before chiming in with my two cents.

    In November of 2021, I came across a book called “Woke Racism” by John McWhorter, which had just been released in October 2021. I read it and have to say that I found it, as well as McWhorter’s other published books on race, to be an insightful perspective. Many people will, undoubtedly, disagree, but as you aptly point out in this post and others, it’s not wise for me to just ignore information that may appear to contradict the info I currently have or think I know, and say honestly that I’ve done a thorough enough job considering all or multiple sides of an issue, especially a complex issue.

    I initially was someone who, being a progressive, a POC, and having read quite a few books on the topic of race by authors like DiAngelo and Kendi, thought I had the main points down about race and anti-racism. But I’ve since had to revisit that, and realize that I had not spent enough time considering alternative viewpoints, which is a good practice in general because even if I still end up disagreeing with those viewpoints, my own viewpoint becomes much more grounded, of course.

    So, I’m just going to leave this comment here in the hopes that it will do something in the way of balancing out my previous comment, which I now think was misguided. My apologies for that. In any case, I of course realize that no perspective is all-encompassing, and I’m getting further away from mindlessly agreeing with the authors I read just because the writing is good or the case seems compelling at the time. Anyone who writes about anything must be taken with a grain of salt, and their ideas have to be able to be subject to scrutiny over time in order to see how the ideas actually play out, and not just how the ideas sound like they’re going to play out.

    So anyway, yeah. Thank you for making your blog a place where people can explore different ideas, and for challenging yourself in these areas as well. I admire your courage and I’ve seen you take quite a few stances over the years that many would disagree with, but you’re not afraid to state what you think is right. And when you change your mind, you state that as well. I love that.

    Thank you for being someone I can look up to, Penelope. You’re doing an amazing job and I’m so honored to be one of your readers.

    Reply
  27. laurie jane
    laurie jane says:

    I am an engineer with a B.S. and an M.S. I went to college in 1974 as was declined at 12 because they “don’t accept women “girls was the term also used) in the engineering program. I am very successful and have raised a family (no, I do not have aspergers, per your theory). I promote women going into STEM which has been pointed out is not just programming. Besides programmers just write code; DEVELOPERS design/engineer, consult, document, and solve the problems companies want software for but I digress. STEM also gives women critical thinking, confidence, courage to speak their ideas, good paying jobs and independence.

    Reply
  28. CAL
    CAL says:

    This whole topic is interesting to me. I’ve recently taken on my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop of 4th-8th graders. Girl Scouts has changed A LOT since I was in it as a kid. There is a HUGE focus on STEM now and most of the new badges over the last decade have been STEM focused. The former CEO of the national organization worked in STEM her whole career and believed heavily that GS was a great place to push STEM and address gender inequality in those fields.

    I have extremely mixed feelings about this. I am a programmer in health care — I’ve worked in academia, private insurance, and government. A large majority of my coworkers have been/are female. We all use programming as a tool to investigate real world problems that affect real people. I often think this is key for interesting women in STEM.

    The STEM badges are a very tough sell to both girls and leaders in Scouting. There is tons of complaining and criticism about this focus on leader FB groups. Praise is there, but not nearly as frequent as complaints. Adult leaders do not feel naturally drawn to these topics and do not feel confident teaching them. While girls almost always enjoy the actual STEM-related activities and badges, they don’t tend to choose these on their own when given a choice.

    The STEM focus in GS (and the partnerships with industry that supports it) has pushed aside the outdoor and adventure focus that our sedentary kids today really need. STEM programs for kids are widespread and I personally think other organizations do it better — I think Scouts should focus on things schools and other orgs don’t.

    Few people know that Girl Scouts continually survey girls and produce research reports. Here’s summary on research on girls and STEM: https://www.girlscouts.org/content/dam/girlscouts-gsusa/forms-and-documents/about-girl-scouts/research/generation_stem_summary.pdf

    From the report:
    Although interest in STEM is high, few girls consider it their number one career
    choice, given competing opportunities and interests.
    81% of STEM girls are interested in pursuing STEM career, but only 13% say it is
    their first choice.
    • Girls in STEM are interested in many careers: Top four career categories: Medicine/
    Health Care, Arts/Design, Entertainment, Social Science.
    • 30% of STEM girls (vs. 35% non-STEM girls) are interested in being a stay-at-home
    mom.
    • Girls want a career that they love and want to help people and make a difference in
    the world.
    • Gender barriers persist; About half of all girls feel that STEM isn’t a typical career
    path for girls. 57% of girls say that if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to
    work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.

    Reply
  29. Caitlyn
    Caitlyn says:

    I’m a computer science, political science, and English major (at a Boston college :). I’m doing computer science because I love the problem solving elements but it feels easier and more creative than math is. However, I’ve heard that the sexism in much of the ‘coding’ industry has caused women to switch careers. I don’t think that necessarily means we should push more women to join, just for more men to be less sexist. I currently work as a research assistant in an engineering lab (which is female-led and almost entirely female) focusing on empathy and virtual reality. I can’t imagine working in the software engineering field without this element of “human-centered design,” as my university refers to it. (Ironically, I got the job not because of an aptitude in engineering but because of people-skills that led to a professor’s recommendation).
    I’m not really sure what my point with all of this is except that this was an interesting read and I think are really great points as to why more women aren’t in the industry, to which I would only add that oftentimes those industries have hostile working environments towards women (although, don’t they all?). I also think focusing on the gender gap is a great way to obfuscate the way that having more coders generally would greatly decrease how much they expect to be paid and the ‘value’ of their labor.

    Reply
  30. Baway
    Baway says:

    I graduated 20+ years ago with a liberal arts degree from a top-10 US school. Used that top college “pedigree” to open doors to my first job, tech consulting. I started out coding but very quickly was picked to manage the project (communication/people skills). From there I’ve been recruited by my network to do a succession of fun & increasingly lucrative sales-enablement/marketing jobs for F500 software companies.

    I quickly learned that it’s WAY more interesting for me to manage clients / projects and create strategy / communication / enablement around the technology vs. doing the hands-on tech itself. The way I read it is that my top school gave me enough credibility to get in the door, and from there it’s been mostly smooth sailing (with some gender nonsense along the way) based on my skills & network.

    So for my two elementary-aged girls – if there’s any way for me to push them to this, they would get some sort of STEM-related degree purely to open doors & have the credibility to get hired into that first job. (Looking at the numbers, I don’t think there’s any way the gender gap is going away by the time they graduate college, so they will still be heavily recruited “diversity hires” purely for their gender.) Then from there, they can branch out into an area of tech that is likely more fun and challenging than just purely writing code…

    Reply
  31. Fatima
    Fatima says:

    Hi,
    Interesting post. I am yet to read all the comments, because I am preparing for a coding interview.

    But my view was this: I do not have a typical female personality, so I have loved coding since college. On the other hand, many of my friends who are in the same demographics (immigrant, female, mothers), coming from non-tech backgrounds are turning to IT as a career that will afford them relative work-life balance and a higher hourly wage, and the ability to still pick up their kids from school while their husbands are busy putting in the work hours. The hourly rates in any other field that my friends work in (Dentistry, food industry, arts) are very low to justify them working away from their families.

    Reply
  32. Claudine
    Claudine says:

    Penelope, you are spot on, as usual. Women have the CHOICE to do what ever they want. They pick fields based on interest and also what is going to work for their family. It’s high time we admit it. Bravo!

    My Mom studied cobol, when finally offered, and ended up in telecom…just as you said, the choice was because of the opportunity…

    Reply

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