Scitech  Between a rock and a hard place

Retaining ‘soft skills’ as women enter the tech field

These days it appears that women are taking the tech field by storm, securing high ranking positions at major companies, for example: Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, among many others.

However important and powerful these roles may be, they tend to fall into what are now “accepted” areas of expertise for women, such as the business or management sectors. The presence and visibility of women in technology leadership may allude to a parallel increase in women at every level within the engineering or computer science domain. But this is not the case, nor do such exemplars signify female inclusion in the production of bleeding-edge technology – that is, the very forefront of technological advancement.

It is not surprising, given the historical positions that women have occupied in the workforce, that the women in the tech industry work as operations managers, playing a larger role in communications for a company instead of creating the tools that come to define the brand. While it’s impressive and encouraging that women have risen – and have the opportunity to rise – to high-level management, the more challenging goal is to bring women to technical positions.

I by no means intend to deny the importance of social science expertise and a ‘soft-skill’ set – the emotional and personality-based assets that enhance individual interactions – to a CEO’s success. In fact, all individuals in both technical and non-technical positions should strive to develop these skills, even in light of society’s preference for ‘hard skills.’

The numbers show that more women now pursue a ‘hard skill’-focused education. While we are familiar with women holding non-technical positions at technology companies, we now are also seeing increases in female enrollment within engineering and technical fields worldwide. Alongside this trend, there are growing international exchanges created by many public and private organizations dedicated to empowering women in tech. One such example is the U.S. State Department program TechGirls, meant to “give women and girls the support that they need to become leaders in [the tech] field.”  The program brings 25 teenage girls from Middle Eastern countries on a technology-focused exchange program to Silicon Valley. Evidently, the field is rapidly becoming less homogenous and more geared toward gender accessibility.

Personally, as an aspiring web developer/designer and a novice programmer with a multidisciplinary education in International Development, I find it both thrilling and challenging to transcend these traditional dichotomies. I am struck by the value placed by others on my computer science experience over my extensive education in social science and have found myself identifying more with the former, portraying myself as more tech-savvy than academic. This is due to two factors: first, the consistent response of admiration that I receive from friends and strangers alike, and second – as a result of the first – my own mental shift to valuing ‘hard skills’ over ‘soft skills.’

Maybe these are the reasons that I claim computer science first when asked for my area of study before mumbling something about international development afterwards. Or maybe, while attempting to conquer new territory for women in this discipline, I have neglected the fundamental value of ‘soft skills,’ those that have come to define the role of women in the field.

If this is nothing more than a letter to students teetering on the edge of more technical skills, I hope to remind or impart this: the ability to communicate and understand people, to synthesize information, and to consider human interactions is significant and necessary. There are invaluable skills that can be developed through active listening and serious study in a non-scientific domain that feed back into – and facilitate – the production of technology.

Strangers might be impressed when I tell them I code, believing I am some sort of hacker.  They may be surprised, due to the sexism that is still commonplace in the field; however, now I see the merit in parading my liberal arts degree, and the corresponding social knowledge I’ve gained, alongside the attention-grabbing computer science degree. This knowledge informs every stage of my work in computer science courses and my navigation of the chaotic professional network. We must remember this as we encourage women and girls to enter the male-centric, ‘hard skill’-revering culture, which touts mathematical and engineering mastery as prerequisites to success. We must encourage exploration without denying or simply replacing these women’s previously held values, values that may support them far more than mere concrete technical knowledge.