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November 15, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

A new generation of Taliswomen?

Hint: t-shirts like these don't help.

My professor at NYU, Adam Penenberg (he is not normally sad like in the photo on his website), turned me onto a great blog, Pretty Little Head, written by “Farrah Bostic, a strategist, thinker and maker honing my creative technology chops while living in Brooklyn, NY.” In the post he sent me, “The Trouble with Talismen,” she muses thoughtfully and at length on why a list of who might be “The Next Steve Jobs” was all Steves, no Stephanies. Her answers are worth reading in their entirety, but here are a few:

Because despite the author’s apparent lack of a criteria for assembling his list (other than the Charlie Rose Booking rule), there was a common thread among those who made the list – and it wasn’t just that they are all men.

What struck me as the true criteria was that the men on this list (with a few exceptions) are inventors.

And this is the real problem for women in tech.  It’s not (just) that the media don’t like us or sex sells or that bias and sexism exist.  It’s that we don’t have enough women who are true inventors in our midst who take their inventions and turn them into multi-billion dollar businesses… And either stay on to be CEOs or sell the business to a bigger fish.

The sad truth is we don’t have enough inventors right now, especially in the US, where enrollment in STEM degree college programs (which would at least give you the basic skills and knowledge for inventing physical things – or say, getting a job even in this economy) is down across the board.

Even those with an interest in engineering don’t get degrees – 1/3 of the list Karbasfrooshan assembles didn’t finish college, much less get a computer science degree.  So it’s not required to have a STEM degree to invent something, but in terms of skills acquisition, women are poorly represented in the shrinking population of those who do study science, technology, engineering or math.

While these women have much to be proud of, not one invented the product their company sells or have revolutionized the businesses they helm.  They have made them profitable, made interesting acquisitions, improved productivity or efficiency or morale.  But they haven’t utterly transformed the way people think about packaged food or cosmetics or pumping gas.

But here’s the thing.  Most Fortune 500 CEOs are not the inventors of their products, not the visionaries, not the game-changers.  So this is not a female problem.  It’s a CEO problem.

….

In other words, it’s about that vision thing.  Karbasfrooshan didn’t omit women because of sexism and bias and discrimination – at least not directly.  He omitted women because there just aren’t any playing at the level these very few guys play at who are visionaries about new products and services built out of technology.  There aren’t enough women who are inventors and cultural visionaries or industry game-changers… because there aren’t enough of those kinds of people, full stop.  They are, almost by definition, rare.

As ever, I come back to the wise words oft-repeated by Cindy Gallop: you can’t be what you don’t see.

I recently wrote a piece, “This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like,” for Women in the World Foundation about a great initiative sponsored by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) to recruit and retain more young women in IT. Here’s a brief description of how it works and why it works.

In 2007, Sanders’ colleague Ruthe Farmer launched a small awards program, the NCWITAward for Aspirations in Computing, to recognize girls in high school who showed an aptitude for computer science and invite them to NCWIT meetings. To her surprise, the girls found the experience transformative. It provided much-needed validation to counteract the discouragement they often found at school, where they were a small minority – or sometimes the only female student – in Advanced Placement computer science classes.

With the resources of firms including Bank of America, Google and Motorola, Farmer has scaled up the Aspirations in Computing Award to a nationwide program, with regional and local events so that girls are recognized within their own communities.

“Young women who self-identify as technical is kind of a priceless group,” she said. “They’re very attractive to everybody.”

Nearly 800 girls have been recognized nationally, regionally and locally so far, including Williams, who was an Illinois affiliate winner in 2009-2010. National winners receive a $500 cash prize, a laptop computer courtesy of Bank of America, and a trip to Bank of America’s corporate headquarters in North Carolina.  Every winner gets not one, but two, plaques.

“Each of the girls gets a plaque that goes home with her,” said Farmer, “and then we send a second one for the school to put in their trophy case.”

The winners also provide each other with peer support through a 290-member Facebook group. At the beginning of this school year, one girl posted on the group’s Facebook page that she was the lone female student in her programming class. The others jumped in with encouragement: “Don’t worry!” “Hang in there!” “You can talk to us.”

Farmer said the award’s impact is crucial to countering the self-doubt that they face for having what are considered unorthodox interests. According to an evaluation survey, 79% said that it has made them less “afraid, worried, or nervous.”

The New York Times reported earlier this month about efforts by universities to recruit more women to their STEM programs. But when so many young women are feeling “afraid, worried, or nervous” to study a STEM or IT subject, it’s worth stopping to ask why that is, and how we can address that earlier. It’s not to say that each of these women can and will go on to become “The Next Steve Jobs,” since, as Bostic pointed out in her original post, Steve Jobs-y type people are by definition rare. At the end of her post, she asks:

So, who are the women (or the men we haven’t heard of, for that matter) who are inventing new OSes, software that changes the way you interact with the world, social platforms that alter the infrastructure of the internet, technologies that enable new kinds of transactions and business models, boxes of wires and silicon that transmit and calculate data in new ways?

If you know who they are, please say so in the comments here, and I’ll follow up with that list.

It would not surprise me if the NCWIT program produced a few women for that list.

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