The Economist has an excellent obituary of Betty Ford this week. It was so good, that I want to go find a biography of Betty Ford so that I can learn more about her.
And it was a good thing that they had this obituary, because otherwise, I might have tossed our copy in the garbage. It also has a leader and an article discussing the European laws requiring a set percentage of company directors to be women. I am not hugely enamored with the quota method of achieving the goal of getting women in the boardroom, but I am even less enamored with these articles. They give a passing nod to other possible explanations for the lack of women at the top of companies, and then settle on the explanation that it must be that women choose to pursue different sorts of careers because of work-life balance issues.
Now, y'all know that I think companies have more to do on the work-life balance front. And I think that companies that refuse to accommodate the lives of their employees at all levels and companies in which sexism is a large, unresolved problem are probably mostly overlapping groups.
But as an excuse for the lack of women in a field, I think "work-life balance issues" sucks, because it lets all sorts of sexist behavior off the hook, and puts the persistent disparities between the numbers of men and women down to different "life choices". Nevermind that a lot of women never have children, so presumably are less encumbered by "work-life issues"- which is almost always code in these articles for "kids". Nevermind that a lot of men are taking on more of the household and childrearing work, so presumably are more encumbered by "work-life issues" than their fathers were. Nevermind that even a single man without so much as a houseplant depending on him for care might have interests and pursuits outside of work. Nevermind the demonstrable sexism that still exists in many companies, and the appalling active discrimination against mothers that has been found to occur. Nevermind all that, the reason women are underrepresented in some professions and all but absent at the top of many more is that they are choosing to do something else instead.
Even if that is the case- which I do not believe to be true- might we consider for a minute that some of the reasons for that choice might be the hostile environment women face in these professions, and not just the fact that women have babies?
For an example of the hostile environment, you can read the comments on the slashdot post that (along with TheMamaBee's twitter feed) led me to a post from the FogCreek folks about the up and down- and perhaps up again- history of women in software engineering. It is an interesting post from a good company, and worth a read. The comments on the slashdot post aren't worth a read, unless you have never seen evidence of the sort of nonsense that women in IT and software engineering have to face. However, I have to say- in real life, I haven't come across many men who will say the sorts of things that legions of slashdot readers are willing to type. Whether this is because of politeness, a fear of the wrath of human resources, or the fact that slashdot commenters are not a fair representation of the geek population, I can't say. But I have found my little corner of the IT world to be an excellent place in which to build a career, and I know a fair number of women in different IT fields who say the same thing. IT and software engineering are even great for people worried about "work-life issues", since so much of my work is thinking (which can be done while, say, rocking a baby to sleep) and most of the hands on work can be done remotely (i.e., at night after the kids are in bed, if you have to make up some hours lost to a doctor's appointment or whatnot)- facts, I'd like to point out, that my husband takes as much advantage of as I do.
So, given that, and the increasing numbers referenced in the FogCreek article, the authors of the Economist's articles would have me believe that I just need sit back and wait 10 or 20 years, and the top rungs of software companies will be full of women. I'm skeptical. But, boy, would it be great to be wrong on that one.