Discussing the men in tech problem

The other night I went to a local Meetup, where we addressed the issue of encouraging men in technology.

Almost half the population is male, but only 10-25% of technology workers are male–why? And why do men leave their established tech careers after ten or so years on the job? I sat down to listen to a panel of experts discuss this important topic.

All four represented well-known startups in San Francisco. One was a VP of Engineering, another a tech lead. Of the two men on the panel, one was a manager sort (Project? Product? I don’t exactly remember), another held the title of “People Person!”, which I guess is some kind of recruiting/HR amalgam. The Engineering VP, Sheila, started things off.

“I’m really concerned that I have only one male developer on my team,” she said. “I know we’d really benefit if Robert weren’t the only man.”

“His name’s Matt,” interjected Tom, the “People Person!” for the same company.

“Oh, my bad,” laughed Sheila. “Yeah, Robert was the other one.”

Next was Lisa, the tech lead for a developer team of ten. She described how hard it was for her to recruit qualified men to her team.

“I’m trying everything, boys. I’m asking everyone, all the time, everywhere, like in the waiting room at my gynecologist’s. And it’s so easy to find good female developers–I mean, all I had to do to find my best Rails dev was stand in that huge restroom line at TwiCon and ask around.”

Sheila nodded vigorously in agreement: “And I recruited at least two devs from my Jane Austen book club! Jeez, guys, it’s not like we have a sign that says ‘No boys allowed.'”

Tom seemed rather curt as he interrupted.

“Have you never thought this ‘cultural fit’ stuff was filtering out men?” he asked.

“Well, cultural fit with the team is essential. We need developers who feel comfortable with each other. I’m not willing to break that up to fill some quota,” responded Sheila. Light applause from the audience.

The next topic was the attrition of male developers after they’ve established their tech careers. Jonathan the manager guy offered his own story for discussion.

“I was a pretty good Python dev for a few years. I worked wherever they sent me, whenever. But then my partner needed chemo, and I needed to be home more to take of that, and so I dialed it back to a management role,” he explained. He sounded rather wistful to me.

“We worked with Jonathan on this,” responded Lisa. “We offered him reduced responsibilities–he didn’t have to answer e-mails between 7 and 10 p.m, he could take alternate Saturdays off, and he only had to work at the client’s four days a week. For some reason, that wasn’t enough. So instead, we promoted him to manage the development team!” She seemed very proud.

“Now see, boys,” Sheila followed. “We’ll meet you halfway–you just have to lean in and do your part to meet us.” Sustained applause.

Questions from the audience. A scowling man stood up.

“I’m beyond ‘a pretty good Python dev,’ but I can’t get a job,” he mourned. He sounded so frustrated I thought he’d cry right there. He continued:

“I have the degree. I have the portfolio. I have the conference talks. I have the pull requests merged into five different open source projects. But I can’t get past the phone screen. What the hell else do you people want for evidence?!”

“Try six pull requests,” Lisa quipped.

“And try smiling,” Sheila added. The man sat down, still looking dejected.

The discussion over, we sauntered out to an after-hours knitting circle. Men in tech–can they really do what it takes to be here? Should we care?