Today, approximately 52 percent of the world’s population is made up of women. That’s a pretty well-known fact. Yet it’s one that much of the corporate world in general-and the IT community in particular-seems to be missing. Not only are most technology products designed and marketed primarily for men, but companies have been slow to recognize and seek out the talents of female IT workers. (See “Why Women Hate IT,” CIO, Sept. 1, 2000.) That’s a problem, not just for women but also for corporations.
Without a doubt, the world of high-tech started as a man’s world. Sure, there were the occasional female programmers and engineers, but they were few and far between, certainly not in large enough numbers to have a significant effect on the direction technology has taken. From the heads of companies down to programmers, male preferences and perspectives have dominated. The end result is that products tend to be designed for men. That creates a male market, which leads to the perception that men have an inherently greater interest in technology products than women.
Take, for example, any Sharper Image or Sky Shopper catalog you find on most airlines. Except for a few beauty items such as electrolysis devices, face toners and hot waxers, most tech products are designed for men. Products such as electronic golf games and personal cooling systems appeal to male lifestyle preferences, and men are the consumers depicted using them. Most technology products developed for women, on the other hand, do not appeal to women’s intelligence or sense of adventure; instead, they are intended to improve the user’s physical appearance, propagating the idea that women need technology only to make themselves look better.
In general, women and girls lack interest in technology not because it is too difficult or abstract or “male” for them to grasp, but because technology has not been developed with their preferences and interests in mind.
How is this affecting our society? According to a recent study from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (www.aauw.org), only one out of every five information technology professionals is a woman, and only about 28 percent of all computer science bachelor’s degrees go to women, down from a high of 37 percent in 1984. Girls think computer programming classes are boring, computer games are pointless and violent, and career choices in the computer world are unexciting, according to the report.
Imagine instead a world in which technology companies design products with respect to women. Everything from software to hardware for leisure lifestyle and the workplace would be made with consideration of women’s varied preferences. A new market would open, both women and men would accept that women and technology need not be mutually exclusive, women would begin to see how technology can be relevant to their lives, and their interest in technology would grow. They would feel capable rather than intimidated, excited rather than disinterested, included rather than left behind. Ultimately, that would result in more women pursuing technological careers, flooding the industry with new talent and fresh perspectives, resulting in even greater products, thereby increasing the market population and value, and so on. Consumers would be happy, tech companies would see greater sales than ever before, and the quality of the IT and other tech labor force would increase exponentially.
A happy picture, indeed. But what is at the root of it? Technology that considers women.
A Little Respect
According to Webster’s Dictionary, respect is 1) a relation or reference to a particular thing or situation; consideration; esteem 2) to consider worthy of high regard.
Technology products with respect to women would be designed with consideration and esteem for women’s preferences and would relate directly to those preferences. Respect from a corporate perspective should be broad-based (no pun intended!) and include female viewpoints and needs. Take the new Porsche Boxster convertible. Acknowledging that a significant number of its customers are women with long hair, the company designed the car to include a wind guard to prevent long hair from being blown around while driving.
This helps keep women’s hair in place, not just for reasons of convenience, but for safety. Most important, it respects the needs of a significant portion of the population.
Would creating technology products with respect to women be a viable business? You bet. Take for example Radica Games’ Girl Tech brand (www.girltech.com). [Girl Tech was founded by this article’s coauthor, Janese Swanson.] Girl Tech was the first company to create technology products with respect to girls ages 8 through 12. When Girl Tech first started, women were ecstatic over the idea. When Girl Tech presented its concepts to the toy industry looking for funding and support, however, industry leaders could not accept the idea of tech toys for girls. Leading executives, most of whom happened to be men, repeatedly responded with, “If we design products for boys, girls will buy them, too. If we design products for girls, boys won’t buy them.” Lost on them was the fact that most girls aren’t buying (or parents aren’t buying for them) the shoot-’em-up video games, transformers, action figures or monster trucks. Those toys all do cool things and in many cases involve fun technology, but they’re packaged and designed with boys in mind. Sure, there are girls willing to be perceived as tomboys and play with these toys, but the majority don’t think these products are meant for them.
Girl Tech, on the other hand, offers technology-based products with girls in mind. Password Journal, for example, a locking journal that uses voice recognition technology, was a 1999 Dr. Toy’s Best Vacation Products award winner (www.drtoy.com) and one of the top-selling electronic toys on the market, according to the Toy Retail Sales Tracking Service (clientcenter.npd.com/cc/toys/f_a_q/faq-trsts.htm). Using innovative technology, it was designed with respect to girls; it features vibrant colors and a modern shape rather than traditional pale pinks or stereotypical “girlie” shapes like hearts and stars. It is new and different, practical and useful, and girls are proud to own it. Girl Tech averages about 70 unsolicited e-mails a month from girls exclaiming how much they love Girl Tech and how excited they are to own the toys. Feedback surveys are overwhelmingly ecstatic. This is not to say that there isn’t a place for traditional nurturing, pink and glittery girls’ toys; the response to Password Journal simply shows that many girls are yearning for more sophisticated products.
Now apply this formula to adult women. Imagine if everything from computers and software to electronic gadgets were designed to appeal to women. This means assessing interface issues, functionality, practical application, look and feel, and marketing strategies. To accomplish these tasks, designers and heads of companies need to respect women, and not from afar; they must communicate with women and understand their true and varied preferences rather than create products based on stereotypes. They need to determine how women approach technology and design products-whether electronic gadgets or software programs-accordingly so that women can use them intuitively. And this must be done without condescension but with respect for the fact that most women don’t have time between work, home, relationships and children to research the finer workings of a product. Marketing, meanwhile, needs to appeal to women, make them feel proud to buy the product. It must be unintimidating yet empowering, without the attitude of “Even a woman can figure it out!”
Today more women than ever before are earning a living, supporting themselves and their families. Women are clearly a viable market segment, and creating products specifically for them is not a new concept-from bicycles that accommodate long dresses to guns and power tools weighted and gripped for smaller hands, manufacturing products with women’s needs and preferences in mind has been done successfully before. Now it’s time for the technology industry to give it a try.
Making It Happen
The key is a positive attitude toward women from the top down. Companies need more female executives, and they need to make sure that male executives respect women and encourage inclusion. Once that starts to happen, others will follow. Excitement and positive thinking can be contagious. Sales people will become excited about a new market to reach. Retailers will want to woo women into their stores and put an end to customer service attitudes that assume that women don’t “get” technology.
How can we get there? As an IT executive, you have great influence on the direction and vision of your company. So use that influence to set the right example:
* Look for talented female IT executives, designers, programmers, technicians and so on.
* Encourage exploration of product development with respect to women.
* If your company can afford it, look into gender sensitivity training for all employees. Gender sensitivity training that explores both male and female perspectives can help employees understand each other better, ultimately creating a more positive and productive working environment.
* Consider the management styles at work in your company. Do they promote competition or cooperation? Is teamwork or individual achievement encouraged more? A cooperative environment may encourage less aggressive employees with considerable talent to come forward and share their ideas. It will also induce those above them to listen to the ideas.
* Search out and explore ideas and opinions of female employees and managers-their different perspectives may be the key to success in the female market.
* Be willing to implement new concepts and avoid the “it will never work” attitude just because it’s never been done and seems new and risky.
* Instead of patient listening, try enthusiastic learning; a little encouragement can go a long way with a person who is most likely accustomed to having to fight to be heard.
* Support programs that bring women into the tech industry, whether through outreach, networking or academia.
Only when technology begins to incorporate the needs of women will they show more of an interest in IT. And that, in turn, will create a better future for women, companies and society.