Reading Vivek Wadhwa’s post on how to encourage more minority women to join the tech industry, I immediately began to think of my own experiences as a minority (Hispanic) female in tech. Thankfully, I don’t have anything but good things to say about being a minority female in tech, but there are a few reasons I can think of personally that have pushed me away from it. I don’t think these experiences are unique to me and are more telling of why you don’t see many women like Raissa B. Nebie and Kimberly Dillion starting companies in Silicon Valley. While these are just a few reasons that affected me in my choice for a career, there are many more that affect minority women (and even more that affect disadvantaged minority women). Many of these reasons are cultural, take years to overcome and involve much more than just education.
Minority women are taught to be risk averse. When I was growing up, I was told I had two options for my future career path: Doctor or Lawyer. My mother gave me these options because they were safe and respectable. Her grandchildren would be well taken care of if her daughter got a second degree and began a career making six figures. One friend told me she had to be a doctor because it was her parent’s dream and a way that she could guarantee providing for them when they got older and could no longer work. Growing up in a family that is financially insecure (as many minority women are), children are pushed to have a lifestyle with a steady income. The first careers that come to mind are not start-ups when financial security is the end goal.
Failing is not an option for minority women. Many great entrepreneurs fail a few times before they succeed. In the valley, starting a company that fails is a rite of passage. The price of failure for minority women is high and not looked at positively. If the startup I work for failed tomorrow, you can bet my mother would tell me either a. You should have stayed at Google. and/or b. You better start applying for law school. Minority women don’t have the same safety nets that their white male counterparts do.
Minority women by and large are not exposed to engineering and computer science. Many of my friends and co-workers who are engineers have parents who are engineers or went to high schools with a strong computer science curriculum. They grew up learning to code. My experience was vastly different. My high school “computer science” course was really focused on typing and learning how to operate a computer. I really had no clue what computer science was in high school and engineering always made me think of buildings and architecture. I ended up taking a few computer science courses at Stanford, but only in my junior and senior year when the fear of the unknown subsided. Many of the women I know in tech were only exposed to computer science in college which puts them far behind those who grew up working on projects of their own. Coming from families that are unaware of engineering as a career removes the exposure to tech that is so frequently apparent in engineering grads of today.
For years, the question of why minority women were not represented in an industry (whether law, medicine or business) has been asked. Many of the problems in those industries were institutional, but many of the problems in tech result from cultural opposition to the failure and risk that thrives in the tech industry.