Fixing Tech’s Gender Problem Requires Rethinking Business as Usual

Fixing Tech’s Gender Problem Requires Rethinking Business as Usual

Conflicting narratives exist to explain why women are underrepresented and underpaid in the technology industry. One popular theory blames a leaky pipeline and a lack of interest in entering the profession.
But many women who have worked at tech companies and left the field mid-career blame a hostile culture that is not conducive or sympathetic to women.

The truth is a little of both.
A 2008 study from the Harvard Business Review identified reasons why women leave tech professions mid-career; these include sexist workplace cultures, a sense of isolation due to a lack of female mentors, and long and demanding workweeks. Since this study was released, not much has improved.

In recent years, a number of tech companies in Silicon Valley have come under fire from female employees for gender discrimination. Twitter and Facebook — where women comprise 13 and 16 percent of the tech workforce, respectively — are each facing lawsuits from female ex-employees. At Twitter, an ex-employee is claiming the company’s promotion system discriminates against women, and a former Facebook employee is suing the company for gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

In the U.S., women comprise 26 percent of professional computing occupations, despite making up 47 percent of the total workforce. But the average percentage of women in Silicon Valley tech positions hangs around 15 percent, revealing an even wider gender gap in that region.

Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), thinks the severe gender disparity in Silicon Valley is due to the area’s long history as a symbol of tech, as well as the high concentration of companies there. For those organizations, which were mostly founded and operated by men, an insular community formed that continued to recruit and hire more men, leading to the current underrepresentation of women.

Additionally, the tech industry has long had a reputation for being a “boy’s club,” which results from the stereotype that computers are for boys, an idea that persists into college. In 2013, just 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women. In 1987, though, that number was 37 percent — the highest it has ever been.

One interesting theory for the decline in women earning computer science degrees involves the rise of the home computer in the 1980s. NPR’s Planet Money reports that once computers started entering the home, companies marketed them heavily to males, which helped create that stereotype. When women reached computer science classes in college, they lagged behind men who had grown up with computers.

Ashcraft says the underrepresentation of girls and women in tech is not due to their lack of interest. Often, she says, women don’t receive encouragement from friends and family because computer science is traditionally considered a male occupation. And those who do enter the profession find it difficult to continue in the field; about 56 percent of women in tech professions drop out at the “mid-level” point in their careers, which is twice the rate as men.

“If we don’t focus on the reasons [why women leave tech] — related to company culture, biases in advancement, performance evaluation, task assignments, etc. — pipeline efforts won’t end up doing much good,” Ashcraft says.

She suggests a number of steps companies can take to attract and hire more women, one of which is recruiting beyond the usual networks that often perpetuate the status quo. She also says companies should assess job descriptions and selection and interview processes to ensure bias is not present; make sure that interview teams are diverse and that at least two diverse, qualified applicants are considered for each position; and institute “return-to-work” programs to refresh or re-train employees who have been out of the workforce for some time.

Silicon Valley Giants Make Incremental Changes
Thanks to increased pressure by the media, activists, and other stakeholders, Silicon Valley’s largest companies are working to improve diversity and hire more women.

Google, for instance, has committed to a number of initiatives that focus on bringing girls and women into tech. Google started Made with Code, a website that curates coding teaching sites and raises awareness of how computer code touches everyday life. The company has also partnered with the Disney-ABC Television Group to help develop two cartoon shows that feature female characters interested in computer science.

Additionally, half of all Google employees have participated in unconscious bias training, and employees are given 20 percent of dedicated work time for brainstorming ways to increase company diversity.

Likewise, Facebook also trains employees in unconscious bias and recently made public its training materials for general use. A spokesperson for the company says they have always worked on supporting an inclusive internal company culture through initiatives like employee resource groups, which are open to all but concentrate on underrepresented groups.

However, when Maxine Williams, global head of diversity at Facebook, was hired two years ago, she began focusing on external efforts as well. These include Facebook University — a summer program for college freshmen to learn skills from Facebook mentors — and Computer Science and Engineering Lean In Circles, which are networks of women who support each other through their pursuit of computing and engineering careers.

Facebook is also piloting an approach to hiring that includes at least one job candidate from a member of an underrepresented group.

The spokesperson says employees at the company have been very receptive to the push for diversity and inclusion.

“We encourage open dialogue and have a very open culture,” the spokesperson says. “We tell people to bring their authentic selves to work — there is no work persona versus life persona.”

Even so, the percentage of women in tech jobs at Facebook has only inched up 1 percent since 2014.

But Ashcraft says it’s unreasonable to expect giant corporations to make a huge turnaround in a single year.

“It is virtually impossible for companies that employ tens or hundreds of thousands of employees to register percentage increases in their overall technical workforce in one year, even if they hire a significant number of underrepresented employees,” she says. “Demanding that they do so is unrealistic and can cause companies to spend time and money on efforts that ‘save face’ rather than efforts that are truly effective.”

Instead, Ashcraft suggests that tech companies in Silicon Valley be transparent about how they work to improve company climate, rather than merely report diversity numbers.

Using Tech for the Greater Good
Earlier this year, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) released a study, called Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, in which the organization suggests solutions for attracting more women to the tech workforce and supporting their retention.

These recommendations include eliminating stereotypes that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies for women in math and science and ensuring that tech careers offer ways to advance the greater good. Global software development firm ThoughtWorks is working toward this end by offering employees the opportunity to improve people’s lives.

ThoughtWorks has had great success attracting more women to its hiring pool.

The company’s most recent group of new employees is made up of 57 percent women. Jennifer Mounce, head of people at ThoughtWorks, says that is partly because of their unique approach to hiring, which looks at more than résumés.

“Aptitude, attitude, and integrity: This is really the hallmark of how we go about our hiring process,” she says. “This has led to a greater diversity of thought, and it’s helped us broaden our search and bring more women into tech and STEM.”

The interview process is designed to be conversational so that candidates can get to know the company and vice versa. Job candidates meet with people from the specific department to which they are applying, and at least one person on the interviewing panel is of the same racial background or gender as the candidate, to balance any unconscious biases.

New hires are not required to have a background in computer science. Applicants who fit the company culture and show the requisite drive can enroll in ThoughtWorks University, a two-year graduate program that helps further learning through intensive classes and ongoing coaching for new hires.

Another defining aspect of ThoughtWorks’ hiring process — and the company’s mission — is its emphasis on justice.

“We use technology as a platform for supporting social and economic justice through what we do best,” says Mounce. “It’s really one of the pillars of our business.”

One of ThoughtWorks’ social justice projects has involved developing an electronic medical filing system for rural doctors’ offices in India, which cuts down the time it takes a patient to be seen by a doctor from a week to just a few days.

The company also does community outreach and partners with colleges and universities, including Georgia Tech and Spelman College. It even sponsors spaces for organizations like Black Girls Code, which teaches computer programming to African American girls.

“We have a long way to go, and it takes time to break down barriers,” says Mounce, “but it’s important to remember that we’ve shown it’s possible to bring women into tech.”

A Network That Gives Women the PowerToFly
If you ask PowerToFly President and co-founder Katharine Zaleski, a leaky pipeline is not the reason women and minorities are underrepresented in tech.

“It’s just not true that there are not enough qualified women,” she says. “It’s a real estate problem that follows the trajectory of how people move around the country — the highest-paying jobs are in the most expensive cities. … It helps to know someone who got a job with Google right out of college, someone you may have been in a fraternity with and who can help you get a job. These connections leave a lot of people out of the innovation economy.”

Zaleski, former digital head of The Washington Post, and Milena Berry, former chief technology officer of, launched PowerToFly in August 2014. They wanted to find a way to connect women with jobs they could do remotely. The startup now helps connect about 45,000 women all over the world with more than 1,000 hiring managers, the majority of whom are from tech companies.

“PowerToFly is a platform that is there for the lifetime of a woman’s career. It’s kind of like LinkedIn; you don’t have to be looking for a job to be on the site,” Zaleski says.

The prospect of working remotely is highly attractive to women, and studies have shown that workers are more productive outside the office. Additionally, PowerToFly gives women in conservative countries — like Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive — greater ease in juggling a career and a family without having to give in to cultural pressures to stay home and raise children.

For these reasons, Zaleski thinks remote employment is the solution to gender disparity in tech.

“It’s the total missing link,” she says. “We’ve spent the last 100 years working the same way. … We have to change the office culture to bring more women back into the workforce. Women are not going to change — they’ve already changed a lot. Offices were never set up for women.”

Tech’s gender disparity problem is multi-pronged — a leaky pipeline and a culture that is internally and externally at odds with women are to blame — and thus requires a multi-pronged solution. But most tech companies in Silicon Valley are optimistic about where their efforts will lead them.


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