There is a pervasive myth that women aren’t drawn to tech-industry jobs because of inadequate encouragement in math and science classes in school. Within this dominant paradigm, it’s assumed that when more women enter science and engineering programs, the diversity problem will fix itself.
No, it won’t. At least not while we’re convincing ourselves that the pipeline is the problem. The pipeline – the track from STEM studies in academia to career – is actually doing fairly well, at least in most developed countries.
Recent studies show that high school girls in the U.S. participate in equal numbers in science, technology, engineering and math (ie. STEM) electives, and Stanford and Berkeley both report that 50 percent of their introductory computer science students are women. We’re here and our numbers are growing, at least in the beginning of the pipeline. However, just two years ago the U.S. Census Bureau reported that men are employed in STEM occupations at twice the rate of women with comparable qualifications.
Some articles also cite statistics like “Women make up only 26 percent of the computing workforce, and only 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degree recipients,” which neatly ignores all of the non-engineering jobs in which women are engaged – in large numbers. When you look at the larger picture of tech careers, it’s not a pipeline problem that emerges, but a retention problem.
Women are dropping out.
It’s too easy to say that women leave their tech jobs because they have children. In Kieran Snyder’s Fortune magazine article “Why women leave tech: It’s the culture, not because ‘math is hard,’” she reports her findings from interviewing 716 women who left tech, 625 of whom said they were never coming back. Only 22 (3%) said they’d like to. It wasn’t the nature of the work that drove them out, or the fact that some had children. Snyder says nearly everyone she spoke with said they’d enjoyed their work – just not their work environment.
This is why articles, like the Guardian piece titled “Silicon Valley is cool and powerful. But where are the women?” tick me off. As do the frequently-asked questions: “Why are there so few women in technology? Where does the problem start?” Don’t even get me started on the people who cry “Oh, if only we had more women!” My answer to that is: You would if you treated us better.
When I asked the women I know in tech-related fields for their experiences, I was very careful to phrase the question to encourage positive experiences as much as negative ones. I myself have had mostly positive experiences with men in my field (growth hacking, customer success and inbound marketing). Men like Lincoln Murphy and Jim Gray have been extraordinary mentors to me, and I cannot enter into this discussion without saying that there are many strikingly good people out there who support women like me in tech, and do so without any ulterior motives. And I’m not alone.
But Joanna Wiebe, founder of Copyhackers, shared, it’s a sad statement that we need these men:
I have been more elevated in my career by men than I can even express. (Almost all leadership positions are held by men in the tech world, so they are positioned to elevate, as sad as it sounds that I/we have to "be elevated by" someone [passive voice, not active].) These men didn't and don't look at me as if I'm somehow inferior or Other - if they do, I don't have any evidence of it. They work with me as a member of the tech startup community, and that is a very giving, inclusive community.
The entire tech world is not against us; it's not an us-vs-them thing. But I think the old rule is true: people like to do business with people like themselves, so the less you look like the person you hope will hire you, promote you, fund you, mentor you, etc., the harder it may be for you.
Then Wiebe shared three of the most disheartening stories I’ve heard.
At a conference dinner last year, a speaker – a very respected person – told me that women have smaller brains than men do and, as proven by science, are simply not capable of what men are capable of. This person stands in front of audiences and influences them. And he said that to my face. But why wouldn't he? My little brain wouldn't know to be offended. Just a cute little tiny brain filled with pink fluff.
My manager at a huge tech company complained to me that he didn't like working for women because he'd once worked for a female CEO that "everyone thought was such a bitch." His manager at the time was a woman. I. Was. A. Woman. (And still am. :) ) And evidently he'd never, ever worked for a male CEO that held his team to higher standards and, like, expected things of them. Men lead; women bitch.
A woman walked up to me after I'd spoken at a conference and told me I should "play to my strength" which, in her opinion, was this: "you're cute." I'd worn a dress to speak, so I guess looking like a woman was my first mistake. No amount of data on the screen matters when you've got a skirt on, evidently.
Other women I’ve spoken with didn’t want their names mentioned for fear of backlash, but were more than willing to share their stories. Lauren S., an SEO tech specialist, for example, explained a more subtle side of the issue that so many of us face every day:
My position as a lead tech for the largest brand in our company doesn't offer any authority or respect from my supervisor or other colleagues. And despite being one of three SEO Technical Specialists who have been here for over 2 years, I am almost never consulted, listened to for analysis input/info, and have to scream (seemingly) twice as loud for my accomplishments to be acknowledged.
Even though I worked my way up from the associate level, to mid-level (ALMOST senior level now), when HTML questions or general website edits are brought up, if I jump in to volunteer my knowledge (because at this point, I usually know the answer to the problem) I am generally brushed off or ignored.
In December of last year, my supervisor sat me down to inform me that he had spoken to other members of the SEO department and many told him that I come off as condescending, and a "know it all". Jumping in on conversations or helping someone out with a website/HTML/technical issue is common practice in our department. I usually only jump in when I think I can provide help or assistance, which many of my colleagues do frequently (all male).
The most frustrating part of all of it, has been the feeling that no matter how hard I work, or how many times I prove myself, I will not be taken seriously as a leader in my department, or in my field.
She plans on leaving her job with this organization within a few weeks.
Entrepreneur and inbound marketing strategist, V, asked to be kept anonymous since her story happened “too recently."
The male co-founder of my company kept insisting he had the experience for our project and I didn't. So every time I proposed something (that I did have experience with) he would want the data. And when I doubted him, he would just give me the "experience" crap.
I think a lot of men genuinely think they're better than women and that we should yield and listen to their wisdom and knowledge of the tech world.
I have long defended the men in my industry because I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many who have encouraged my work, who have picked up the phone to help me sort out a problem that would have cost their paying clients $1,000 per hour. But recently I’ve realized that I’ve also experienced unfairness in the workplace that I can’t find reasons for, other than gender bias, such as receiving the same salary as others I was asked to train.
As frustrating as it is to be a woman in the tech industry, there is another population who suffer even more setbacks and discrimination. Minority women. In a 2015 report by UC Hastings College of the Law, 100% of the 60 African-American and Latina scientists interviewed said they had encountered discrimination. Of the 500 women of color who responded to the online survey, more than 75% felt they had to provide evidence of their competence repeatedly. Many had stories of being mistaken for janitorial staff.
Whereas the proposed solutions to the “pipeline problem” are relatively straightforward and government endorsed, there is no simple remedy to create the large-scale culture shift that needs to happen for women to enjoy equal treatment and respect in technology fields.
Perhaps one part of the solution is men in positions of power and influence helping women into their own positions of power and influence. But from there, it’s up to us. We need to create work environments that are supportive of women. We need to found companies with maternity leave policies and childcare practices that make sense for us. We need to give other women the respect – and pay – their experience, expertise and talents deserve.
We need to fix what’s happening once women are in the pipeline.