Tech companies today are experiencing a growing cultural pressure to diversify their employees and staff. Due to this increased societal pressure, many tech companies are volunteering to disclose their employee demographics in an effort to show diversity improvements. Many studies and surveys have found, however, that the demographics given show little to no progress in women and minorities holding top-level management roles.
A recent Fortune survey of the top 9 tech companies in Silicon Valley reveals that on average, women comprise only about 33% of the entire tech workforce. Climb the corporate ladder and those statistics dwindle to around 29% for leadership roles. While ethnic diversity statistics have begun to see some movement in the right direction, females continue to be extremely under-represented in the tech industries.
Why are women underrepresented in technology industries?
Not About Education, But About Society
It has long been a common belief that the gender gap in the technology industry is primarily a “pipeline issue”; claiming that there are simply not enough girls studying math and science. Many recent studies have found this belief to be false – updated information indicates an equal number of high school girls and boys participating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) electives, and at Stanford and Berkeley, 50% of the introductory computer science students are women.
Alternatively, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year that twice as many men as women with the same qualifications were actually working in STEM fields. It appears women in tech don’t begin to fall behind their male counterparts until joining the workforce and beginning their careers. The reality: Gender bias is so ubiquitous in today’s technology industry that it ends up forcing talented female employees to leave altogether. Until the deeply-ingrained cultural issue of gender inequality is addressed, we will continue to see valuable female tech employees end their careers early and turn to other career paths.
Kieran Snyder, a former senior leader at Microsoft and Amazon turned CEO and co-founder of Textio, interviewed just over 700 women in tech positions at 650 companies in 43 states. She found that on average, women worked in the tech industry for around seven years, then left. Kieran then asked these women specifically why they opted out of their original career paths.
The full study, referenced here by Bonnie Marcus of Forbes, found 192 women (27%) reported discomfort working in these companies. The overt or implicit discrimination was a primary factor in the exit decision. Many women felt discrimination related to their age, race, or sexuality in addition to their gender and chance of motherhood. These women stated that lack of flexible working arrangements, the generally unsupportive work environment, or a salary that was inadequate to pay for childcare all contributed to their decision to leave.
Unconscious Gender Bias
Most decisions are not made with a conscious discriminatory bias in the foreground – there are “sneakier”, unconscious forms of sexism and gender bias. The unconscious gender bias is even harder to address and eliminate. This often arises in how female tech professionals’ speech is received. Many studies have found female leaders are caught in what is often referred to as “the abrasiveness trap”. This suggests that women must come off as extremely kind and caring and darling in order to be successful in tech. Women are caught in a catch 22; Male counterparts are seen as driven or “hungry”, while female leaders are often deemed as too aggressive or “bossy” while attempting to become the boss. Read full source here.
Solutions to Gender Discrimination in Tech
Strive for Gender Neutrality
Using gender neutral terminology and making it mandatory leaders at all levels to do the same is the first place to start (terms like Police Officers vs Policemen come to mind). Striving for a gender neutral professional environment is the first way tech companies can start working towards a setting in which gender is no longer even part of the conversation.
Need some ideas for gender neutral terminology? Start with Harvard’s list of gender neutral nouns and pronouns.
Work Life Balance Initiatives
“I am often asked who is looking after my children if I am away at a conference. My male colleagues are not.” – Zoe Kleinman, BBC Journalist
Women of child-bearing years in tech are outrightly discriminated against. Many companies feel it is appropriate to ask questions like “what happens if you become pregnant?” during the hiring process. Rather than pinning a woman’s probability of having a child against her, why don’t these companies provide childcare options? Why are many companies more concerned about their short-term profitability than they are about retaining talented employees? These are questions that continue to prevent true gender equality in the workplace.
Successful gender-diverse (or even better, gender-neutral) companies shift the conversation away from viewing parenting leave, childcare, and gender differences as a detriment. Offering Work Life Balance initiatives, such as child care, telecommuting, and flexible scheduling options, provide valuable to both male and female employees without considering parenthood a “woman’s issue”.
To truly identify gender discrimination pain points, companies should look outside of their walls and employees. Hiring an outside third party to fully assess a company’s organizational culture can uncover they grayer areas of gender inequality, such as discrimination in pay and hiring practices. Once a thorough assessment has been completed, get at least your most senior employees to commit to an action plan to address any and all issues uncovered. Improving and eliminating wage gaps and gender-biased promotions can vastly improve employee retention, ensuring talented team members (who may also happen to be women) stay in the tech industry for longer.
Mandatory Training and Education
Companies can eliminate unconscious gender bias by requiring mandatory educational training aimed at identifying and eliminating gender biases. Requiring all employees to receive this type of training ensures that those at all levels of your company can understand, identify, and prevent gender bias.
Offer Clear Career Paths with Clear Checkpoints for Advancement
Develop clear, actionable career paths for employees. Clearly defined, well-supported, and achievable advancement opportunities ensure that talented employees feel their companies are truly invested in and care about them and encourages employees to continue their careers in tech. Offer flat raises and leadership roles after a standard amount of time, and make it clear that employees can have a fulfilling career without moving on to the next opportunity.
Create mentorship programs aimed at encouraging women and minorities to learn, challenge, and grow in your organization and in the tech industry. Mentors that make the biggest impact cannot be just anyone, though. Mentors must be committed to (and supported when) giving honest and open assessments of the company they are mentoring within. This allows them to accurately advise how to their mentees can better position themselves and their career for success.
Cut the “Booth Babes”
A major cultural issue continues to be the exploitation of the concept that “sex sells”. Tech companies are especially notorious for having barely-dressed attractive women showcasing their products or new releases. This type of exploitation of the human form makes it obvious that women are not the target audience of the tech industry. If we want today’s society to see true gender diversity as second nature in business, we must stop seeing gender as a fault or using gender as a marketing tactic.
Elizabeth Varley, co-founder and CEO of TechHub, promises “my gender is the least interesting thing about me.” to journalists and event organizers alike.
“In the future, we won’t need to have events specifically for women in tech because diversity will be second nature to everybody. When diversity is done right, everybody wins.”
Together, we can strive for a tech industry that leaves no room for gender to be a part of the conversation at all.
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