The Feminist Tech Company: Ways and Reasons to Build a Culture of Equality and Inclusion

by Julian Scaff / edited by Crystal Scaff

This article is based on my keynote talk at the Wonder Women Tech Conference in Long Beach, California on July 17, 2016.

The tech industry has a problem. For all its progressive leanings and inherent coolness, the industry has a big problem with diversity. This problem is multi-faceted, with sexism affecting women, racism affecting people of non-white and non-Asian ethnicities, and ageism affecting people over the age of thirty. For this article, I want to specifically focus on the issue of sexism.

Women represent nearly 60 percent of the labor force in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But according to a study by CNET that polled some of the largest tech companies in the world, women only make up a very disproportionate 30 percent of the tech industry labor force. And if you look specifically at technical positions like programmers, engineers and data scientists, the numbers get even more abysmal. The industry giants have some of the worst numbers: at Apple Computer, 20 percent of technical positions are held by women; at Google it’s 17 percent, and at Twitter it’s only 10 percent.

women_in_tech_positions

Why is this the case? Are men innately better suited to technical jobs? Let’s look at the evidence.

Computer programming was invented in 1842 by a woman named Ada Lovelace, who was highly skilled in mathematical thinking and developed the analytical engine that was the basis for all electronic computing in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1960’s, Margaret Hamilton was one of the world’s first software engineers. In addition to helping develop the essential principles of modern computer programming, Hamilton wrote the software that made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. Recent data on women in tech includes a study by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and North Carolina University that found that women coders made fewer mistakes than their male counterparts.

Ada Lovelace and Margaret Hamilton

Ada Lovelace (left) and Margaret Hamilton (right), inventors and pioneers of computer programming.

So isn’t it odd that a field that was invented by women and where women seem to outperform men is so male-dominated? Well, that study of women coders points to the reason for this disparity. The study specifically looked acceptance rates of code on the popular developers’ site GitHub. A low-acceptance rate indicated that code was not accepted due to errors, and the study found that women’s acceptance rates were higher than men’s, but only if the women’s gender was not known. If you take the same female coders and reveal their gender, then the acceptance rates of their code plummets. So there’s a strong and prevalent perception in the tech community that women are worse coders than men, even though the exact opposite is true.

These attitudes indicate that the problem in the tech industry is one of culture. There is a prevalent culture that sees women as inferior, and that culture is so prevalent that it discourages and prevents women from participating in this employment sector.

A study by the American Association of University Women showed that the number of women in computer-related fields has dropped in recent years, even though we know that women excel in these fields and there are jobs available.

Women have gotten the message that the tech industry is not friendly to them. This is a real problem for companies, especially in an economy where innovation is a driving force and access to talent is critical for success. Companies are losing out on critical talent and the attendant opportunities for greater innovation. Multiple studies directly link diversity with innovation, so tech companies are leaving a lot on the table by not hiring more women and minorities, particularly in roles of leadership, ideation, design and engineering.

All of this information is public knowledge. It’s published in sources like Wired, CNET, Fast Company, and the other publications tech insiders read. But entrenched culture doesn’t change unless direct and intentional action is taken to change it.

There are three things companies can do to fix this problem.

1. Change the internal culture.

Most people familiar with the tech industry know the terms “bro culture” and “brogrammer.” All-male technical teams tend to become self-perpetuating bro culture machines, so that even when a woman is hired, she has to either tolerate the hyper masculine, sexist culture or leave. We know from low retention rates of women in these jobs that many women choose the latter.

Companies need to talk about gender issues and gender-discrimination patterns with their employees. Frank and open communication is key to changing the culture. Every employee should be asked to show responsibility and leadership in affecting that change.

Over the course of my 22-year career, I’ve witnessed overt and subtle forms of sexism and discrimination in various forms. Overt sexism and sexual harassment are easy-to-spot legal issues, and while these are serious problems in some organizations, subtle sexism is much more widespread. Many men don’t realize they’re engaging in subtle sexism, so conversations about what it is and how to not do it need to happen.

I’ll give an example. I used to have a male colleague who spoke in markedly different ways to male and female colleagues. He might say to a female colleague in a higher-pitched voice “Good morning, Sally. That’s a very nice dress!” and then turn to me and say in a lower-pitched voice “Hey, Julian, how is that project going?” The more he did it, the more glaring it became. It was clear that on some level he clearly did not respect female colleagues on the same level as male colleagues. At a certain point, I brought this up to him and asked if he was aware of it, and he completely denied that this was the case. He also didn’t change his behavior. It was so ingrained that he didn’t see it, and nobody wanted to talk about it publicly because it was uncomfortable. This is the culture we are up against.

2. Promote women.

Organizations should aim for a gender balance (and diversity in general, defined in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity) in positions of management and leadership.

Some people will criticize this as a form of affirmative action that goes against the meritocracy model championed in Silicon Valley. But we know from studies like the gender bias against women coders that this “meritocracy” doesn’t apply to women and minorities.

Having more women and minorities in positions of management and leadership helps to change the bro culture in the tech industry, and it’s good for business. As we discussed before, diversity is a critical contributor to a culture of innovation. Therefore, aiming for gender parity and diversity in management and leadership roles isn’t just a nice thing to do; it should be an integral component of an organization’s business strategy.

Industries should also consider changing their policies to support work-life balance. The Harvard Business Review identified work-life balance as one of a number of major obstacles to women advancing in leadership positions. (There are other significant barriers, as well, so I encourage you to read the study linked above.) Organizations need to remove this obstacle and explicitly support employees—both women and men—in not having to choose between personal/family life and work life.

Because the truth is that working more hours per week does not equal more work getting done. A study at Stanford University found that employees working 60 hours per week achieved two thirds of the work completed compared to employees working 40 hours per week. Another study, by the Microsoft Personal Productivity Challenge, found that employees are only really productive about 29 hours per week. Incidentally, that same study found that women were slightly more productive than men.

So promoting work-life balance, and specifically limiting the number of hours employees are allowed to work per week, can not only help boost diversity in leadership positions but also boost productivity for the entire organization.

3. Recruit and communicate externally.

A common complaint from organizations is that they just don’t get enough job applicants who are women and minorities. As a hiring manager I’ve seen this happen: you advertise a job opening, and most or all of the applicants are white men. So what do you do?

If diversity is a key component of your business strategy, this has to be communicated externally. Companies need to communicate not just that they are an “equal opportunity employer” but that they have a gender-equal work environment. This should be front and center on the public employment page of the organization’s website, with an explanation of HOW they are gender inclusive.

Further, companies can demonstrate this dedication by sponsoring organizations that are working for change in the industry. Organizations like Wonder Women Tech, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Girl Develop It, Tech Girlz, and many others.

Conclusion

It should be part of a company’s business strategy and strategic vision to cultivate an internal culture of inclusion and equality both because it’s the right thing to do and because it gives companies a competitive advantage. A lack of diversity has a trickle up negative effect that spreads from individual organizations to the entire industry to the world economy. The Harvard Business Review put it in blunt terms: having more women in the workforce could boost the GDP of the entire economy by 5 percent, which equals almost a trillion dollars. The tech industry needs to become truly progressive by getting serious about creating diversity. The feminist organization is more effective and more innovative than what we currently see in the tech marketplace, and our collective path toward the workplace of the future is stilted until the feminist company is the norm.

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