Despite countless studies showing negligible cognitive differences between the sexes, women in technology still must fight to defend their competence and credibility—sometimes even to themselves.
Wrike’s 2018 Operational Excellence Survey further highlights this struggle. We surveyed more than 1,000 US professionals about how well their organizations operate. 48% of women surveyed say any improvement suggestions they make will be ignored or never implemented, compared to 42% of men.
These results aren't surprising given the recent surge in attention to gender issues in workplaces, from the #MeToo movement over the past few months to Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 bestseller Lean In. But they still hit a nerve. One place where lack of gender diversity and female empowerment runs particularly rampant is Silicon Valley.
Nearly half of the American workforce is women, but women currently hold just 25% of US computing jobs, down from 36% in 1991, according to Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang's book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boy's Club of Silicon Valley. Even worse: Women account for the low to mid-30% of all staff at many major tech companies. They are also leaving the technology and engineering space twice as fast as men.
Being a minority in the tech industry undoubtedly impacts women’s comfort level and confidence in the workplace. But the problem runs much deeper than that.
“As women in tech, when you get the opportunity to demonstrate your skills, they are valued,” shares Disha Shah, a data scientist who recently moved from Silicon Valley to the New York City area. “I think the difference is that my female colleagues and I don't necessarily get the same opportunities [as our male colleagues] in the first place. You have to fight for them, create them, because you're assumed to be incapable of carrying them out.”
How Did We Get Here? From Hidden Figures to the PayPal Mafia
Have you heard of Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, or Katherine Johnson? Lovelace wrote the first computer program in the early 1800s. Hopper paved the way for the popular computer programming language COBOL. Johnson was a NASA mathematician who helped launch John Glenn into space, as depicted in the recent film Hidden Figures.
However, names like Albert Einstein and Bill Gates still overshadow these women despite their accomplishments. April Wensel, engineering leader and founder of Compassionate Coding, believes these biases stem from the personality tests used to identify and help companies hire “ideal programmers” in tech’s early days.
The System Development Corporation (SDC) started this practice in the 1960s, when they published findings proclaiming programmers’ most “striking characteristic” is “their disinterest in people,” according to Nathan Ensmenger, author of The Computer Boys Take Over. The profile was built based on an analysis of 1,378 programmers—only 186 of which were women.
“Not to say women necessarily like people more, but in our society, there’s this culture where women perhaps enjoy more socialized settings,” says Wensel. “There are definitely some gender differences there. I'm not saying they're necessarily inherent or innate, but they definitely come out in the culture.”
The “male computer nerd” stereotype caught on. ‘80s pop culture perpetuated this idea through movies like Weird Science and TV characters like Family Matters’ Steve Urkel. “Women were turned off computing in the ‘80s,” says Professor Dame Wendy Hall, a director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton. “Computers were sold as toys for the boys.”
This is the environment where tech founders like Peter Thiel cut their teeth. In Brotopia, Emily Chang digs into how the PayPal Mafia influenced tech’s gender disparity.
In his book Zero to One, PayPal founder Peter Thiel claims that startups “must work quickly and efficiently in order to survive, and that’s easier to do when everyone shares an understanding of the world. The entire PayPal team worked well together because we were all the same kind of nerd.”
PayPal also helped popularize the concept of meritocracy: hiring and promoting the very best.
According to Chang, Thiel’s paradoxical values of sameness and meritocracy positioned these “same kind of nerds” as the tech elite. “The right people—the smart, visionary ones—are clearly at the top of the food chain; just look at the success they’ve had, they reason,” she writes. “By lionizing the idea of meritocracy, Silicon Valley can deny that the lack of diversity is a problem.”
Bearing the Burden of Proof: A Day in the Life of Women in Tech
Women must fight everyday against these stereotypes and preconceived notions to prove their place in tech.
“I go in for an interview and I already have against me the fact that I don't look like what they think a software engineer should look like,” says Wensel. “I have to go to extremes to prove myself every single time I walk into a new setting.”
Shah agrees, “I found that I've always had to prove myself. When I start a new job, people assume by default that I'm junior or an intern, and they speak to me like they're explaining things. I have observed that with my male colleagues, people assume they're competent, whereas the reverse is true for me.”
Before joining Netflix, product designer Ghaida Zahran’s suggestions were frequently met with patronizing rebuffs like, “Oh, we need more data.”
“There was always something that would hold my ideas back from getting implemented,” she says. “I remember there was a meeting where I presented an idea and it was dismissed outright. Moments later, literally the same thing was uttered by one of my male colleagues, and then it became a great idea.”
“You kind of start to question yourself.” Zahran developed what she calls a “trained filter,” which prevented her from sharing thoughts or opinions in meetings. Since joining Netflix—a company well-known for its diversity efforts—Zahran has been encouraged to be more outspoken.
According to research conducted by SFSU Linguistics Advisor and Assistant Professor Anastasia Smirnova, even the English language subconsciously subjects women to male bias.
“In general, when you join two nouns, like ‘cats and dogs,’ the order is flexible,” she says. “But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the English language had prescriptive rules which explicitly stated that male references should come first. That's why we have ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’”
Smirnova’s research examined the phrase “men and women” versus “women and men” in 20th century literature. As shown in the graph below, “men and women” remained the preferred word order through most of the century. While “men and women” is still used more often today, women-first conjunctions have shown a small but steady increase since the 1970s. “I think it's a reflection of the changes in our society and the fact that women are becoming more prominent,” says Smirnova.
Some women say they haven’t felt the sting of Silicon Valley’s gender bias.
Vanessa Archambault, director of engineering at Flippable.org, doesn’t feel her gender is an issue with her colleagues or managers. “I was lucky enough to be on teams that were really diverse, to be able to be heard, and have support,” she says.
However, Archambault still had to fight against her toughest critic—herself.
“I had so much Imposter Syndrome,” she shares. Imposter Syndrome causes feelings of failure and inadequacy, despite great success. “I’m sure a lot of it is from me being female,” she adds.
So Much More than Headcount: Creating a Culture of Equality
Amidst tales of pay inequality and women being passed over for promotions, companies like Netflix and Flippable.org are making strides to close Silicon Valley’s gender gap, as well as address other areas of diversity, such as age, race, and sexuality.
According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Global Recruiting Trends report, in which nearly 9,000 recruiters and hiring managers were surveyed, 51% of companies are now “very” or “extremely” focused on diversity. Their reasons? To improve culture (78%), drive company performance (62%), and better represent customers (49%).
Companies participating in the LinkedIn survey said the number one roadblock to improving employee diversity is the inability to find diverse candidates. One way to address this is to create a diversity role on the human resources team.
“I work with recruiting to make sure our candidate pools are really diverse, actively sourcing diverse talent to place in front of hiring managers,” says Alena Skelton, Wrike’s own diversity and inclusion specialist.
However, she stresses that her job is two-fold: “Something that's really important when you have a diverse office is not just the presence of diversity, but making sure everyone feels included.”
In other words, your company’s male to female ratio may be 50/50, but does an idea carry the same weight regardless of its owner? Are women still shouldering the burden of proof?
“You don’t want Diversity and Inclusion to be a separate program. You want it to be something that’s native to the culture,” says Skelton.
One company that has gone to great lengths to create a culture of diversity and inclusion is Pandora. Among the tactics the company employs is bias and assumption training for all managers, and employee resource groups for underrepresented communities. Pandora also aligns employee gatherings with company values, tying happy hours to Black History Month or Women’s Day to add purpose.
Accenture and Microsoft sponsor groups like Women in Technology, which provides valuable networking opportunities and resources for women. Others hire consulting services like April Wensel’s Compassionate Coding to improve empathy in the workplace.
Netflix product designer Ghaida Zahran suggests requiring meeting attendees to raise their hands before speaking to help raise everyone’s voice.
Wensel recently took to Twitter to offer advice to companies seeking to bridge the gender gap:
“So much career and leadership training for women is to act like an aggressive man, and that's how you get ahead in the world,” Wensel says. “I felt so much pressure to be just like the men who I saw were successful.”
“I think the skills we’re talking about, like communication skills, empathy, all of that, are still important in the workplace,” says Wensel. “And when we call them soft, it's associated in our culture with weakness.”
Learning to appreciate the way women express themselves and value these “soft skills” in employees of all genders shifts cultural focus away from proving value to recognizing value.
For women who find themselves at companies where gender equality is not a priority, there are ways to overcome “trained filters” and inspire confidence in one another. Both Zahran and Flippable.org’s Vanessa Archambault work with Girl Develop It, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women learn to code and “improve their careers and confidence in their everyday lives.”
“It's been really inspirational to be in this group where we're all looking out for each other and helping each other learn,” says Archambault. “Go places where you put yourself outside your comfort zone and actually have to represent your perspective on tech. If you become more comfortable speaking about what you’re working on outside of work, it'll come back to you at work.”
Looking Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Women in technology are continually fighting to be heard. They must testify to their worth time and again, their voices echoing against the gilded stereotypes our culture has erected over time.
It’s not a lack of skill. It’s not a headcount issue. It’s a perception problem. Tech leaders must focus on cultivating empathy, correcting subconscious biases, and appreciating women for who they are. Yes, we have come leaps and bounds. But we still have a long way to go.
Data scientist Disha Shah’s best advice for women in tech is: “Be very, very focused and deliberate about what your goals are and how you're going to get there, and treat everything else as noise. The more time and energy you spend dwelling on what someone said, or who took credit for your idea, the less time you spend working on your core skill set.”
“Regardless of politics, in the end, skills are what matter,” she says. “They are what distinguish you and give you the opportunities to go forward.”