It's International Women's Day, and I have some things to say about women in tech. It's something I’ve said many times before, an old tale that you’ve undoubtedly heard: tech needs more diversity. The number of women and people of color in tech is staggeringly low, and tech companies seem to be taking their sweet time catching up. Meanwhile, the demand for diversity in tech is growing stronger and louder by the minute. We are the townsfolk waiting outside the castle with pitchforks and torches, and we’re tired of waiting.
Quit Blaming Others for the Lack of Diversity in Tech
For such an innovative industry, tech is pretty busy pointing fingers. Many companies blame a lack of talent for their lack of diversity. There are just not enough STEM people in underrepresented communities, they argue; it’s not their fault that the talent pool is so small. While this does hold a speck of truth to it (only 6.7% of women graduate with STEM degrees), it’s not really a viable excuse – 6.7% is not 0%. There are plenty of qualified women and people of color in the talent pools; tech companies just need to do a better job of finding them.
The pipeline isn’t the problem. We all know that. The problem is what happens at the beginning and the end of the pipeline, and it starts with recruitment efforts. Last week, Wired published an article covering a research paper that looked at 84 introductory recruiting sessions from 66 tech companies. The behavior at these sessions was undeniably discouraging to women. I urge you to think about this from a woman’s perspective:
- Many of the women at these sessions were working refreshment or merch tables. Most of the presenters were men.
- Most of the women engineers there had no speaking roles. When they did, they talked mostly about the company culture, while the men got to discuss tech challenges. Out of all 84 sessions, only 22% of women talked about tech. The research paper reports that the women were often interrupted when speaking.
- Women on both sides were just as quiet during the Q&A sessions. The men did most of the asking and answering. During one session, men asked 19 questions, leaving no time left for the women. Four of the 15 women attending left the room.
- Male recruiters and presenters often missed the mark when trying to appeal to candidates. One man, while touting the diversity of his company, implied that the higher ratio of women in his office helped him find a wife. Presenters often made sexualized comments, even mentioning porn a few times.
- The sessions that did feature women speaking about tech challenges saw much more engagement from female attendees. Women asked questions 65% of the time, as opposed to 36% of the time during the male-dominated sessions.
- When the author of the research paper, Alison Wynn, presented this information to tech companies, they were shocked. She noted that many of them had no idea this behavior was occurring at the sessions.
The boy’s club mentality isn’t just limited to the recruiting sessions, and it doesn’t just affect women in tech. Women and people of color are often discouraged from pursuing tech careers as early on as high school and college. In 2014, MIT senior Jennifer Selvidge published an article about the sexist and racist behavior at the school. Her article revealed the disgusting behavior with rage-inspiring detail, everything from professors making “get back in the kitchen” jokes to a TA arguing that black people are genetically inferior. No wonder STEM attrition rates for women and minorities are so high.
Sadly, the people who make it through the gauntlet of discrimination and discouragement don’t get much of a respite. For many, the harassment continues long into their careers, causing women to leave tech careers at a rate that’s two times higher than men.
Put Your Problem-Solving Skills to Work
The tech industry is all about innovation and disruption, so why not apply that attitude to the problem at hand? Technology is quickly becoming ingrained in every minute of our everyday lives – tech companies need to genuinely focus on diversifying before it’s too late. Blanket solutions will not work. Tech leaders must disrupt this bigoted way of thinking from the inside out, and make targeted efforts to support and include women and minorities:
- Look at data to find the biggest gaps and opportunities. After all, it’s tech. Aren’t you supposed to love data? Research data holds a wealth of potential for identifying strategies to increase diversity in tech. For example, a study from USA Today found that top universities graduate black and Hispanic STEM majors at twice the rate at which they’re being hired. The numbers suggest that tech firms aren’t looking outside the small circle of where they find talent – the schools they favor, like Stanford and UC Berkeley, are predominantly white and Asian. Studies like this could be used to target schools with higher numbers of underrepresented STEM majors.
- Focus on inclusion, not just diversification. Tech companies need to create ongoing initiatives that support women and other minorities in tech. This might necessitate a shift in company culture and some new policies. Extended parental leave, strict harassment policies and repercussions, resource groups for underrepresented employees, and a conscious effort to close the wage gap are just a few examples of what other tech companies are doing right.
- Take a long, hard look at recruiting sessions. The Wired article I mentioned is just one example of how discouraging behavior can run amok at recruiting conferences. This is where candidates often get their first impressions, so tech companies should want to nip this in the bud. Managers and leaders need to do a better job of getting involved with recruiting efforts to ensure that company culture is being portrayed appropriately. They should probably add more women to the roster of presenters while they’re at it.
- Regularly review job descriptions and hiring practices for hidden biases. Most of the time, the author isn’t to blame; even seemingly innocuous language can deter underrepresented candidates if it goes unchecked. It’s a good idea to have a second and third set of eyes review job descriptions and other communications, and an even better idea to use tools that analyze your job descriptions for you, like Textio. Blind resumes and interview training are also effective at eliminating hiring biases.
- Create a clearly defined strategy, make it public, and enforce accountability. So many companies these days treat diversity like some HR buzzword - all they do is talk about diversifying without actually doing anything about it. If you look at other companies that have successfully diversified, you’ll notice a trend. They all had clear-cut, actionable strategies, and many of them shared their handbooks and hiring data publicly. Why does this work? In short, because it’s difficult not to be held accountable when everyone knows your business. Turns out that telling people what you’re planning to do is a pretty strong motivator to get it done.
Diversity is not a one-and-done thing, and it’s not a passing fad. We’ve given tech companies our fandom (and our money), and now it’s their turn to give back. It’s time tech leaders take responsibility and start pushing for real change. The onus is on them to make sure everyone is represented and given a fair chance. As Erica Baker, an engineer at Slack, so perfectly put it:
“We can’t really build an app for everybody around the world if everybody isn’t in the room.”