Unconscious Bias in Tech: Why Women leave their Engineering Careers

In 2014, women held only 26 percent of computing jobs. This number drops further when we look at other underrepresented groups such as racial minorities. For example, black women hold only 3 percent of all computing occupations and Latinas only 1 percent. What’s worse is that, due to the male-dominated, exclusionary environment that permeates so much of the tech field, many of these women will not stay. The Harvard Business Review determined that 56 percent of private sector technical women leave the industry at some point in their career. A one-dimensional and unwelcoming culture is bleeding diversity from the tech sector.

A few weeks back, I was talking with some friends, and one of them asked if we’d ever experienced the discrimination or outsider feeling that is mentioned so often in respect to the tech field. For most of us, it was a resounding “yes” but explaining our answer was complicated. It was not a particular moment, course, or job. It’s still just that “old boys club” feel, one friend said. It was not something tangible that we could point to and say that, right there, that is the problem. It’s how during the first week of classes a software engineering student began grilling me on my credentials, asking what languages I knew, classes I had taken, AP programming exams I had written, textbooks I would read, projects I had built. I had not even been to one lecture, and already I felt behind. It’s when a few classmates were determined to explain to me, and to the only other girl in our project group, what “for loops” were despite our repeated assurances that we knew how they worked. It’s hearing comments like “If women do make it through their degrees they tend to do very well” or that we “are better at the Human Computer Interaction and design side.” What people think are compliments just remind us how few of us are in tech and that we are expected to fill specific spaces in the industry.

In one computer science class, the professor assigned seven-hour group tests that ran until midnight. Most groups would meet on campus to complete the tests, often not leaving the computer science building until well after midnight. For many students, this was after their buses had stopped running. Several recent sexual assaults on campus meant that walking 30 minutes home or across campus alone at 1 am was unnerving at the least. This must have come to the professor’s attention since a message was sent out recommending that all female students get home by 10 and travel with a buddy. In practice, women had to choose between fully contributing to a group project or feeling safe getting home.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), moments like these can be attributed to an unconscious bias we all share. Our brains use shortcuts called heuristics to help us make sense of the world. These are necessary because without them we would be unable to process the incredible amounts of data we absorb every minute. Heuristics compare new information to patterns we have seen before. For example, if you see an older woman she may remind you of your grandmother and you might assume then that she’s very sweet and friendly. Heuristics are the reason we can make quick decisions, and they save the brain from having to run costly algorithms every time we face a choice. Unfortunately, these shortcuts are often based on stereotypes and lead to many unintentionally skewed perspectives.

These biases go beyond making minorities feel unwelcome in the industry to actually affecting performance. When it comes to development, someone’s code feels like a separate entity, something that speaks for itself and would be outside the boundaries of these stereotypes. A recent study of Github, an online repository where developers host and contribute to projects, revealed otherwise. Researchers determined that, when gender was unidentifiable, women and men’s code was approved at comparable percentages — in fact, women performed slightly higher than men. However, when factoring in gender, the acceptance rates of women’s code dropped by 10 percent.

Further, the knowledge that these biases exist can be damaging all on its own. For example, a professor once pointed out to the entire class that a student was not just the only woman, but that she was the only woman of color. This was a prof who would go on feminist rants in class and who I happened to admire. She was attempting to explain why she wanted the student to succeed. Unfortunately, while comments like these are intended to be supportive, more often they leave students feeling isolated.

Moments like these can have damaging effects as they contribute to something called Stereotype Threat, which is the phenomenon that the knowledge of negative stereotypes can decrease performance. In a study where young women were asked to complete a math test and a career aptitude test, women that were shown sexist images beforehand performed worse on the math test and were less likely to show interest in science and technology related fields. NCWIT states that Stereotype Threat results in decreased motivation, avoidance of technical leadership positions, and the devaluation of one’s ideas and abilities. It’s why women with B grades in computer science are much more likely to leave the program than men, despite the fact that they are still outperforming a significant portion of their peers.

Understanding and being aware of biases and Stereotype Threat is an integral part of sparking change in the community. However, as we move towards a more inclusive industry, I find it easy to get weighed down by all the things that aren’t great. It’s important to note that while the numbers may be changing slowly, we are making progress. The improvements, like the problems themselves, can sometimes be subtle and hard to see.

Not long after I began my work experience term at Giftbit, I remember excitedly explaining to my girlfriend that “I don’t notice my gender at work.” Since my first year at university when I took a gender studies class filled with women, I had been acutely aware of how few women there were in tech. Somehow in the last couple of months, I’d stopped noticing it. At Giftbit, when I sat at a table doing a code review, I wasn’t one of the few females in the room, I was just another employee; I wasn’t a female developer, I was simply a developer. It was incredibly refreshing. It’s a feeling I have heard echoed by various friends and peers during their experiences in the Victoria tech sector. It’s hard to know just how much an environment can affect you until you experience something different.

As an executive member of the Women in Engineering and Computer Science (WECS) Club at the University of Victoria, I often get approached by recruiters and faculty looking for advice on gender issues. Often, I get asked what women are looking for in a workplace environment. They are all aware they have a diversity issue, and they are looking for the secret to fix it. My go-to answer has historically been, rather unhelpfully, “Just don’t be assholes.”

Common sense and general human decency can solve a lot, but as I have learned over the years, it takes a bit more to get to a place where we all feel welcome. It takes a sustained conscious effort to overcome pervasive cultural habits. As an employer or faculty member, there are ways you can try and create a more welcoming space. One major way is to be clear about your company policy around diversity and then stand by it. Simply correcting the use of “he” when referring to generic developers or politely questioning a sexist joke goes a long way in creating a safer environment. It should not be the job of an underrepresented member to educate their peers. Always being the one to call others out on their slip-ups is both exhausting and potentially alienating. Personally, I will often not say anything for fear of being that person. However, when someone else catches it and corrects it, it’s incredibly refreshing and makes me feel like I am accepted.

While the responsibility to improve the culture should not belong to those who are being oppressed, they have valuable insight, information, and ideas that we should not ignore. As an employer or faculty member, try and have an open door policy. Let your employees and students know that they can always talk to you about any issues. They may not, and that is okay, but just letting them know you want to listen can make them feel valued. One of the things I appreciate about my job is that my boss often asks for our feedback and schedules time to listen. For conversations like these to be effective, rapport and privacy are essential. There’s a difference between calling someone out in a way that makes them feel stigmatized and ensuring that everyone feels acknowledged and respected.

In October, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. As I sat in an arena with over 14 000 women, I felt a mix of excitement and awe. The energy in the room was a bubbly anticipation. You could see it written all over our faces: we were not used to this. Over the course of the conference, they held quite a few meetups for specific minority groups. I attended the Queer Lunch and spent an hour chatting with lovely people about work, school, and how to go about getting gender neutral bathrooms in an office. Conference meet-ups like these are important as they allow for discourse that often would not occur in a tech space. Being able to connect with people that share similar interests, experiences, and struggles is an important part of promoting inclusion and empowering minority groups.

While I was in Houston for the conference, I had the opportunity to attend a party for senior women in technology. I spent the night chatting with developers from Twitter, Amazon, Slack, and Paypal. These were women of varying races and backgrounds, women who had been in the industry for years and some that could not have been much older than me. Most of the technical leaders I engage with in my life are male. These are men I admire, respect and have learned so much from. However, there is something unique and validating about seeing women in those roles and being able to identify with them in a new way. Role models are an important part of breaking down the stereotypes that surround minorities in tech, and they are pretty damn inspiring.

While the tech industry has made improvements, its lack of diversity remains a systemic problem that requires both time and a shift in perspective and practice. As the users of technology are infinitely varied, so too must the builders become infinitely diverse. Technology belongs to us all. It’s about time the industry reflected that.