We will not fix diversity in tech unless we end discrimination

Natalie Cernecka
Feb 8, 2019 · 8 min read
neither glass ceiling nor broken windows ©ncernecka

I am not an expert on diversity in tech, thus I have spent some time educating myself on the topic.

Experts appear to agree on three points:

1. Diversity is good for business: as Tom Peters puts it, “diversity wins”.

2. The tech industry “urgently needs to fix its diversity & inclusion problem” (concludes the 2018 State of European Tech Report by Atomico).

3. Discrimination is widespread.

46% of women reported that they have experienced discrimination in the European tech sector”, warns the Atomico report.

The State of Startups 2018 by First Round reveals that 59,9% of the respondents have experienced or know somebody who has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

However, when it comes to solutions, I am perplexed, because today they tend to focus on two areas. The first is enlarging the pipeline, in other words, attracting women to enter technical fields. The second is various initiatives to boost women’s confidence.

If these solutions do not appear to bring the desired outcome, I think that is because we are beating around the bush. If discrimination is THE problem, why don’t we put all our efforts into eradicating it? Why don’t we focus on one critical step: ending discrimination?

Technical people are familiar with the principle that any system is as is strong as its weakest component: a failure in one area can negate great effort in all other areas. In order for a system to work properly, a much greater effect is achieved by fixing the weakest point rather than by improving other areas. In tech, discrimination is the proverbial weakest link, and, unless we fix it, all other benevolent initiatives will remain ineffective.

Let’s return first to the pipeline. Attracting any underrepresented group (women, ethnic minorities, refugees, veterans, older people, arts and humanities graduates) into a fast-growing field that offers rich career opportunities and suffers from talent shortage is a much needed effort.

Yet, it has been pointed out, the lack of women in tech is not primarily a pipeline problem.

There are women in tech, but even in the companies where gender balance is close to 50%, the distribution is far from equal. Most top jobs are held by men, whereas women work mostly at the bottom of the pyramid (secretaries, telesales, administrative support).

In France women represent 33% of all tech workers, according to Syntec numérique, but only 9% in senior roles. In the US, a study revealed, as much as 70% of startups have no women on the board of directors, and 54% don’t have a single woman in an executive position.

Women also tend to leave tech at a much higher rate than men: 41% of women working in tech eventually end up leaving the field (compared to just 17% of men), according to Harvard Business Review.

What are the main reasons women are leaving the tech industry? Time and again, women repeat that they are “treated unfairly, underpaid, less likely to be fast-tracked than their male colleagues, and unable to advance”. In other words, they cite limited career opportunities, which has nothing to do with a pipeline but everything to do with discrimination.

The second set of measures include trainings, workshops, and other initiatives to teach women self-confidence, communication, and leadership skills. Again, there’s nothing wrong with these initiatives. To progress in their careers, both women and men need to know how to communicate and manage effectively.

Yet, acting as if only women are lacking in these skills because they ‘don’t dare’, is counterproductive, as I explained in an earlier article.

A quick poll among my fellow ‘women in French tech’ gave lie to the myth that ‘women don’t dare’.

Two women asked for promotion and were refused, without good reasons. One was promised a more senior role by her manager, who even announced it publicly to the team, only to pretend later that the offer had never been made. Another, despite her expressed interest and ability to take on additional responsibilities, was demoted under the pretext of restructuring the company. Yet another, a star performer consistently hitting and exceeding her targets, was told she was too junior to be paid accordingly. One woman attracted her direct manager’s ire when she became ‘too visible’ on the international tech scene. Several women were told to get training to ‘improve their skills’, and then given a hard time by their company when they actually applied for the recommended training.

Discrimination again. These women should not have been promoted because they are women. They should have been promoted because they are competent, committed, and capable of contributing to their companies’ growth from a position of greater power. This is how it should be.

Personally, it took me a long while to understand why these star performers were having a hard time advancing in their jobs.

Why the need to undermine them and their work? After all, better performance is beneficial for the bottom line, whereas ‘offices with “masculinity contest” cultures’ tend to have higher staff turnover, more workers suffering from illness and depression, and lower performance, all of which is bad for business.

The clue came from Laszlo Bock, former People Operations at Google and now founder of Humu, who quoted research that hostility toward high performing female coworkers originates mainly from poorly performing males. Incompetent men are threatened and become abusive towards competent women as these men have the most to fear if women are promoted:

“Mediocre leaders have a strong incentive to surround themselves with mediocre followers, so as to bolster their chances of remaining in power.”

Paul Graham pointed to a similar phenomenon in investing:

“Mediocre investors discriminate against women not because women are unlike them, but because they’re unlike previous successful founders. Like mediocre people in any field, they’re fighting the last war …”

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, discrimination is the last refuge of mediocrity.

plenty to fix ©ncernecka

In all the cases I mentioned above, discrimination did not ‘just happen’, it had a name and a job title attached to it. In most cases, the company management knew that A or B had ‘a problem with women’. Yet, nothing was done to stop their behaviour.

I refuse to resort to sweeping generalisations about tech being intrinsically sexist. The worst discrimination I experienced in my life came from a small number of individuals, all of them mediocre performers and not even ‘technical’. However, they were powerful enough at the time to make my working life not only miserable, but impossible.

Tech is not intrinsically better or worse than any other industry, and the vast majority of people conform to their colleagues’ prevailing norms and behaviours. As in any other industry, there are companies that got diversity right years ago, those that could not care less, and those that engage in diversity-washing.

Discrimination is a slippery slope. It only takes one toxic employee 3 to 4 weeks to turn another employee toxic, and to continue the vicious circle. Once a company starts discriminating against one type of minority, nothing prevents this company from discriminating based on other differences: age, nationality, sexual orientation, dietary requirements, and even ‘introversion’.

Unfortunately, mandatory diversity training does not work for the men who need it most, as Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and professor at Wharton, cited in a recent HBR study. Yet, as teachers know, if a group of children misbehaves, removing an instigator has a larger effect than admonishing all kids to behave. Thus, removing those few ‘kids’ who engage in discrimination will have a larger effect on a company and women’s prospects in it than any other well-meaning initiative.

In social science, the “broken windows” theory proposes that visible signs of misbehaviour tend to create an environment that encourages further misbehaviour and vice versa. That’s why I believe that to have more women in tech, we need to fix those broken windows. We need to realise that the real issue is not to attract women, but to keep them.

A diverse and inclusive culture is not defined by diverse employee pictures on a company’s website and gender-neutral colours, it is primarily defined by who gets hired, who gets fired, and who gets promoted. Hence, for women to stay and prosper in tech, the critical step is to weed out those who discriminate against them.

As Rachel Thomas, co-founder of fast.ai and one of the most prominent diversity voices, put it:

“leaders have to get rid of employees who engage in sexist or racist behavior. Otherwise, the company is at risk of losing talented employees, and is sending a message to all employees that discrimination is okay.”

In France, one tech initiative has finally raised the issue of zero tolerance towards sexism in the startup ecosystem: the Galion Gender Agreement, launched in December 2018. Among its 45 guidelines, one recommends to:

“Demonstrate zero tolerance towards sexist, shaming and undermining comments, jokes and behavior in the workplace.”

The intention is excellent, yet, the devil is in the details: how is this guideline going to be implemented? Who will be in charge of diversity and inclusion policy? HR? In many startups, an HR person (if the position even exists) is not trained to deal with sexism, and it is well documented that even in cases of sexual harassment most HR people support the employer.

With rare exceptions, French media spends more time dissecting what is happening in the US than paying attention to domestic cases of sexism. Yet, the statistics are chilling: in France, 95% of women who filed for sexual harassment have lost their jobs.

the devil is in the details ©ncernecka

It would be important to monitor the impact of the Galion Gender Agreement. Today, some 200 companies have signed it, which is great — or not, considering that France counts some 10 000 startups. Would we see in the next couple of years French tech companies changing their obsolete ways and becoming truly open to diversity? Would we see any cases of walking the talk, when founders would get rid of toxic employees in full transparency?

To conclude: Discrimination is not acceptable nor inevitable. Eradicating discrimination does require commitment and effort, yet, I agree with those who think that it does not need to take ages. We can do it tomorrow if we recognise discrimination as the main problem and summon up the courage to act accordingly.



Natalie Cernecka

Written by

Academic (Cambridge, Keio, CNRS) converted to tech. Linguist. TEDx speaker & organiser. Diversity is the spice of life.

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