I have been the only woman on almost every team I have ever worked on. I have spent my career in the world of tech startups, so while this is not surprising it is certainly disappointing. A 2016 McKinsey report found that women are locked out of the tech industry from the start, with only 37% of entry-level tech roles held by women. This gap only gets worse, with women making up a mere 15% of C-level tech employees. The gap is even worse for women of color. Black women made up about 1.2% of Google’s workforce in 2018.
It was very telling that I had a very difficult time even finding comprehensive statistics on the proportion of minority women in tech. The stories of women in tech that are the forefront of our collective consciousness are the high-profile cases of discrimination and harassment: Ellen Pao of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers suing her former employer for discrimination or Susan Fowler of Uber who wrote an open letter on the toxic company culture. For a lot of women, however, it is death by a thousand cuts rather than a single incident that results in them leaving tech at a rate 45% higher than men.
When I worked at a trucking company, part of my job involved booking trucks by calling truck drivers or their managers and bargaining with them on price. I could not “bro down” with the truckers in the same way that my male colleagues could. Instead, I had to fend off flirtations that bordered on outright harassment. I endured racist abuse when they heard my Indian-sounding name. I had to pretend to “check with my manager” because the people on the other end of the line didn’t believe I could make pricing decisions. When I brought this up during a team meeting, my team full of men did not even realize that my experience calling trucking companies was incredibly different from theirs. To be clear, this was not their fault. These were thoughtful, progressive, and by all accounts, feminist men. But it wasn’t my burden to bear alone either. It is a company’s responsibility to create not just an equal, but an equitable work place. Here’s a picture that demonstrates the difference best:
There is a difference between equality and equity. Equality means that everyone needs to be treated the same, and if we only considered equality in this situation, it would mean treating men and women the same, and white women and women of color the same. This doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because we are starting the race at different points.
Men and women have undeniably different experiences in the workplace. One woman I spoke to told me about a time she asked to be put on a project that her colleague was on. She was told the guy was working on this “special project” because he had an Ivy League degree. So did she. But this sort of blatant discrimination isn’t the only way that women are disadvantaged.
Discrimination begins at the hiring level. My peers have described sitting in on a hiring meeting where a room full of white men rejected a female candidate who wasn’t a “culture fit.” What does that even mean? Anne Helen Petersen, a culture writer, showed how Tinder activity reflected markers of class and socioeconomic status. This carries over into the workplace. I remember sitting in on a 45-minute conversation on whether Snoqualmie Pass or Stevens Pass had better ski slopes. I spent 10 years of my childhood in a landlocked tropical city. My parents are immigrants, and skiing was not something they had the money to do. Therefore, skiing is just not something I can spend 45 min talking about. Does that make me “not a cultural fit?” I had to wonder. One woman told me that she spent most of her life less than an hour from Lake Tahoe, but had not learned to ski. “I’m terrified people at work will find out that I grew up poor,” she told me. Another woman spoke about referring a new hire to the same team that she worked on. They had gone to the same school, and had worked at companies of similar caliber for about 3 years. She later found out that he was hired at a higher starting salary than her.
At this point, I feel like this doesn’t even need to be said, but here is why we need women in the workplace OTHER than the fact that 50% of the population deserves equal representation in this major aspect of life: diverse teams offer more perspectives. Different life experiences mean a wider variety of ideas, strategies and management styles. Apart from the good faith argument that diverse teams mean more perspectives and ultimately better decision-making, there is the cold hard fact that companies with mixed gender leadership simply make more money, and ultimately, more profit: Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
A McKinsey report states:
“In the United Kingdom, greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5 percent.”
Women also control a large amount of wealth, which is only increasing. As I wrote in 2016, “Women are wealthy — they already own over half the investable assets in the United States and stand to inherit 70% of the wealth passed down over the next two generations. This doesn’t even include the money they will earn on their own.“ They are starting companies at record rates. The number of women-led businesses has grown at 114% over the past 20 years, compared to the national growth rate of 44%. True equality, however, includes women of color and the unique experiences they have in tech. Currently, we are failing them. The solution lies in broad, systemic change that focuses on more than one metric. The current measure of diversity is too narrowly focused on the recruitment stage. One of the things I heard a lot from leadership teams in the startup world is that they cannot find qualified women (let alone women of color.) To that I say, LOOK HARDER! Focus on building a pipeline. There are women in business associations at every college. There are local chapters of Lean In groups or other professional womens’ organizations in addition to ones specifically for Black, Latinx women and Asian women. The reason companies need to look harder is because it simply IS harder for women and women of color to even have access to jobs in tech. And once they get these jobs, companies need to measure retention rates. Women leave tech at more than double the rate that men do. It’s not enough to hire more women. We need to create a workplace that they can actually spend their careers in.
I am tired of telling women to be more confident, to ask for more money, to just go get that job! Because it never really is as simple as all that. The problem with the you-go-girl hashtag culture solutions are that they absolve the organizations and systems that are oppressing women of any responsibility. We are long past the time for telling women to go get what is theirs. Women ask for raises. They just don’t get them. The reasons for this are systemic. The most illustrative example of blaming the individual versus fixing the system happened to me earlier this year. I was at a gender equality round table at my business school that I left shaking with rage. We were discussing solutions to male superiors sexually harassing their younger female colleagues. A lot of this harassment and abuse of power happened after hours, usually at bars and clubs or company sponsored events where alcohol was present. One man suggested removing alcohol and imposing curfews on late-night events as a way to “solve’ the issue of sexual harassment by superiors. This is the most ridiculous suggestion and it’s easy to see why. The alcohol was not harassing the women. The systems that allow powerful abusers to get away with harassing women is the problem.
As part of our “solution,” we were also asked what each individual woman was going to do to empower herself in the workplace. This was also ridiculous to me. I am empowered just fine. I need to know what the organization going to do to make sure I remain that way. In many cases of harassment and discrimination, HR just does not cut it. The department is, after all, internal and as part of the organization, looking after the company’s best interests, not the individual’s. One woman I spoke to told me about a superior who would use the company’s internal messaging system to proposition her. When she complained to HR, she was told that the man was a “high performer.” Another woman was confronted by a colleague who asked her every day how it felt to be the only woman of color on the team. He believed she was a minority hire and made it very clear to her that he didn’t believe she deserved to be there. He thought her double minority status gave her immunity from ever being fired. She complained to HR, who assured her that they would “talk” to him, which was an absolutely ridiculous response. We are not in kindergarten. A “talking to” does not cut it at this point. It will not fix the blatant sexism and racism this woman had to deal with on a daily basis.
A few weeks later, she was told to close the loop via email so that it seemed on the email thread that HR had handled the situation. According to written evidence (the email chain lodging the complaint,) the offender had been “dealt with.” The female employee only had HR’s assurances that they had given the man a talking to.
Women in the workplace deserve better. First of all, accusations of being a minority hire are hardly an insult. It just means she has worked twice as hard as he has to be in the same place as him. Second, statistics refute his claim that she could never be fired. Tech companies have a hard time recruiting women of color. They have an even harder time retaining them. In Susan Fowler’s letter, “Reflecting on One Very Strange Year at Uber,” she writes, “When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%….On my last day at Uber, I calculated the percentage of women who were still in the org…only 3% were women.”
This past fall, I took an elective at London Business School taught by Eliot Sherman. Dr. Sherman studies the gender wage gap and tests organizational policies to reduce it. I stopped to chat with him outside his office after the first day of class. He told me he believed that a large part of the solution lay in equality at home — women take on a disproportionate amount of “unpaid’ labor” at home, which results in less facetime at the office leading to lower chances of promotions, lower chances of being in roles that require time away from home and ultimately a wage gap.
“So what are companies supposed to do about that?” I asked, “Don’t we need cultural shift on a scale that doesn’t seem likely during my lifetime?”
“You are way too young to be this cynical,” he told me. Dr. Sherman’s research focuses on testing organizational policies to reduce the gender wage gap.
One of the solutions he proposes is to reward outputs rather than inputs. A lot of the earnings disparity between men and women is a result of the invisible labor that women do at home. According to Melinda Gates, women still do about twice as much labor at home as men. This means tasks like cooking, cleaning, project-managing childcare, socializing and other tasks that keep a household running smoothly.
This disparity widens for mothers, which leads to women cutting down their hours or dropping out of the workforce altogether, lowering their ability to be promoted to high-earning positions. One of the more subtle ways that this happens is when women are simply less visible at the office. Flexible hours and generous work-from-home policies are mostly used by women, and managers tend to promote the people that they perceive as working hard, which means that simply being seen a lot or staying late in the office can sometimes be a contributing, if not deciding factor in the climb up corporate ladders. This phenomenon disproportionately affects women.
I saw it in practice when I worked at a startup that had a lot of perks in the form of ping pong tables and nerf guns. I have no interest in either of these forms of entertainment and spent exactly zero hours per day using either. The men on my team spent at least 2 hours of a workday on these perks (which, I have to add, meant 2 hours not working.) To be clear, this is not an indictment of their work ethic. The work day is not regimented and they are free to work at the pace that works for them. But I also happened to leave the office earlier than they did. Technically, we should have been compared by our performance metrics. But upper management only saw the fact that I was leaving earlier than my colleagues. We need the framework and vocabulary to argue against this type of “visibility” reward.
Another important aspect that we discussed in the Paths to Power class that I took was sexual harassment in the workplace. This is not just a women’s issue (though because of the current status quo, women are largely the victims of workplace harassment) but a power issue. People in power are able to get away with improper behavior because of their position in the company and economic value. We saw this on an incredibly large and public scale in the Harvey Weinstein case where a man in power was able to abuse women over decades. But it was not just him. It was the way companies are built and the way systems are built that allowed him to silence the victims, and allow his colleagues to turn a blind eye to what was happening. In an interview, Ronan Farrow, who has reported extensively on the MeToo Movement and is the author of Catch and Kill, explained that it isn’t that people around powerful men WANT to cover up their crimes and misdeeds. “Is it worth the trouble?” they ask themselves. And most often, when reputations, money and careers are at stake, the answer is no.
So the solution lies in dismantling the existing systems or at least re-examining them to figure out at what point we can protect employees. The human resources department may be filled with well meaning individuals, but they are still an extension of the company. After all, they are an internal department. An employment lawyer that I spoke with said that the biggest issue with workplace harassment and discrimination cases is that they are incredibly difficult to prove because it is often a situation of he said/she said where one side has a disproportionately larger amount of influence in the company hierarchy. I have heard of startups hiring an “independent investigator” to look into incidents of harassment and discrimination but all of the startup employees I spoke to expressed doubt (rightfully so) at the neutrality of these investigators. How much can you really do when the company that you are investigating is the one that is paying you?
When I spoke with my friends and colleagues, we were all in agreement that we want a truly independent representative from outside the company. A publicly-funded entity (i.e. a government representative) who is able to actually conduct a thorough investigation into the company’s practices and form judgements that are not influenced by who is more valuable to the company because the person who is more valuable is often the offender. The analogy I like to use is that if you are robbed, you call the police. I want to be able to do the equivalent when I am at work. I want someone whose job is to protect my rights in the workplace, and who has no clearly conflicting incentives to not do it.