Confronting the Culture Gap that Keeps Women and Minorities Out of Tech
Something about the tech industry doesn’t quite compute.
Girls and boys begin their formal education equally excited about computers, but the numbers of women in the workforce fails to reflect this — and women who do make it into the tech workforce are much more likely to leave it.
In elementary and high schools, girls’ and boys’ interest and ability levels track roughly the same, and in college, women and men graduate at equal rates in science and technology fields. An equal number of boys and girls participate in STEM electives.
Why, then, are twice as many men as women working in STEM fields? And if women and men are equally represented in the larger workforce, why do women make up only a quarter of the computer and mathematical sciences workforce?
It has long been assumed that the low numbers of women in technology is the result of a pipeline issue — that more boys than girls are drawn to computer coursework from an early age. But at institutions like Stanford and Berkeley, half of all students in introductory computer science classes are women, and what’s more, although the gender breakdown starts out the same early in science education, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the STEM field is dominated by men, who outnumber women with the same qualifications by a factor of two to one.
The outlook for minority techies is even dimmer. At Google, for instance, only 1 percent of the tech staff is black, and only 2 percent is Hispanic. And in all of Silicon Valley, women make up only 20–23 percent of the tech workforce.
Tech companies may say that there aren’t enough qualified minorities in the job market for their workforce to match population demographics. However, a USA Today story reported that black and Hispanic students graduate from top universities at twice the rate that the leading tech companies hire them.
More and more, technology workplaces are recognizing a serious problem in the culture in their field.
In a recent study of 716 women who left the tech industry, researcher Kieran Snyder reported that 26 percent said that they left the field because of discrimination. Even more troubling, 87 percent say that they have no plans to ever return to the tech field. Yet an overwhelming majority reported that they liked the work itself. These women entered the field without any intentions of leaving it.
Some of the leading companies in the tech industry have announced initiatives to hire more women and minorities. Pinterest, for example, set hiring goals targeting women and minorities, but went a step further by announcing its intention to have every employee participate in training to prevent unconscious bias.
The President, too, has issued a call for a change in the culture. Last year, President Obama held the first-ever White House Demo Day to showcase women and minority leaders in technology, and he called upon the industry to change the culture.
A 2015 study titled Elephant in the Valley spells out some of the cultural biases faced by women with ten or more years of experience in the tech industry. A whopping 84 percent have been told they are too aggressive, and 47 percent have been asked to do low-level tasks that men are not asked to do. Some 66 percent have felt excluded from social or networking opportunities because of gender, and 90 percent have witnessed sexist behavior when they are included in offsites and conferences. Three-fifths of them reported unwanted sexual advances, and one in three have feared for their personal safety.
Snyder’s studied offered plenty of anecdotal evidence that minorities fare no better. She quotes one woman, a front-end developer who left the industry after eight years, as saying, “I’m pretty sure for some of them I’m the only actual black person they’ve ever spoken to. Everyone was the same, and no one was like me. How could I stay in that situation?”
For a long time, the industry has bemoaned a lack of qualified women and minority candidates for the available jobs. But no number of STEM camps or museum programs or tech clubs can touch the problem of disproportional reputation until the industry finds a way to welcome and to value all workers.
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