This evening I’m giving a talk to my daughter’s Girl Scouts troop about careers in technology. I’m going to tell them that women have done amazing things in tech. I’m going to tell them that they too can do anything they set their minds to in this arena. But I will be lying to them.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
“You can do whatever you set your mind to” is a half-truth, because there are real obstacles — if not barriers — that keep women and minorities from truly thriving in this field. The tech industry has a diversity problem, and it’s a problem not just for these young girls, but for all of us.
Yes, We Have a Problem
As of now these fourth graders don’t see any reason they can’t be a chef, an astronaut, a doctor, a pro athlete, or any job they can dream up. But somewhere around this age, girls start to lose interest in STEM (science, technology, maths, and engineering), and they continue to lose interest in these subjects at every stage of their education. Even when they persist and declare computer science or another STEM field as their major in college, 32% of them end up switching majors to something else, compared to 26% of men who switched to a non-STEM field. Once out of college and into the tech workforce, women leave the industry in droves: 56% of technical women leave tech companies within 10 years — more than double the quit rate for men (and no, it’s not because they’re all going off to have babies).
To be clear, we have a diversity problem in the workplace in general — not just in tech, and not just with women. This is a problem anywhere people are discriminated against (overtly or subtly) because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other reason to be seen as “other.” Diversity problems exist in just about every company and industry (including the media). I’m shining a spotlight on women in tech specifically because it’s such a huge, glaring example, and one that’s very relevant to us here at Lifehacker. I’ve witnessed this myself and also talked to women currently overcoming these barriers.
Despite the numbers, however, many people continue to think this is a non-issue. People continue to engage in hot debates on whether sexism and racism even exist. Even crazier: people who advocate for underrepresented minorities end up getting harassed and called biased. But here, in a nutshell, is why gender inequality in tech is a problem — for all of us:
- The tech industry is growing exponentially, faster than we can fill jobs for (“Software is eating the world“). This includes the cybersecurity field, in which more than 209,000 jobs were unfilled last year, which is pretty scary considering how powerful hackers are becoming. Know where we can find more talent? Yeah, women. Only 10 per cent of those currently working in information security are women. The industry is not very welcoming to women (as I’ll show in a bit), who make up roughly half of the population that could fill those slots and contribute their minds and voices.
- All of us depend on technology every day (and women happen to be leading tech adoption, by the way). Because it’s such an important field that affects all of us, we should have people working in it representing all of us — more people to notice and prevent epic, alienating fails like this Barbie ‘I Can Be a Computer Engineer’ book, this disappointing “scientific” illustration, and that time Apple’s health app forgot about menstruation. Greater diversity means greater innovation: Having more women at the table boosts teams’ intelligence. It’s good for the bottom line, too: A study by McKinsey & Company shows that companies with more gender balance do at least 15% better financially than their peers, and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform others.
- Tech is where the money is: Tech jobs consistently top the lists of the fastest growing, highest paying, and most in-demand jobs available today. It’s an opportunity that girls — every person, really — should have equal access to, even if they decide not to pursue it as a career. Yet despite more awareness of gender imbalance and tech companies’ promises to work on it, it’s not an equal opportunity. At major tech companies, women make up about 30% of the employees, but if you look closer, the numbers are more disturbing: women make up only about 16% of the technical roles (the people who make the stuff) and only 23% of the leadership roles (the people who decide what gets made and how). Only 6% of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies are women. Despite having the same high-quality education, 55% of women in business roles in tech industries start at an entry-level position, compared to 39% of men. Men in Silicon Valley make 52 to 61% more than women who have the same educational training.
So tech is one of, if not the, biggest opportunities available now. Yet half of the population is vastly underrepresented and unequally treated in this field.
Why We Don’t Have Enough Women in Tech
I’ve read many articles and comments on posts like this one that basically say there is no problem and we should just shut up and stop “forcing” young women into tech. (They tend to say it less politely.) Women aren’t interested in STEM, they say. Women just aren’t good at it. Women are biologically not designed to handle “hard” subjects like maths. Basically, they say there aren’t enough women in tech because we live in a “meritocracy,” where the most qualified person gets and keeps the job! And if there aren’t enough women in tech, it’s because women can’t cut it or just don’t care. (Who wants a high paying, in-demand job you can do from just about anywhere regardless of your college degree? Not women!)
You can guess where these arguments are coming from. White men explaining that diversity is not an issue in white, male-dominated fields is, frankly, a sign of cluelessness. It’s like that time male white Google exec Eric Schmidt continually interrupted female tech executive Megan Smith on a panel discussing diversity and gender inclusivity. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts, tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar of TechGirls Canada explains:
It’s being encouraged to do other things more than being encouraged to pursue male-dominant fields. It’s being told that you will have a much easier time being recognised in one field versus another. I think we do a disservice to correcting our blindspots by talking about “discouragement” in such blatant ways as someone saying “No, you can’t do that”. Most of these biases are subtle, insidious and therefore hide in plain sight – unchecked.
I don’t think most men working in technology are trying to drive out or turn away women from the field. I think those who say we don’t have a diversity problem just don’t see it because they have never been on the outside and wouldn’t notice how seemingly innocuous examples of sexism create an unwelcoming atmosphere. People also tend to hire candidates who look and share the same interests and experiences as them. Privilege is invisible to those who have it, and the meritocracy that tech companies claim to have is a lie.
If you want to understand something, you have to either experience it yourself or talk to and empathise with those who have.
I’m now on the periphery of the tech industry, but when I go to tech conferences as a journalist, I’m shoved aside by my male colleagues (sometimes literally! Dude, I’m standing here). I see the snide look on reps’ faces when I ask them about their devices’ features (like they’re laughing at me, “oh you know there’s such a thing as battery life? What a doll you are.” Seriously, I’ve actually been called “doll” more times than I can count.) Male colleagues have taken over stories that I’ve pitched — because they’re male? Because they think they’re more experienced? Because they see me as less competent for other reasons? It’s hard to tell. It’s another paper cut on top of the ones before it.
Sometimes the sexism isn’t that subtle, though. Back when I was an IT director, people outside of the company would sometimes express surprise or patronizing condescension when I talked about things like SSH access to servers or upgrading the firewall (“Oh, if you could understand it, anyone can,” one male contractor, whom I had hired, once said to me). And I’m not the only one. Gizmodo editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz shares her experience as well:
I’ve definitely encountered a lot of gender-based cluelessness in the world of tech, especially when I was first starting my career as a tech journalist. I had many men at tech conferences ask me who my boyfriend was, because they assumed I was just there to be with some guy. To this day, people online often assume I’m male because I write about tech and science. Even when they see my byline, with my female name, they will still call me “he” in comments. That said, I’ve also had male mentors in tech and science who encouraged me.
Lifehacker founding editor Gina Trapani has been there too:
I’ve been talked over in meetings; expected to be the one who takes notes and do other “secretarial” tasks; mistaken for the non-technical person in the room. I’ve been called “not a REAL programmer”, had male coworkers get teased for being “beat by girl” at coding tests, as if “girls” had no right to be good at programming.
And here’s just one more example, from a female engineer who wishes to stay anonymous:
There absolutely is a bias against women in engineering. I don’t encounter it every day and certainly not with every person, but it does come up. I frequently notice that when I try to speak at meetings I get cut off. When I make a claim, I am constantly being questioned and asked to justify myself, significantly more so than my male coworkers. For most of my career, I have been the only female in a ~10 person group. My boss often delegates secretary-type work to me (planning meetings, making copies, typing up notes, planning parties etc.). This could possibly be pardonable if I were the most junior member of my group, but I am not. I am not comfortable bringing this complaint to HR since, as the only female, there is no way to do it anonymously.
I have been working as an engineer for 5+ years and I have the track record to show that I am good at my job, so I don’t think this treatment is justifiable. It’s frustrating and discouraging to constantly be battling, and I often think about changing careers. I am not surprised to read about how many women leave STEM. Because of that though, I often feel that I have a duty to stay in STEM and try to improve things for the next generation of women, which is even more frustrating. My white male coworkers don’t have that burden.
In short, the women in tech problem is a cultural, systemic problem. It’s not that “maths is hard” for women. Girls lose interest in tech when they’re told (directly or indirectly) that it’s not for them. Whether that discouragement starts in grade school, college, or beyond, it’s palpable. IT Director Jennifer Trost told me:
When I took my first Computer Science class we started out the class with probably 30 students. Out of 30, only 4 were female. We had a male instructor. By the third week of class, only I remained of the females. I think the rude comments from the male students and our obviously sexist professor got to them. I continued on and when we had our first big test centered around binary code. He passed out the test, I completed it before everyone else and when I turned it in he said “What, you didn’t know the answers?” I completed the course, but promptly wrote to the Dean after the semester.
So I would say after I got into my college education, I definitely felt discouraged from continuing on in IT.
Overtly alienating things like dick jokes in the workplace don’t help, but there’s also a quiet brogrammer culture, a deep and subtle sexism problem, and inane stereotypes we just won’t let die. (Can we please stop the stupid “tech so simple even your mum or girlfriend could understand it” meme?)
It’s Not Just a Pipeline Problem, It’s a Management Problem
In the past few years there have been awesome efforts to encourage more women and minorities to pursue careers in tech, including TechWomen, Girl Develop It, Black Girls Code, and Women Techmakers. The problem isn’t just about getting more women into tech, though, it’s keeping them there and getting them into leadership positions. One woman who has worked for 30 years in predominantly male fields — the military, law enforcement, and aviation — described to me how gender inequality at the management level is a huge part of the problem:
There was a definite, pronounced bias against female air traffic controllers among both co-workers and pilots. Pilots would question a woman’s instructions and argue on the frequency if they thought they could badger the woman controller into doing it their way. I heard many instances when a male controller monitoring the frequency of a female controller would be surprised to hear how some pilots behaved. We put up with a lot of crap that the men didn’t have to.
Most of the guys I worked with were good, and accepting, and many were even supportive and encouraging… but there was a big enough percentage of sexist jerks in the mix to make the job miserable at times. What was worse was when so-called management failed to address it. There were way too many instances of managers who were not only not the solution, but were actively part of the problem.
My observation is: If upper management wants women to be there then they will see that the work environment is not hostile and stressful. They will ensure a supportive atmosphere exists. If they tolerate or encourage discrimination and set the wrong examples themselves, then the workforce will feel free to behave in inappropriate and hostile ways. It all depends on the attitude at the top. […] I’m not saying that every woman could excel in a tech field, but I think many that could do not get the support and encouragement and acceptance to do so. It’s up to the leaders out there to create an environment that supports them.
As Rachel Thomas writes on Medium, if tech culture is going to change, everyone needs to change — simply teaching more girls and women to code is not enough to solve this problem.
It’s Also Not Because Women Are Choosing Babies Over Tech Careers
All of the other arguments about why more women aren’t in powerful fields like tech or aren’t in executive positions have been debunked. Including these gems:
“Women aren’t as ambitious as men.” Consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that women are as likely as men to say they want to reach a top-management position. They’re also more likely than men to strongly agree that they want to advance to the next level in the company. 81% of the 797 women surveyed said they were willing to sacrifice part of their personal lives to reach top management and 70% have proactively asked for a promotion.
“Women put family obligations over work.” One assumption people make about the lack of women in boardrooms and executive positions is women “opt out” to care for their families. Fortune, however, interviewed 716 women who left tech and while 484 of them (68%) said motherhood was a factor in their decision, only 42 women said they wanted to be a stay-at-home mum:
Many women said that it wasn’t motherhood alone that did in their careers. Rather, it was the lack of flexible work arrangements, the unsupportive work environment, or a salary that was inadequate to pay for childcare. As Rebecca, a former motion graphics designer, put it, “Motherhood was just the amplifier. It made all the problems that I’d been putting up with forever actually intolerable.”
“Women just aren’t as interested in tech.” It’s true that computer science is the only STEM field in which the number of women getting bachelors degrees has actually gone down since 2002. But colleges and universities that have worked to make computer science more welcoming and inclusive for women have seen huge female CS enrollment rates: 40% of Harvey Mudd College’s computer science students are women, 40% of incoming computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon University are women, and at the University of California at Berkeley women actually have outnumbered men in the intro to computer science course.
In short, women aren’t avoiding or abandoning tech jobs because they’re not interested or they all become mums. They’re leaving the industry because they feel isolated and are told — loudly or quietly — that they don’t belong.
What We Can Do About It
One of the most interesting things I found when talking to women working in tech is this common thread: Most, if not all of them, say they received encouragement to pursue tech. Usually this was when they were growing up, but also during their early careers. I love this example Gina Trapani shared:
I was encouraged to go into tech by a series of people in my life. My dad bought me my first computer when I was nine. As a teenager, I asked my brother how to use his new Windows 3.1 computer, and he sat me down in his chair at his desk, launched the tutorial, and watched me complete it. At college, when I needed an on-campus job the career office sent me to the computer lab. One of the help desk staff managers was this incredibly smart and capable woman who everyone looked up to. Seeing her example and working for her and with her my first year inspired me resolve to get her job after she graduated (which I did). My first job out of college, my boss sent me the code for an internal app used there and asked me to read up about the language, learn it, and update the software to fix a bug. He didn’t ask if I could do it, he asked when it would be done.
Had she not had those positive experiences, maybe Gina would have chosen a different career path — and maybe Lifehacker, ThinkUp, Makerbase, and Todo.txt wouldn’t exist today.
For parents and educators, the lesson is clear: We need to expose kids to technology and computer science and encourage them early on, continuing to support them if they show an interest in these fields. Girls in particular seem to need more encouragement than boys, perhaps because girls tend to be more sensitive to grades, but also because we do a bad job of convincing girls of the value of STEM. Lisa Abeyeta, founder and CEO of APPCityLife, writes:
The problem isn’t that girls don’t think they can code; the problem is that they don’t want to code badly enough to get past any of their doubts or weaknesses. If you think about it, why shouldn’t girls be turned off? Think of what we see in movies, television — or in the news. The entertainment industry rarely portrays “tech” characters with anyone young girls easily identity with; far too often those characters are either bad boy bro-culture or awkward misfits — neither of which are stereotypes that inspire girls to imagine themselves enjoying a career spent coding. And if you read tech news at all, you know how often it is filled with stories of badly behaving executives, unequal pay for women, and limited opportunities for funding for women in tech. We, as a culture, really aren’t doing a very good job of selling tech to girls.
We should play to girls’ strengths and interests by encouraging them to participate in tech projects that create solutions for social issues or other problems they care about, Abeyeta says. Show them that tech is a tool and a set of skills that other girls like them are using. Show them how women working in tech are making a difference, women like engineer and founder of Adafruit Limor Fried, Microsoft researcher danah boyd, Dropbox engineer Tina Wen, Sugru inventor and CEO Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, graphic designer Susan Kare, and Yahoo VP of research Yoelle Maarek.
Some resources you can use with kids: Google’s Made with Code, Code.org (Minecraft, Star Wars, and Frozen-themed tutorials), DIY.org, Activity Hero (for finding kids science and tech classes), CS Unplugged, and our article on teaching kids to code.
For women in tech: Keep on keeping on. Former Reddit CEO and “most hated person on the internet” Ellen Pao has two pieces of advice for women in tech: “Have a thick skin; it naturally gets thicker over time” and “Don’t be silent.”
For now, what I’d tell any woman struggling in a male-dominated work culture is: do not give up. You are not alone. There are millions of women and men who are supporting you and want you to succeed. Many people will try to blame you — for some, it’s just too hard to acknowledge their own failings and the failings of our system. That’s on them, not on you.
For companies: The solution isn’t to pinkify all the devices. And diversity training helps, but isn’t enough. As Annalee says:
Just being aware of the issues isn’t enough. The only solution is to hire more women. Hire more people of colour. If that’s too hard for you, then you shouldn’t be in a position to hire people in the first place.
And promote them. And pay and treat them equally. And champion their work and sponsor them.
For everyone else: Call out companies when they promote sexist or discriminatory stereotypes. Listen to women and believe us about our experiences and the challenges we face. Consider your own hidden biases (we all have them!) and try to stand up for the people around you. If you work in tech, abide by the Hacker School Rules. You can also go to Makerbase, Gina’s current project, and add the women who inspire you to this IMDb-like site for apps. Tell them why you appreciate their work and give them the public credit they deserve. Also, let’s all agree to stop referring to women in tech as “girls.”
We’re making progress. There are more people speaking out today about discrimination than just a few years ago and more people supporting diversity in the workplace. More women were recently added to Microsoft’s board, for example, a big step forward.
However, we’re not there yet. More women have joined a bias class-action suit against Microsoft, for example. So this evening I’m going to be telling a group of 9-year olds that maths, science, and technology aren’t “boys’ subjects” and even if they struggle with it that doesn’t mean they’re bad at it. I’m going to tell them that women have played some of the most important roles in STEM and they continue to do so today. But I’m also going to tell them that some people don’t think that girls should have a seat at this table and that’s really unfair. But we can show them otherwise.