Women in Tech
In an industry that celebrates rapid change, gender barriers are slow to crumble.
In the middle of Pivotal Software’s San Francisco office, engineering manager Rachel Heaton ’07 is taking a break with some coworkers. She’s poised at a ping pong table, paddle in hand, facing down her opponents with laughter, when something strikes her: For the first time in her career, everyone surrounding her is female.
When Heaton joined the tech industry in 2008, this scene was unimaginable. Like most tech companies, her first employer occasionally hired women—but rarely for technical positions, and never to collaborate on the same projects. Fast-forward 10 years, and signs of progress have emerged.
But that progress has crept at a snail’s pace. According to the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT), although women make up 57 percent of today’s U.S. workforce, they hold just 26 percent of computing-related occupations and are more than twice as likely as men to abandon their tech careers. A lack of mentors and female role models, unequal pay and growth opportunities, and pervasive gender bias continue to encumber women in a field long regarded as a boys’ club. The enduring male domination reveals that although the tech industry prides itself on leading the way, it lags behind when it comes to gender equality—a reputation bolstered by the many discrimination lawsuits filed by former employees against industry giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. (The suits are in various states of progress, with the case against Google recently receiving approval from a California Superior Court judge to move forward as a class action.)
Even companies that have succeeded in recruiting and retaining more female staff often continue to ooze “bro culture,” and Heaton emphasizes that diversity and equality are not the same thing.
"A company can say, ‘All right, great. We got our gender ratio up ... let’s pat ourselves on the back,’” she notes. “But are these women really feeling good?”
UNEQUAL PAY, UNEQUAL POWER
Gender pay gaps exist in many industries, and tech is one of them. A 2018 study by tech recruiting agency Hired found that men’s salaries exceeded women’s for the same roles at the same companies 63 percent of the time; in some cases, women were paid as much as 45 percent less than their male peers.
Jane Silber ’85, a software startup advisor and executive chair for artificial intelligence company Diffblue, urges women to be assertive when negotiating compensation, because men’s tendency to ask for higher pay exacerbates existing wage inequality.
"The gender gap in salaries is something that can easily slip in an insidious way, which is why I think companies need to be tracking it and looking at salary data across genders,” says Silber, who left her position as CEO of Canonical, maker of the Ubuntu open-source operating system, in 2017. She previously held engineering and leadership positions with Interactive Television Co. and General Dynamics C4 Systems.
A snapshot of tech’s upper echelons captures how hard it is for women in the industry to get promoted. The 2018 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey—the world’s largest IT leadership survey—showed that only 12 percent of IT leaders are women.
"When you zoom out and look at the industry, the representation goes down and down and down as you go up and up the ladder,” says Erica Greene ’10. “There’s a deep feeling that the system is rigged, that it’s unfair.” Greene worked briefly as a software engineer for e-commerce site Etsy, then held the same role with The New York Times, where she managed the engineering team responsible for its commenting platform. That led to a fellowship at technology incubator Jigsaw; today, she is a machine learning engineer at Canopy, an artificial intelligence startup in Boston.
"I’ve turned down jobs primarily because there were no senior women,” Greene says. That includes a company where she was interviewed by nine people—all men.
Before transitioning into academia in 2012, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sorelle Friedler was a software engineer at Google and worked in the Google[x] lab, where fewer than 10 percent of technical employees in her division were women—and essentially none had supervisory roles.
"It was really telling that women were not in the technical management. Almost all of the managers were men,” Friedler recalls.
The old adage about “who you know” plays a role in tech leadership’s male domination. Personal and professional networks influence career advancement in any field, and when those networks are primarily male, the boys’-club climate within the C-suite becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
"Whenever I walk through the cafeteria at a big tech company, I always count the tables that have more than one woman sitting at them, because that’s a sign of female camaraderie. So many times, there’s zero, or almost none— which means that all of these women are probably working with all men,” Greene says.
Women at tech companies are few and far between, but NCWIT reports that women of color are fewer and farther, with black women holding 3 percent and Latinx women holding 1 percent of positions in the industry. “It’s a problem to discuss the perspectives of women in tech without also discussing intersectionality,” says Friedler, referring to the idea that people belong to a variety of different groups that influence their experiences—and that evaluating issues in terms of a single aspect, like gender, without taking other identities into consideration discounts individuals’ complexities.
"When you think about women in tech, these women can be white, black, Asian, gay ...” says Friedler, who believes putting all women into a single box eclipses these important differences.
Tionney Nix ’17, a software engineer with Google New York, says only a fraction of the women employed at Google (where just 31 percent of employees are female) are in technical positions, and the percentage of black women in those roles is almost nonexistent. “It doesn’t feel as isolating to be a woman in tech as it does to be a black woman in tech,” she says. “It can be tough to feel a solidarity with others when I am the only woman of color in the room.”
Google and many other large companies have publicly promised to focus on diversity and inclusion, and Nix thinks that at Google, at least, “there is not only a promise or intention to build a more inclusive and representative workforce, but an actual effort.” Still, Nix believes that simply increasing recruiting efforts will not be enough. “Tech companies are going to have to start investing in solving the systemic issues stemming from racism and misogyny that have historically prohibited, and still prohibit, women, people of color, and especially women of color from entering tech.
"I totally get why the culture around tech puts out this idea that they’re color-blind and gender-blind and that they want to see me as an engineer and not a female engineer or a black engineer, but I think that can be harmful. When people stop thinking about me being a black female engineer, they stop thinking of the systemic challenges that make my experience different—such as feeling alone, or a sense of not belonging— and then they stop working toward remedying those.”
For example, Nix notes, women in general are often criticized for being too assertive, and they are judged even more negatively for being outspoken if they’re black.
"This kind of implicit internal bias happens in a lot of white-male-dominated fields, and it can affect how your managers think of you. These are issues that we need to remedy,” she says.
DON’T BE SO SENSITIVE
Since dozens of women stepped forward in 2017 to accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault, the #MeToo movement has remained a prominent national conversation. Imbalances in pay and power inspire other forms of discrimination, a problem that permeates the tech industry. In 2015, female tech investors and executives conducted a survey of 200 executive-level women in California’s Silicon Valley, the industry’s global hub. Eighty-four percent of participants recalled receiving criticism for being “too aggressive” at work, 66 percent said that they had been excluded from important events and conversations because of their gender, and 60 percent had experienced unwanted sexual advances from colleagues.
Silber says she has never experienced direct harassment or assault but has seen and heard things that made her uncomfortable.
"I’m old enough to have been at trade shows with ‘booth babes’ in scanty clothing who were nominally selling software in an obvious appeal to that sort of culture,” she says.
Women in tech frequently report being called “overly sensitive” if they raise their voices or show any emotion in the office; being interrupted or talked over in meetings; being expected to plan departmental parties; receiving compliments on their organizational or note-taking skills rather than on their technical accomplishments; and finding that their ideas or opinions fall flat while their male counterparts receive praise when offering similar or identical thoughts.
Skyler Ellenburg ’18 is the only female programmer in her department at Jabil, a Florida-based manufacturing services company, and says she feels underestimated at work.
"People will over-explain things, thinking I don’t understand,” she says. “I don’t want to pinpoint it as being a woman, but it definitely could be part of it, as men may not expect a woman in the field to understand tech as much.”
While at The New York Times, Greene and some of her female colleagues created a form through which women could report their experiences with “microaggressions”—everyday verbal and nonverbal slights (whether intentional or not) that communicate hostile or derogatory messages. They received hundreds of responses, which shocked men in leadership at the company.
"So many male managers came up to me—men who are advocates or allies [of female employees]—and said they had no idea what people were experiencing,” Greene says.
A PIPELINE PROBLEM?
Tech executives often point their fingers at a “broken pipeline” to explain gender disparity within their offices, claiming the talent pool—even at the entry level—is mostly male. Felicia Jadczak ’04, cofounder, co-CEO, and diversity and inclusion leader for She + Geeks Out, a Boston-based company that helps firms create a more inclusive work culture, thinks that’s a bogus excuse.
"It’s not a pipeline problem. There are many, many, many women out there,” Jadczak says. Although she’s right that female job candidates exist, NCWIT reports that only 19 percent of today’s computer and information sciences bachelor’s degree recipients are women, down from a peak of 37 percent in 1985.
Industry leaders tend to look to graduates from large technical universities like MIT for entry-level hires, but smaller and less conventional institutions—such as the all-female Hackbright Academy, founded in 2012 exclusively to arm women with coding and other technical skills—are building programs to prepare women to vie for jobs in tech.
At Haverford, the classes of 2018-2020 each have between 20 and 40 computer science majors—but no class has more than 10 who are women.
"Historically, this is a lot better than we’ve done. In the early 2000s the department was graduating one to four majors a year, and none were women,” Friedler says. “Now we’re above the national average, but I would still like to see us do better.”
Haverford shares its Computer Science Department with Bryn Mawr College; students take classes on both campuses with faculty from both schools, meaning as many as three-quarters of students in any given computer science course are women. Having so many female classmates was “comforting, cool, and empowering,” Ellenburg says.
Recognizing that women interested in tech sought extracurricular ways to build skills as well as solidarity, last spring the College’s student-run Women in STEM (WIS) club coordinated its first-ever Tri-Co Coding Symposium, giving students an opportunity to learn more about the field as well as a platform for networking. Greene—who has supported and mentored many women in the industry, including several Haverford graduates—served as the event’s keynote speaker.
Despite the dip in the number of female computer science students in the United States, Friedler believes that the bigger glitch is on the industry side.
"For a long time, we thought colleges weren’t doing a good job preparing women for roles in the tech industry, but that is not the case. About half of women who enter tech roles leave within five to 10 years,” she points out. “No matter how much you recruit women, if those who enter the industry don’t feel comfortable there, that’s a problem.”
She + Geeks Out’s Jadczak is optimistic that a fundamental shift in that so-called “pipeline problem” is coming. “On the whole, as an industry, we’re being asked to change, and the beauty of it is that this tech industry is built on supporting and generating change,” she says.
Amanda Lannert ’94, CEO of Jellyvision, an employee benefits-focused software company that is one of the fastest-growing tech firms in Chicago, says one change she has observed involves diversity at the board level. “There’s an awareness the board shouldn’t be all white men, which is hugely exciting, because board seats are an incredible chance to learn and to gain valuable perspective, and to get quick outside experience for people who run companies,” says Lannert, who views low female representation in tech less as a pipeline problem and more as a “visibility at the leadership level” problem.
"I tend to think of it [attracting women to tech] as a promotion challenge. Jellyvision isn’t just 50 percent female, it’s 50 percent female-led. The C-suite here is 50 percent female and this isn’t the result of any specific diversity strategy or initiative, but rather that talented women saw me in the top job and knew they could rise here. For everyone, it helps to see yourself in those who have the top roles at the companies you work for. It motivates people to lean in and build their careers.”
As tech companies look to “get with the times” and increase diversity, women already working in the industry are encouraging newcomers to make the most of their skills, negotiate shrewdly for their salaries, and maintain high standards for employers so they get the most out of every job. Being an underrepresented class in a tight labor market can reap rewards, Greene notes.
"If you go into tech, you’re going to be in demand, particularly if you’re a woman,” she says. “Places have figured out they need to hire women.”
Now is also an especially good time for female tech entrepreneurs, according to Lannert, who is a “super mentor” for Chicago business incubators Impact Engine and Tech Stars, and an investor through Hyde Park Angels.
"If you’ve got a great idea, there are a lot of venture capitalists totally aware that their portfolio is not as balanced as they would like,” she says. “It doesn’t mean it’s easy to raise money. It’s not easy for anyone to raise money. But it may be a great time for women in tech to pitch or start businesses.”
In Chicago, where Jellyvision is headquartered, only three female CEOs have raised more than 20 million dollars from investors. Lannert is one of them.
"It’s not like I’m in a giant club—I would very much like the club to be bigger. But I think there is such a liquid market right now, and such awareness and interest in diversifying portfolios, that it is a great time to be a woman with a good idea."