The Tech Industry’s Gender Problem Isn’t Just Hurting Women
“Women in leadership positions serve as a significant deterrent against a permissive culture towards sexual harassment."
Outnumbered and Outranked
While Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, and other CEOs can confirm that it’s lonely at the top, for women in business — particularly in the tech industry — the climate anywhere along the corporate ladder can be downright hostile.
Not only are women often outnumbered by men in the workplace, they are also treated differently than their male colleagues on both a professional and personal level, and it’s causing problems throughout all segments of society.
“We have made no progress! We have made absolutely no progress.”
In “The Secret Life of CEOs,” Freakonomics Radio’s new six-week podcast series exploring CEOs and leadership, host Stephen J. Dubner interviewed a number of high-profile CEOs, including Carol Bartz (Yahoo!) and Ellen Pao (Reddit), and their responses reveal a lot about what life is like for women at all levels of the notoriously male-centric tech industry.
During her interview with Dubner, Bartz voiced her disappointment at the current state of affairs for women at the U.S.’s biggest corporations.
“Have you noticed that there’s less females in the Fortune 500 now than there were?” she asked. “I mean, we have made no progress! We have made absolutely no progress.”
While Bartz didn’t clarify whether she meant females simply working at Fortune 500 companies or at the helm of them, women have made some progress in the latter category. However, they still lag far behind their male counterparts in terms of representation.
In 2017, 32 of the companies on the annual Fortune 500 list had female CEOs. In 2016, that figure was 21 (down from 24 the year prior), so last year was a step forward. However, 32 still accounts for just 6.4 percent of companies, so women continue to be significantly outnumbered by men at the CEO position.
This lack of balance extends to board seats as well. According to a study by Deloitte and The Alliance for Board Diversity, the number of women holding board seats on Fortune 500 companies increased from 856 in 2010 to 1,100 in 2016. However, that new figure still only represents 20.2 percent of the total number of seats.
In the tech industry, the numbers aren’t any better as you descend the corporate ladder.
In 2016, an AnitaB.org survey of 60 of the largest companies in the U.S. found that women held roughly 21 percent of technical jobs, such as those in hardware, software, and information services. The representation dropped steadily as you ascended the corporate ladder: 26.8 percent for entry level jobs, 22.6 percent for mid level, 18.4 percent for senior level, and 14.1 percent for executive level.
Unfair and Offensive
The struggle for women doesn’t end once they break into the male-dominated worlds of business and tech, either.
Shortly after Bartz graduated with her bachelors degree in computer science in 1971, she went to work at 3M as the only woman professional in her division. According to her biography on The Balance, she told More Magazine in 2006 that she faced discrimination at that company and quit in 1976 after being told women don’t do the jobs she wanted to pursue.
In her interview with Freakonomics Radio, Bartz noted how she was disappointed that the climate for women hadn’t gotten better by the time her daughter was in the same position.
“I was so hopeful that my daughter would go to college and be with open-minded young men. They’d all work together in school, and when they got out, they’d all realize that they were equally smart, and, you know, off we’d go and things would change,” said Bartz.
“It’s exactly the opposite. They got out, the guys got these jobs, they got a little money, and they turned into old frat boys in business.”
While the issue of business being a “boys club” extends across industries, Silicon Valley appears particularly entrenched in this frat boy culture. Ellen Pao has firsthand knowledge of the damage this environment — and speaking out against it — can do to a female professional’s career and reputation.
Years prior to her eight-month-long stint as CEO of Reddit, Pao worked at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. While there, she saw female junior partners continually hit the glass ceiling, getting passed over for promotions in favor of their less-experienced male counterparts. She also found herself the target of harassment by a male colleague she briefly dated.
In 2012, after it had become clear to Pao the company wasn’t going to address her complaints of gender discrimination and harassment, she filed a $16 million lawsuit against the firm. Five months after the initial filing, Pao was fired, and in 2015, she lost the lawsuit, during which she was accused of everything from having “sharp elbows” to not being “a team player.”
A third of women in tech have feared for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances.
Unfortunately, Pao’s experience of gender discrimination and harassment in the tech industry isn’t an anomaly.
In 2015, 210 senior-level women working in the tech industry participated in The Elephant in the Valley, a survey exploring the topic of gender in Silicon Valley. Each woman had at least 10 years of work experience, some at start-ups and others at large companies, such as Apple and Google, and their responses revealed the pervasiveness of Silicon Valley’s gender problem.
Of the women surveyed, 87 percent reported demeaning comments from male colleagues, 47 percent said they’d been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues weren’t asked to do, and 66 percent said they had been excluded from important social or networking events.
A staggering 90 percent of surveyed women said they’d witnessed sexist behavior at company offsites or industry conferences. Sixty percent claimed to have been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances, and of those women, 65 percent said the advances came from a work superior. One in three said she’d feared for her personal safety because of work-related circumstances.
Hurting Us All
A number of well-meaning initiatives designed to encourage young girls to pursue careers in technology may seem like a step in the right direction. However, all the Girls Who Code and hEr VOLUTION programs in the world can’t help if women don’t stick with tech long-term.
Given all the issues they currently face in the tech industry — the glass ceiling, the exclusionary culture, the sexual harassment — it’s not surprising that 41 percent of the women who do enter the tech field decide to leave it (for comparison, only 17 percent of men make the same decision).
This exacerbates the gender imbalance in the tech industry, which is hurting everyone: women, the companies not hiring women, and even society at large.
Tech jobs tend to pay well, and while a number of industries are dying off, the tech sector is expected to add jobs in the coming years. Encouraging more women to pursue jobs in tech could help close the wage gap and address the higher rates of poverty amongst women than men. It could also ensure those important jobs aren’t left unfilled, which would stifle technological innovation.
Research has shown that companies with high gender diversity are more profitable and less volatile those with low gender diversity, and companies with at least one woman on their board of directors have also been documented outperforming those without any women by 26 percent.
“We are effectively leaving out half of our population by excluding women from the innovation economy.”
Gender diversity also leads to more innovation, which is an essential part of the technology industry. A 2014 study of research and development teams from 4,277 companies in Spain found a positive relationship between gender diversity and radical innovation.
“Gender diversity can provide different perspectives and insights. The combination of these offers a wider range of ideas and, thus, greater creativity, facilitating decision-making processes,” said lead researcher, Cristina Díaz García, in a press release.
Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering and author of Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, confirmed the importance of gender diversity for innovation.
“We are effectively leaving out half of our population by excluding women from the innovation economy,” he told Futurism. “Given where technology is headed, with technologies advancing exponentially and converging, the skills needed to solve the larger problems require a broad understanding of different fields and disciplines. Most of all, we need the empathy to design good solutions. Women excel in both of these.”
The exclusion of women during the development stages can affect the product that eventually makes its way to the public. Tech companies may not intend to design smartphones that are too large for women’s hands, health apps that ignore menstruation, and virtual assistants that can’t answer questions asked more often by women than men, but those are the products the currently male-centric tech industry is developing.
The implications of these oversights are terrifying when you consider the likelihood that we’ll soon be using technology to enhance our biology, a point addressed by Judith Spitz, a former Verizon CIO of 10 years and Founding Program Director of the WiTNY Initiative.
“We are hurtling towards a time when our biology will be equal parts technology and physiology. Think about the implications for the human race if the technology that is destined to be the essence of who we are as a species is developed largely under the leadership and guidance of a single gender,” said Spitz during talk at the 2016 Propelify Innovation Festival.
Change Comes From the Top
At first glance, the problems of women in the tech industry may seem worse now than when Pao lost her lawsuit. However, the post-Pao years have actually been an empowering time for women in tech.
Soon after the trial, Silicon Valley attorneys told Fortune they noticed an increase in the number of women coming forward with complaints of gender discrimination. Women’s willingness to speak out about behavior that they may have previously ignored or just “dealt with” has become known as the “Pao effect,” and it seems to be getting stronger as time goes on.
In 2017 alone, Google, Uber, Twitter, and a number of other major tech companies were all involved in highly publicized scandals involving discrimination or sexual harassment. Add in 2017’s #MeToo movement, and the spotlight on Silicon Valley’s frat boy culture has never been brighter than it is right now.
“The problems with sexual harassment are too real. So far, the tech industry has been a boys club modeled after Wall Street. Now, with all of the negative press, we have seen what lies beneath, and we cannot continue to tolerate this,” said Vivek Wadhwa.
“It’s up to the CEO to say, ‘No, we need to get rid of this person.'”
Women are starting to speak out about harassment and gender discrimination, and the media is reporting on it, but that’s not enough. Sixty percent of the Elephant in the Valley survey respondents who spoke out about sexual harassment in their workplaces said they were not satisfied by the resolution to their reports. When Ellen Pao approached her superiors with her claims of harassment, they suggested she transfer to the China office.
The tech industry’s gender problem is hurting us all, but the industry itself needs to be the one to fix it. As Pao told Dubner during her Freakonomics Radio interview, it’s up to the people at the top of the corporate ladder — be they men or women — to protect all levels of employees from harassment from coworkers, even if doing so causes a setback for the company.
“It’s up to the CEO to say, ‘No, we need to get rid of this person. We’re going to move the ship date out. We’re going to disappoint some customers. But it is important enough to the company, and to me, that I need to make this call’,” she told Dubner.
Of course, having more women in those position of power will also help, according to Shivaram Rajgopal, the vice dean of research at Columbia Business School.
“Women in leadership positions serve as a significant deterrent against a permissive culture towards sexual harassment,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “You rarely hear of such issues at Yahoo! where Marissa Mayer was the CEO… [Facebook’s Mark] Zuckerberg has [chief operating officer] Sheryl Sandberg to temper the frat-boy culture.”
There’s a reason “The Secret Life of CEOs” is a six-episode series — the role these men and women fill in the business ecosystem in both complex and extremely important. With the tech industry in the midst of a cultural crisis, it’s up to its leaders to make it clear they will no longer stand for the status quo when it comes to the treatment of women.
By setting an example for those climbing the corporate ladder behind them, they can ensure that the tech industry of tomorrow is one that treats everyone with the same level of respect.