Overcoming Gender Inequality in the Tech Sector

Image credit: Girls Who Code
Image credit: Girls Who Code

We all know gender inequality in tech is a tough nut to crack. Women throughout the economy face persistent wage inequality. Seventy-six percent of STEM jobs are held by men. Among those women who do make their way into the STEM workforce, as many as 50 percent are expected to eventually leave because of unwelcoming work environments, limited promotion opportunities or a lack of sponsors.

But that doesn’t mean good people aren’t trying to solve the problem. Yesterday, in partnership with Symantec, we brought together a number of smart women and men for a roundtable discussion on gender inequality in tech. In attendance were Code 2040 and Girls Who Code, two non-profits that are trying to address one root of the problem — girls leaving STEM education as early as middle school. We also had representatives of companies including Facebook, Edelman and of course Symantec. These organizations and others are actively looking to improve their diversity record and foster a culture of diversity. Finally we had organizations that are committed to diversity from the core: the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Net Impact, Global Fund for Women, and the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

This mix of bright women and men chattered away discussing not just the problem but micro and macro solutions that could be embedded in any organization.  Here are some of our key takeaways.

The pipeline

Code2040 and Girls Who Code are both actively working to increase diversity in the workplace by encouraging young people to study STEM. But the pipeline doesn’t just provide a pack of worthy applicants for Silicon Valley’s entry level positions in software engineering. The pipeline also move individuals along the corporate ladder. If that percentage of women participants is low to start with, it’s even lower at the top ranks. Symantec has an unusually high percentage of women on its board at 30 percent. To put that in perspective, Twitter’s board was 100 percent male when the micro-blogging platform IPOed. Now, one of its eight board members is female, making the board 12.5 percent female. Not to kick Twitter while they’re down, but the board actually has has 3 times as many board members named Peter as it does women.

Our roundtable participants didn’t dwell on sad statistics, though. They were quick to provide practical solutions for moving women along the pipeline. The key, the group concluded, is a mix of mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship comes from employee resource groups, based for example on gender, race or sexuality. These groups give employees a safe space to air their feelings with their peers. According to Kunbi Adeyemo of Facebook, these are one of the most effective tools for improving retention rates among minority staff members. But a place to kvech isn’t enough. Entry and mid-level employees also need sponsorship from executives to help ensure they gain the skills required to move up in the organization. Amy Lazarus of Inclusion Ventures called the two tools “bonding capital and bridging capital.” The bonding capital gets you friends and supporters while the bridging capital gets you to the next level of the organization.

On tokenism

Check out the websites and press materials created by most companies and they appear to be much more diverse than they actually are. While these photo shots and speaking opportunities can raise an employee’s profile, they can also put a burden on them, especially if the same few people are tapped again and again. Antoine Andrews, director of global diversity and inclusion at Symantec joked, “I see the same woman representing a company again and again at different conferences. It makes me wonder, is she the only woman they have?”  Adeyemo pointed out that these opportunities can also have a negative impact on professional development. “Each of those opportunities means less time to code.”

Overcoming bias

Bias in the workplace can lead to death by a thousand cuts for women and people of color who are trying to move ahead. Everything from a lack of sponsorship to a quiet voice can hold qualified candidates back. But there are many tools available for helping companies overcome bias. Implicit bias training can give employees a shared language for talking about bias at work. Karla Monterroso of Code2040 uses math allegories to help explain how corporate resources can make it safe for minority employees to speak out against bias. This tactic can help depersonalize a potentially emotional issue while offering organizations “practical, tangible, specific goals at department level.” At Facebook, Adeyemo’s team uses real examples of bias that have been reported to HR to bring home the point that these things are happening here and now. Real stories go a long way toward making employees understand why bias training is important and how it can benefit their relationships with co-workers.

All the participants agreed that tech’s “myth of meritocracy” was important to challenge during bias training. While intelligence and skill go a long way toward being successful in STEM work, “cultural fit,” helps applicants seal the deal. “Culture fit” is a potential minefield best avoided by hiring managers — it can easily mean “has an accent I don’t understand” or “difficult to make small talk with,” signifiers of diversity that don’t have much to do with someone’s ability to do the job.

Measure what matters

These concepts are all well and good, but they can be awfully difficult to track. Our panelists had some great suggestions for improving tracking around diversity. Since the tech sector is quite handy with aggregated data, metrics can be a good method for building the case for diversity — if you use them right. Monterroso shared a tool she uses at Code 2040 — net promoter score. We’re all familiar with being asked “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend this product to your friends?” By using these questionnaires to track employee satisfaction, and then separating the respondents by gender (or race or whatever metrics you’re looking to track), trouble spots can come to light that might otherwise not be visible. This approach also protects the person giving the score because the individual does not have to speak out directly.

At the end of the day, no one can fix gender inequality, but we can all do our part — by being a little bit mindful and a little bit sensitive to the fact that those around us might have a different set of experiences.

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.