Google’s Gender Problem Is Actually a Tech Problem

Aug 08, 2017

Silicon Valley takes pride in its progressive views on climate change, same-sex marriage, transgender rights and other cultural issues. So why does it have such trouble with gender equality? Women are underrepresented in the U.S. technology industry and hold disproportionately fewer tech-related jobs throughout the developed world. Allegations of bias have pushed some companies to promise improvements, and some high-profile executives have been shown the door. Progress has been slow, however, and in some areas the situation has gotten worse:

The Situation

Women increasingly are speaking out about what they see as a hostile culture. Some complain of unconscious bias: Managers don't view them as leadership material, for example, and informal “buddy networks” that benefit male peers often exclude them. Others say discrimination is more overt and that they're subject to demeaning comments, questions about their personal lives and unwanted sexual advances. A former software engineer at online ride-hailing service Uber Technologies claimed in a 2017 blog post that her boss had propositioned her—and that higher-ups ignored her complaints. Investigations resulted in the resignation of the co-founder and chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick, and calls for numerous policy changes. Venture capitalist Ellen Pao sparked a national debate when her gender discrimination lawsuit against a former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, went to trial in 2015. (She lost.) A campaign of harassment against female video-game developers was exposed in a 2014 scandal dubbed Gamergate. Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies years ago acknowledged a gender-disparity problem and announced steps to improve family-leave, hiring, pay and training policies. Google parent Alphabet and Apple have committed to hiring more women and publishing data to track the changes. The latest results from Apple: Women held 23 percent of technical jobs by mid-2016, up from 20 percent in 2014. Google, which is fending off a U.S. Department of Labor lawsuit alleging it discriminates against women, in August 2017 fired a male engineer who criticized the company's diversity policies. He had argued in an internal memo that biological differences in part explain the shortage of women in tech.

The Background

Gender disparity in technology jobs is wide and deep. It exists at U.S., European and Asian companies; it's seen at the rank-and-file, executive and board levels; and it extends to salaries as well as slots. Female tech entrepreneurs also get far less venture capital than startups led by men. Larry Summers, as president of Harvard University, suggested in 2005 that innate differences between boys and girls might explain the lack of female scientists and mathematicians. He later apologized, but the incident exposed a grim reality: The education pipeline isn't fixing the problem. Even though high-school girls outperform boys in math and science, boys are more likely to take the standardized tests that lead to a college major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. One study showed college-age women tended to steer clear of those majors because they think they must be brilliant, not just hard working, to succeed—a consideration that doesn’t seem to deter young men. Women also leave high-tech jobs at twice the rate of men, putting a spotlight on the culture of tech workplaces.

The Argument

One theory for the gender disparity is that tech startups begin with a core of young, like-minded male employees who recruit from their social circles. They are so keenly focused on expanding the business that employment policies are an afterthought. By the time they add a human-resources department, the “bro culture” is hard to dislodge—especially if the company is successful. Some corporations and tech executives say it's time to do more than set hiring goals, citing studies showing the more diverse a company, the more innovative it is and the better its financial performance. Intel is investing $300 million in suppliers, startups and anti-harassment awareness programs in hopes that, by 2020, it will be the first tech company with women and minorities in the same proportions as the U.S. workforce. Girls Who Code, a nonprofit program, teaches middle-school and high-school girls to write computer code at free after-school and summer programs. The Girl Scouts of America is expanding the merit badges girls can earn to include such STEM-related skills as video-game development and digital art. Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer, in her 2013 book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” says there are things women can do, such as volunteer for tough projects and accept leadership roles when they’re offered. Sandberg acknowledged in 2016 that she failed to grasp some of the challenges that women, and especially single mothers, face.

The Reference Shelf

A corporate-sponsored study examines the female brain drain in science, engineering and technology. A 2017 Atlantic magazine article analyzes why Silicon Valley is hard on women. A 2016 study shows how scarce women are on high-tech companies' boards of directors. An American Association of University Women report on why women aren’t going into engineering and computing. Catalyst, a think tank that supports women in the workforce, gathers global data and studies on women in STEM fields. A Bloomberg data visualization on the gender pay gap in high tech jobs. A Credit Suisse study shows companies with women in senior positions have better returns on equity.

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