Fixing tech’s diversity problem means creating a culture of inclusivity

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Last month, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler described a corporate culture that, to put it mildly, was insensitive to women’s concerns. According to her, during the time that she worked at Uber, the share of women in her engineering organization fell from roughly 25 to six percent. While Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has countered this with a claim that, overall, women hold 15 percent of the technical roles at Uber and has ordered a high-powered “independent review,” this incident points to a diversity problem in the high-tech industry that goes well beyond this one company.

We’ve heard it time and time again: “We need more women in tech. We need more minority engineers, female software developers and women sitting in executive positions.” Yet we keep seeing the same statistics coming back to haunt us. According to Statistics Canada, women comprise 56.3 percent of total postsecondary enrolment, and have surpassed their male counterparts in terms of graduation rates. However, women still make up only a quarter of the tech industry workforce, and only 4.4 percent of CEO positions in business are held by women.

Specific coaching, training, and mentoring programs should be developed to help women advance in their careers.

As Prime Minister Trudeau passionately stated at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, “Diversity isn’t just a sound social policy. It’s the engine of invention that drives creativity.” The more diverse we are, the more likely we are to come up with groundbreaking and cutting-edge ideas, so why are our most innovative industries — tech and business — also the most homogenous?

Many leaders, from Justin Trudeau to former President Obama, have emphasized the importance of inclusive policies, to no avail. We can simply look at the numbers released by top tech firms to see that there is a huge lack of diversity in their workforce. Here are some alarming statistics: only 30 percent of Google’s workforce is made up of women, and 79 percent of its leadership is male. Other tech companies follow suit: Yahoo (37 percent women), Facebook (31 percent), and LinkedIn (39 percent).

It’s time to ditch the stereotypes once and for all. Women are the leading adopters of new and existing technologies and currently own the majority of the tech devices on the market. Top executives claim that the gender gap in tech is the natural result of the lack of girls studying math and science-related subjects. However, recent studies have shown that an equal number of boys and girls participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) electives, and 50 percent of introductory computer science students at Stanford and Berkeley are women. So why did the U.S. Census Bureau report in 2016 that only one woman for every two men with the same qualifications was working in a STEM field?

Once companies recognize discrimination and unfairness in work practices, they need to design policies and programs to help retain female talent.

The gender diversity problem is one linked to culture. We are attempting to solve the issue by pumping resources into educating more women and minorities, and questioning hiring practices—but these are trivial solutions in comparison to recognizing, addressing, and eliminating the hidden discrimination against women rampant in the tech industry and in the general workforce. Gender bias permeates the tech and business sectors, and forces talented female and minority employees to leave these fields altogether, or risk remaining stuck at the bottom of the career ladder.

We can pump all of our resources into hiring more women, but without addressing the inherent gender discrimination, we won’t see much of an improvement. Only by addressing unconscious bias and stereotyping can companies begin to create a culture of inclusivity that will naturally attract and retain more diversity.

Kieran Snyder, a former executive at Microsoft and Amazon and now CEO and co-founder of Textio, interviewed over 700 women who had quit tech positions at 654 companies in 43 U.S. states. Many of these women decided to leave after working in the tech sector for an average of seven years; an overwhelming 26.8 percent reported leaving because they were not comfortable at work due to blatant discrimination. Of these, several had faced discrimination related to their age, race, or sexuality, in addition to gender or motherhood-related issues. Another 11.9 percent spoke out about inflexible working arrangements and non-inclusive working environments for working moms, and low salaries that simply couldn’t cover necessary child care expenses. Overall, 64.9 percent of the women surveyed were not currently working, and 35.1 percent were employed outside of the tech sector. The overwhelming majority (87.3 percent) had no intention of returning to tech companies, while only 3.1 percent reported that they would like to return to tech-oriented positions in the future.

In another study performed by UC Hastings College of Law, 100 percent of the 60 female scientists interviewed reported gender and racial bias. Half of the scientists stated that they had been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff before, and the majority felt that they had to work twice as hard to prove they were just as competent as their male colleagues. More than half felt they couldn’t be assertive at work without being challenged by their male counterparts. In particular, 64.0 percent of the scientists who were also mothers felt affected by ‘maternal wall bias,’ characterised by strong assumptions and prescriptive stereotypes that women with children no longer have the same commitment and competence in their jobs as they did before having children, as well as hidden penalties for mothers with family commitments.

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In order to achieve gender diversity in the workplace, companies must address cultural issues. Once companies recognize discrimination and unfairness in work practices, they need to design policies and programs to help retain female talent and make the workforce fair for all employees. Objectively, companies should hire an external auditor to conduct an assessment of existing culture/hiring/pay practices, along with their current representation of women and minorities. Leadership should then sponsor and implement action plans to address any gender and racial discrimination issues. Mandatory training programs should be set up to help employees recognize unconscious bias. There should also be clear career paths within organizations to allow employees to identify their opportunities for career growth. These plans should be inclusive and flexible to support all employees, regardless of gender or race.

Specific coaching, training, and mentoring programs should be developed to help women advance in their careers, including advice on networking, negotiation, and self-promotion skills, among others. Not only will taking these steps send a clear message to male employees that sexism and gender discrimination will not be tolerated, it articulates to female staff that they are supported and empowered in the workplace.

One company, Pinterest, is currently highlighting its commitment to gender diversity. Executives publicly shared their hiring goals for women and minorities, along with details of the programs and initiatives implemented to support these goals. These programs include hiring from an increased range of different universities, mandatory training for employees to prevent unconscious bias, training and mentorship programs, and working with an external strategy firm to set up ‘Inclusion Labs’ to experiment with new diversity tactics. Hopefully, this is evidence that Pinterest is choosing to lead by example, and will put pressure on other tech companies to follow suit and seriously pursue diversity efforts.

By having to work with various age groups, cultures, and sexual orientations, one’s perceptive filters expand.

Indeed, other top Silicon Valley companies have now started following in Pinterest’s footsteps: Google, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter have all publicly declared their commitment to diversity. In addition, Facebook has introduced an internship program for underrepresented minorities while Twitter has implemented inclusion training for all employees and is looking into their hiring practices.

Both Facebook and Google will be holding workshops and seminars on unconscious bias to help employees understand the importance of their actions and how stereotypes can affect diversity. No one expects these initiatives to correct the underrepresentation of women in tech overnight, but they can empower current female staff in a supportive and inclusive environment. That, in turn, will encourage other talented women to follow.

A lot of Canadian tech companies are doing their part to bridge the gap. As Bob Vaez, CEO of EventMobi explains, “One of EventMobi’s biggest differentiators is our care and empathy for our clients. In my experience, diversity naturally breeds empathy. By having to work with various age groups, cultures, educational backgrounds, and sexual orientations, one’s perceptive filters are bound to expand which will not only benefit the workplace and interaction with customers but our communities as a whole.”

Another leading example is Ben Zifkin, CEO and founder of Hubba, and founding partner of Ladies Learning Code, a not-for-profit organization that helps women and youths to learn hands-on technical skills. He has shown that you don’t need to be a top Silicon Valley tech firm to be making a difference. Other companies need to follow suit and get behind the mission to eradicate gender and racial stereotypes and enhance workplace diversity. As former Twitter employee Mark Luckie rightly states: “Tech companies must reflect the communities they serve. If not, they risk alienating the users most responsible for their success.”

Article photo credit BonninStudio, Stocksy United

Fatima Zaidi

Fatima Zaidi

Fatima Zaidi has had over nine years of experience in Business Development, Marketing, and Strategy. Her expertise in sales effectiveness, and partnerships led her to the role as VP of Business Development for Eighty-Eight, a Toronto-based creative communications agency. Prior to Eighty-Eight, she was Head of Business Development at Rent frock Repeat and was responsible for the overall management of all strategic business development, marketing, and customer relationship activities nationwide. Fatima is a commentator for Global News, a content writer for Huffington Post, and was named one of marketing magazines top 30 under 30 marketers and brand developers for 2016.

  • needtofix

    This is a good start. I would love to see insights on how we can tackle the industries’ rampant ageism problem as well.