Generational blindness: Is sexism in tech forever?

Photo via Shutterstock

Photo via Shutterstock

There are many things that seem stubbornly cyclical in their refusal to be resolved in the tech industry.

Password management. Bubble valuations. Sexism.

I’ve addressed the first two elsewhere. I’ve been hesitant to tackle the third, because it’s the most sensitive and frequently a matter of perception. Yet when it comes to tasteless, clueless, and ethically challenged activity, perception is often reality.

Sexism in the tech industry was a big issue a generation ago, in the mid-1990s.

In the build up to the dot-com bust, startups were forming hourly, sometimes with refugees from stuffy corporate legacy players and graduates of engineering colleges. Tech, especially in engineering, was more male dominated (when I went to science-and-engineering-focused Harvey Mudd College in the 1970s, out of 400 undergraduates, three were women). So not only were there fewer role models for qualified women, there was a perception that tech wasn’t for women, one reinforced by both subtle and overt discrimination.

Talented, driven and effective executives like Kim Polese (Marimba) and Carol Bartz (AutoDesk) were the very rarest of exceptions two decades ago. And the more technical tech jobs got, the less likely you were to find a high percentage of women in them.

But the dot-com boom forced the sexism issue. There was very public debate. Based on the relative quiet that followed, it seemed the issue of whether women belonged in the tech industry was settled, a non-issue, a quaint artifact of the pre-web era.

Brogrammer Rising

The now-former CTO

The now-former CTO of Business Insider.

That is, until the very public ascent of the “brogrammer.”

I started to see the term in early 2012, as the Great Recession ebbed and entrepreneurs wanted to create the next Facebook or Twitter.

And when I saw it, it usually wasn’t in a family-friendly context. “In tech, some bemoan the rise of ‘brogrammer’ culture,” CNN headlined. “’Gangbang Interviews’ and ‘Bikini Shots’: Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem,” Mother Jones diagnosed. Even normally staid NPR got into the act in late 2013 with, “Sexism in the Tech Industry Takes Center Stage.”

leanin-bokExamples, if anecdotal, were horrific and prominent. TechCrunch Disrupt’s hackathon produced an app, highlighted onstage, called Titstare. Business Insider’s CTO was reportedly forced out after a series of what were widely seen as blatantly sexist tweets. Dropbox (by comparison, mild) had conference rooms named “The Break-Up Room” and the “Bromance Chamber.”

I feared for my Y chromosome.

At the same time, I was seeing more women who were founding, or executives at, tech startups (such as those at last year’s startup-focused SXSW V2V conference), and some all-female teams at Startup Weekends I attended. Women were now execs at Yahoo!, Facebook (Sheryl Sandberg famously authored Lean In) and Google, and held influential roles at top venture capital and investment firms.

Voices of Experience

To help sort out this apparently contradictory data, I checked in with a dozen women who each had at least 20 years’ tech industry experience, from CEO to software engineer. Not surprisingly, finding veteran female software engineers was the most difficult.

The responses, themselves, were similarly not clear cut. In many cases, the colleagues – due to skill set or the type of role they had – didn’t necessarily feel they individually had been held back by sexism (even as they worked hard to get where they are). But they’d seen a lot of it and how it affected others.

AnnMaria DeMars, president of 7 Generation Games (who has blogged about her experiences) described an oddly persistent believability factor: “When I do talk to people they always are surprised that I actually do half of the coding for our games and ALL of the coding for the data analysis done by our companies.”

Pay disparity in 2014's Silicon Valley Index

Pay disparity in 2014′s Silicon Valley Index

One 27-year veteran of the tech industry, now a director of product marketing for a financial technology firm (who, like several of those I interviewed, didn’t want her name used), noted: “Women are still under-represented in the early stages/startup of companies.” DeMars summarized: “In brief, sexism has become less blatant, less overtly accepted and thus harder to combat.”

There are signs of progress. That same director of product marketing said though there doesn’t seem to be much equality in the executive suites of many tech organizations: “Workers in the industry as a whole seems to be more evenly split between genders.”

DeMars observed, “Certainly in the area of statistical programming there are more women. There are women on Twitter and blogging about computer science, Ruby, Joomla, Linux etc. There are more women in management at both tech and non-tech companies.”

Kate Matsudaira. (Photo: Annie Laurie Malarkey)

Kate Matsudaira. (Photo: Annie Laurie Malarkey)

Kate Matsudaira, founder of Popforms, former vice president of engineering at Decide and Moz, and once an engineer at Amazon.com and Microsoft, said in her own experience, “people are making a real effort to pay attention to the gender and not contribute to the problem.” She began work as a programmer in 1998 and had been programming for several years beforehand. “When I first joined a team, I was in a team of 400, and there were just two women. You don’t hear as much about those kind of stories anymore. The quantity has improved.”

Perrin Kaplan, former vice president, marketing and communications for Nintendo and now co-founder and principal of Zebra Partners, also sees slow improvement.

“There is a movement in the multi-billion dollar video game industry to encourage more female game designers and leaders to enter the industry,” she noted. “There still are fewer women in tops posts and that’s not right. A brain is a brain, and a good one has nothing to do with gender. That’s just the packaging.”

Exact stats are hard to come by. The closest on the gender imbalance, specifically among software engineers, is from Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou whose data gathering efforts estimated 12% of software engineers at the firms for which she received numbers were women. But it’s possible that may actually be an improvement for programmers.

Even the widely reported pay disparity between men and women in tech may be closing. The 2014 Silicon Valley Index reported that men in Silicon Valley with a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree earned 40-73% more than women with the same educational qualifications – an improvement from 2010, when the top end of that range was 97%. That side of the ship is no longer at the surface of the water, but continues to list badly.

Generational Blindness vs. Geologic Time

Still: Some of us in tech thought the issue of sexism was well on its way to being addressed two decades ago. Why wasn’t it? What went wrong?

Pam Miller

Pam Miller

The simple answer: We’re human. And humans can take a maddeningly long time to change thoroughly and completely. This is less Groundhog Day than long game, less cyclical than glacial. The brogrammer phenomenon may simply be a very public display of how much further there is to go.

“Change comes slowly, especially when it comes to human behavior,” said Pam Miller, principal of NuMoon Communications, who has had a tech industry career including management positions at Aldus. She not only put responsibility for change at the level of the individual employee, but “the industry needs to foster cultural changes that help create better mentoring programs, better childcare options, and stronger paternity/maternity leave programs, and better flexibility in schedules.”

The product marketing director also wanted to see a shift in emphasis: “If there is anything wrong, it is in recruitment at schools for more women engineers and then training for entrepreneurship for those women.”

So a generation is enough for progress, but not permanence. And perhaps the brogrammer flare up, for all its odiousness, should be taken as a reminder of that.

Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech (see the column archive). He sincerely appreciates the input of everyone he asked, including those who didn’t want to go on the record, and shared far more of their experiences than he expected.

  • eliseworthy

    Innovative recruitment and training is key toward making headway on shifting the gender balance – and shifting norms – in software engineering. In Seattle, Ada Developers Academy (http://adadevelopersacademy.org) is one of these solutions: intensive retraining for women making a career change into software engineering, supported by software companies dedicated to addressing diversity like Zillow, Expedia, and Marchex.

    • Pam Miller

      Agree with you, Elise. I know that Portland Code Academy is doing outreach to women.

  • Angela

    Sorry to be harsh, but this is terrible. The reason is not that people are slow to change. That’s a lazy and harmful excuse intended only to make white males feel comfortable with the status quo.

    This article does, however, demonstrate the real reason there has been so little change: complacency. Like Frank, many other white males in positions of power expected change to happen but did nothing to effect that change.

    Who is going to “address” these issues, if not the white males who are in power?

    Ugh.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      When I’ve been in a position to hire, recommend, or help advance the career of a qualified and capable women in tech, I’ve done so. While that’s not “nothing,” it’s also clearly not enough because the problem, as I point out, still strongly persists. And continued awareness is part of the solution. No one should use this column, or the difficulty to effect change, as an excuse. “White male?” Guilty. “Position of power?” Clearly not enough.

    • claire

      Not only white males–I have seen it across the board. It also seems that American females experience it more so than female foreigners–I am talking of anyone raised here who speaks unaccented English regardless of ethnic group.

  • anon

    Rob, thanks for this article — surprised it didn’t get more traction. These conversations need to continue.

    I work for a prominent tech startup at which I am greatly outnumbered by men as one of few females (roughly 6:1 m:f). I have now worked in the broader tech sector for several years and I am consistently astonished by the hypocrisies of companies intent on fostering progressive business ideas and marketplace innovation, yet somehow completely blind internally to their backward, markedly unprogressive culture. The startup identity/mentality tends to stick with founding members who liked the idea of their boys club and by default, their backward policies live on. So than you have small sexist entities Google growing into big sexist entities and voila, the gender ratio problems continue.