As tactile social beings, we know instinctively there is safety in numbers. By adulthood, this concept has been reinforced by parenting and life experience. Finding our tribe, our herd, our pack becomes an imperative. We seek like-minded humans to share a home, to share hobbies, to share professional aspirations. Women in our tech companies, however, look around the room at their work tribe and discover themselves a stranger in a strange land.
If you are a man working in tech, try to imagine what it’s like for the women in our midst who have had to put up with this kind of experience every single day for decades. With a little empathy, it’s easy to see why women exit tech almost as fast as new women arrive.
What’s especially frustrating is that we have been talking about gender bias in tech for decades. While some companies have made progress hiring and retaining women and some schools have made progress attracting young women into tech, the overall rates are still abysmal. In the past 10 years, software developers moved from 10 percent to 15 percent women, and engineers overall regressed from 20 percent to 5 percent of the workforce. Less than 5 percent of tech startups are run by women, compared to 39 percent of all other companies in the U.S.
To gather ideas for what might improve this situation, we conducted a series of interviews with women from various parts of the tech industry. Their candor and passion for this issue was evident in every discussion. All were willing to share deeply personal stories, but many were still unwilling to be publicly identified – yet more evidence that this topic isn’t being addressed effectively.
Netting out lessons from these stories, we come to some clear conclusions about what must be done to change the gender dynamic in our industry.
- Men must hold men accountable. Every man, not just the boss, has the right and obligation to criticize coworkers and demand an end to condescending words, sexually suggestive phrases and gender-based assumptions about skills, experience or expertise. Women will stay if they feel like they belong.
- Men in leadership roles must actively sponsor women on their teams. Whom you hire and promote says more about your company culture than all the values statements, training and speeches combined. Don’t talk. Act.
- Women in leadership roles must teach junior men – by words and by example – to effectively work with women peers and subordinates. Unless a young man is lucky to have been mentored by a powerful mom, sister or boss, he has few role models on which to rely. Teach the next generation how it’s done right.
While these efforts are focused on the acute need in the workplace, there is another investment required to address the chronic need in education. Companies must connect to the classroom, to provide children – particularly girls and racial minorities that are often left out – with project-based education tailored to their interests.
Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director of the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) Academy explains, “There are a lot of things that need to change within the system, particularly equipping kids with the skills and confidence they need to become entrepreneurs and leaders. They should come out of school with a notion of what they want to see in the world and how to make that happen.” Young girls are far more likely to attain those career insights with direct exposure to a professional work environment.
These four elements are not sufficient, but they are necessary as a start. We must start now if we are to make progress over the next decade. The insights, skills and expertise that women bring to the technology work tribe are essential to our ability to continue to grow in a brutally challenging, global marketplace. Enough talk. It’s time for action.
Degraded by gender
An HR executive at a rapidly growing tech firm in Seattle faced numerous experiences in her career where her physical appearance led to unwanted propositions. At a previous company, for example, she was fired by the CEO after speaking out against sexual advances he was making toward her. She insists that despite the frequency and even his last extreme example, she has, in general, not felt victimized and that most men back off from advances when asked. “Some of gender bias is just us being human beings, and while it can be frustrating, I am able to let most of it go and just focus on my work,” she said.
The founder and CEO of another fast-growing Seattle tech startup has experienced gender bias in her pursuit for venture funding. While raising a round of capital with her male co-founder, she found out through a friend with an inside scoop on one VC meeting that the partners thought her male co-founder should be the CEO, despite her significantly deeper domain and business experience.
Before founding her current venture, Mikaela Kiner, founder and CEO of uniquelyHR, worked in HR roles for some of our region’s biggest technology companies, as well as a handful of smaller companies. Even while serving on the executive team, she would be left out of key meetings or events that were centered around men. “Ultimately, this exclusion is what led me to go out on my own. A lot of women are starting to do this, so they can create the kind of environment they want to work in and that allows them to be effective at their jobs.”
‘Prove-it-again’ and ‘maternal wall’ bias
Amy Nelson, co-founder and CEO of The Riveter, has experienced the “maternal wall” bias more than once. For her, this arose in her former life as a litigator for a major law firm and during the first round of fundraising for The Riveter. “Building a venture scale company is almost impossible. It is even harder for women, who receive about one percent of VC money in Washington state.” Amy founded The Riveter while pregnant with her third child and was pitching investors with a newborn at home. During pitch meetings, she faced a lot of questions about motherhood that had no relevance to her ability to run a company. “We know diversity in leadership leads to more success. Investors and executives cannot count women out just because they are mothers.”
Cynthia Tee, who was most recently VP of product development at Playfab through the company’s acquisition by Microsoft, has experienced a range of biases that started during her school years and continued throughout her career. She turned down a position at Microsoft during the Playfab acquisition and is currently searching for her next role. “There have been times in the past that recruiters or hiring managers will conclude that I’m not a fit for a senior leadership role without bothering to find out more about my experience. Some companies have not yet digested what it means to hire inclusively and can be quick to discount a woman’s or person of color’s leadership and technical capabilities before they have even given them a chance.”
A woman CEO shared her encounter with the “prove-it-again” bias with her all-male board of directors. “Women have a different way of communicating, and that is not always appreciated in a boardroom full of men. In one situation, I recently hired a man and woman, who were new executives presenting at their first board meeting. During the executive session, one of my board members asked how we could get the woman to perform more like the man. Both were brand new, and so too early to see performance, and it was eye-opening to see how communication style led to biases about performance. And as an aside, the woman is performing very well in the company and the man did not, but his communication style was clearly more preferred.”
What works? What can get better?
“The technology industry is interesting,” said Cynthia Mason, VP of People Operations at Seattle-based Glowforge. “Being a woman in technology tends to be easier among the startup community versus within the large corporations. I’ve worked with a lot of great pro-women CEOs that do care about closing the gap, including our CEO here at Glowforge (Dan Shapiro). More than 50 percent of our company overall is represented by women and more than 40 percent of our technology roles are filled by women.”
A woman CEO of a successful tech company said, “Most men are not doing anything to close the gender gap and are not advocating for women. Men need to be taking an active role to mentor women and to help them be successful. I also think companies need to be more purposeful about recruiting women, and leaders should be making a pledge to change the status quo and fix the issues that are causing women to leave the industry.”
“This goes beyond policy. Companies must be intentional about lifting up marginalized people, changing behaviors and recruiting diverse leaders. When white leaders do the work to learn more about others and educate themselves, they understand important social justice terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression,’ how to be allies, and how these apply to today’s workplaces. That is a sign they are above average in this issue. I’m impressed when leaders can talk about these things even if it makes them uncomfortable,” Tee said.
“We all have biases. Men in leadership positions need to talk to the women that work for them and ask what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong,” Nelson said. “Investors should make a conscious effort to get in front of more women founders and recognize that this is not a pipeline problem. The more we surround ourselves with people from all walks of life, the more we can reshape the biases.”
Gena Cook, founder and CEO of Navigating Cancer says, “I have spent my career in healthcare, and I rarely felt that gender was an issue as I moved up the ranks. As I entered tech, it’s really the first time in my career where I’ve felt different from my male peers. Maybe it’s because I’m now the CEO and I don’t have as many peers to relate to. I’m aware of the data and that there are unintentional biases to overcome, but I’m motivated to keep moving forward, making progress and overcoming challenges for my daughter and for the generation of women behind me. Technology offers so many ways to transform how we do things in every industry, and many opportunities for women to pursue what they love.”
“I like the idea that the future is not female, the future is feminine,” Kristen Hamilton CEO of Koru said. “I originally heard the concept from another woman, Genessa Krasnow, and agree with it. We need men to be part of the future and part of the change. We have an exciting future if men can embrace their feminine side, and women shouldn’t be afraid to be assertive and authentic.”