I look like an engineer

in Career

Eliminating Sexism in Tech

I look like an engineervia Kickstarter

The #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement, sparked by OneLogin’s recruiting efforts, reflects something that the tech industry often does very well by way of innovation: disruption.

A recruiting ad featuring Isis Wegner was the source of noteable backlash, and social buzz, many denied that she was a ‘real life’ engineer at OneLogin — laying the ugly reality of sexism in tech bare in the vast, open land of the Internet.

Her response was remarkably measured; instead of participating in the negativity, Isis used her experience to catapult the diversity problem into the mainstream. #ILookLikeAnEnginner is making it cool to look ‘different’, and trendy to participate. One could argue that she’s the ‘early adopter’ of diversity in tech. #ILookLikeAnEngineer and subsequent social movements will influence the attitude and behavior of the later ‘adopters’.

The need for diversity, especially gender diversity, is imminent — the growing shortage of engineers in relation to available jobs is one pressing example. Recruiting efforts will be severely limited without women. And how can we continue to build the best software for everyone from a predominantly male perspective? Kellog and Sloan school research shows cognitively diverse teams perform better on hard problems. Lack of diversity will stifle innovation and limit ideas because mixing people, ideas, backgrounds is always a good thing, and is the source of the best collaborative environments.

With some of the most brilliant minds in the country, and access to enormous funds, you would think the tech industry could have this one figured out by now. Yet the diversity divide remains gaping, with men outnumbering women 4 to 1, and little sign of improvement to speak of. The Marissa Mayers and Cheryl Sandbergs of the world are role models women can aspire to, but they are not the answer to eliminating sexism in tech. Change starts at the bottom, one team, and one company at a time.

Culture

Forget the pipeline; bringing women into engineering roles is about company culture. Your company has the power, and ultimately the responsibility, to create a culture that promotes gender equality and absolutely does not tolerate racism, sexism, or any sort of exclusivity.

Influencing the company culture must move far beyond what is said while onboarding or in an an employee handbook. Devoting attention to culture is divisive, as social pressure is pervasive and acts quickly. Diversity events, building in accountability and metrics for management, and funding for diversity efforts — these are active ways to eliminate sexism from the culture. Executives are cultural leaders, and should be visibly active in these efforts in order to encourage engagement and show accountability.

Flexible work-life policies are one of the most important indicators of company culture. Netflix recently announced they would offer one year of ‘parental leave’ for all employees. Notice this isn’t ‘maternity leave’ — the policy is inclusive to both men and women. It’s a sharp pivot for a policy that both favored and alienated women while ignoring the parental responsibilities of men. Policies like these are a step in the right direction, and enormously influence the company culture.

Keep Track

Companies need to measure the biases that hold women back, and disrupt those biases with systematic change. Google did some digging and found their data showed women were promoted less often than men because workers need to nominate themselves. Women who did so got push back. Joan C. Williams, a law professor at UC Hastings, found that women are rewarded for modesty and penalized for what men might see as “aggressive” behavior. When Google began including female leaders at workshops to coach both men and women on how to promote themselves effectively, the gender difference among nominees disappeared. The saying,“what gets measured gets done”, is philosophy every company needs to think about when addressing sexist practices.

women in techvia Flickr

Use the Majority to Your Advantage

During Etsy’s efforts to increase the number of women in engineering roles, they found that women tend to be hesitant about switching jobs, especially if they’ve encountered hostile work environments in the past. Often women avoid companies they view as majority male, and a cycle of male dominance in the company persists.

It’s no wonder women avoid these companies. Thomas Ford, who studies pack mentality in tech, says:
“In groups where men outnumber women, they can change the norms of acceptable behaviour. Under these new redefined rules they are able to grant each other permission to act on sexist feelings without fear of reprisal or criticism.”

A majority is harmful, creating a fratty ‘brogrammer’ culture that either repels women altogether, or forces them to work in uncomfortable situations. The majority, however, doesn’t have to be noxious; men stand to benefit from expanding gender diversity in both work quality and social fulfillment. And for any real change to occur, the majority needs to be active in the process of welcoming women into the culture.

Educational programs have proven to be an effective tool for women and men to work together professionally while establishing an inviting workplace for women. Etsy did something inventive that actually worked: they offered a Hacker School with grants for talented women engineers looking to improve their skills. This created a sense of community at Etsy, a community that was both constructive and collaborative, and many women were hired on full time.

If your company doesn’t have the means to fund in-house programs, there are plenty of other ways to get involved in education. Teaching kids is one of the best ways to encourage diversity in the tech-near-future. Schools are adopting coding into learning programs, and there’s always a need for volunteers to teach them. Kids are usually unaware gender biases exist, and instead of teaching them a bias, you have an opportunity to encourage girls and boys to hone their skills and build confidence regardless of gender. Mentoring boys and girls from all walks of life is an opportunity for your company to actively encourage diversity and welcome future innovators into the industry.

Analyze Practices for Unconscious Bias

Recent research shows that interview practices and subtle wording in job descriptions can deter highly qualified candidates from applying for jobs. It’s best to take a hard look at everything you put out, because a lot of sexism is completely unconscious. Sexist tendencies have been built into social norms for years and years, but that should indicate a necessity for change. The first step is bringing awareness to any practices that are sexist, and you may be surprised at what you find.

Unconscious biases easily slip into team meetings and informal interactions. This is especially prevalent in meetings, where men with naturally louder voices dominate a conversation, sometimes awarding the ‘louder’ person credit for an idea that was already voiced by someone else. This situation only worsens when one is a minority in the environment. To avoid this, leaders should solicit the opinions of all members of the meeting in an organized fashion, making sure that a variety of voices are heard and get credit for their input and work.

Promotions and wages need to be addressed in a strategy to eliminate sexism. Pinterest’s technical team is 21% female, and they created an engineering promotion committee to ensure no one is overlooked regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity. Practices dedicated to equality objective merit are a powerful tool in interrupting gender politics, and policies like Pinterests’ have proven to provide more inclusive and supportive work environments for both women and men.

Brogramming should no longer be a word in the tech vocabulary; we need to eliminate this sort of stereotyping and encourage a movement towards diversity and inclusion in its place. This sort of thinking starts from the ground up, and while it’s important to take action at all levels, culture is the most powerful and divisive tool at our disposal. It’s everywhere. We’re constantly bombarded by the thoughts and opinions of others in our interactions at work, online, and in media. Companies, with their microclimate of culture, have a unique opportunity to cultivate new ways of thinking, to influence what’s cool, what’s talked about, and what’s accepted. Increasing female representation is not a “women’s issue”, it’s a human issue, and a business necessity.