Silicon Valley prides itself on its progressive views on climate change, same-sex marriage, transgender rights and other cultural issues. 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 widespread bias at high-profile companies, including at online ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc., have pushed tech executives to promise improvement. Uber’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick resigned, and its board adopted major leadership changes following investigations of the company’s workplace culture. More broadly, progress has been inconsistent. In 1960, women held 27 percent of computer and mathematical jobs. In 1990, they held 35 percent of those occupations. But by 2013, their numbers had fallen back to 26 percent.
1. How bad is the imbalance?
Pretty bad. In a 2016 survey, women held about 21 percent of technical jobs, which includes hardware, software, information services and consulting, at 60 of the largest U.S. companies. That’s up only slightly from a year earlier. Women make up about half of all U.S. employees in private industry yet only 32 percent of workers in computer-systems design. Women’s share of engineering jobs inched up to 12 percent in 2015, from 11 percent in 2000. On average, women are paid 89 cents for every dollar a man earns in top science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) positions, according to Bloomberg calculations.
2. What about management jobs?
Women make up 30 percent of senior managers in the U.S. overall but only 20 percent of executives at computer-systems design and software companies. Female managers in architectural and engineering jobs earn more than men on average, but women hold only 8.5 percent of the jobs. A 2016 survey found that one in four Silicon Valley companies had no women on their boards.
3. What’s the situation outside the U.S.?
In Asia, studies have shown women are underrepresented in technology and science in countries including Singapore and Japan. Women make up 30 percent of about 7 million people working in Europe’s digital sector and are especially under-represented in decision-making positions.
4. Won’t the education pipeline fix this?
Not likely. Women already earn about half of all college degrees in STEM subjects and have for more than a decade, but those figures include psychology, sociology and other female-dominated disciplines. The real problem exists in computer science, where the percentage of women graduates slipped to 18 in 2014 from 23 in 2004. The percentage of female graduates has also declined in engineering (19 versus 20), physics (39 versus 42) and math (42 versus 45).
5. What’s behind these gaps?
Larry Summers, a former U.S. Treasury secretary, caused a ruckus in 2005 when, as president of Harvard University, he suggested that innate differences between boys and girls might explain the lack of female scientists and mathematicians at top universities. (Summers later apologized and said he only meant to stimulate debate and encourage more research on the issue.) Stereotypes to the contrary, tests show that girls generally have as much aptitude as boys do. In fact, they outperform until high school age, when boys are more likely to take the standardized tests that lead to a college major in STEM subjects or computing. One study showed that college-age women tended to steer clear of engineering and computer majors because they think they must be brilliant, not just hard working, to succeed -- a consideration that doesn’t seem to deter young men.
6. Does gender diversity matter for corporate success?
Studies show a correlation between gender diversity, particularly at the managerial level, and better financial performance, such as higher share price, return on equity and market value. For most companies, women make up half the customer base. Not including the ideas of women at the product-design and marketing stages could translate into lower sales at the retail level. What’s more, companies battling for talent lose out on half the potential workforce by not considering women applicants.
7. How do women say they’re treated in tech workplaces?
In one survey, 87 percent of women with at least 10 years’ experience working in tech reported hearing demeaning comments from male colleagues. Three-fourths said they were asked about their family life in job interviews, and 60 percent said they received unwanted sexual advances. Some women who develop video games have received death threats after criticizing the depiction of women in certain games. Some academics say all of this contributes to the fact that women are twice as likely as men to quit tech jobs.
8. Are technology companies sexist?
Few people suggest companies consciously set out to discriminate. One theory is that tech startups often begin with a core of like-minded male employees who recruit from their social circles. They are so keenly focused on surviving and expanding the business that employment policies are an afterthought. By the time they add a human-resources department, the male-dominated culture is hard to dislodge. Even some tech executives who thought their workforces were equitable have been surprised to learn the numbers don’t back them up. When Mark Benioff, the Salesforce.com chief executive officer, checked for a gender pay gap at his company, he found women were earning less than men for the same work. The company spent $3 million in 2015 to rectify that. This year, another study found gaps had cropped up again, requiring the company to spend another $3 million.
9. Who’s responsible for making change?
Most tech-company executives say the impetus rightly falls on them. Almost half of women working in STEM jobs in the U.S. say senior managers are more likely to see men as leadership material. Women also complain they’re excluded from the informal "buddy networks" that benefit male peers. Human-resources experts advise companies to offer mentoring programs and training courses to make male coworkers aware of unconscious bias. There are things women can do, too. Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook Inc. chief operating officer, in "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," says women should volunteer for tough projects and accept leadership roles when they’re offered. Sandberg later acknowledged she failed to grasp some of the challenges that women, and especially single parents, face.
10. What are companies already doing?
Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies acknowledge a gender-disparity problem and have taken steps to improve their family-leave, hiring and training policies. Apple, Alphabet and others have committed to hiring more women and publishing data to track the changes. Progress has been slow: At Apple, women occupied 23 percent of technical roles in 2016, up from 20 percent in 2014. Some, such as Intel Corp., have set concrete goals: It’s investing $300 million in a program that aims to have women and minorities in the same proportions as the overall population by 2020.
11. What are outside groups doing?
Groups including the newly founded Girls who Code and the august Girl Scouts of America are encouraging girls to study STEM subjects. Girls Who Code offers free after-school and summer programs to teach middle-school and high-school girls to write computer code. The Scouts are expanding the merit badges girls can earn to STEM-related skills such as video-game development and digital art. Getting an early start in STEM is important because the choice of college major affects earning power in the earliest stages of a career.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg Businessweek article looks at the video-gaming industry’s treatment of women developers.
- 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 Silicon Valley 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.
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