The widely reported walkout by thousands of Google employees worldwide in protest of Google’s handling of various workplace issues including sexual harassment, along with calls for greater transparency and a more equitable pay structure, is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the tech sector there is burgeoning unrest concerning inequality and in particular the gender pay and promotion gap which is driving talented women away. So why don’t women get a fair deal? And what can we do to reverse the trend? The sector can ill afford to lose its female talent.
The James Damore memo
In July 2017 James Damore, a software engineer at Google, wrote a memorandum titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" in which Damore called on science to explain the tech gender gap. The memo eventually got him fired, but in the message, he argued that there are fundamental differences between men and women that aren’t related to social constructs. His essential point was men are more biologically disposed to working in tech than are women, going on to say that attempts to remedy this gap drown out “ideological diversity” and discriminate against conservative thinking.
Of course, Damore is far from unique in holding that view. But of course, it’s nonsense. For instance, despite the widely held belief otherwise, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that female brains are any less capable of coding than men’s, as we males who have worked with women in the sector can attest. Often they bring additional skills to the table too.
Historical perspective - Why it started to go wrong for women in tech
During the Second World War, the tech gurus were mainly women: in the US they programmed ENIAC, and in the UK they used Colossus to crack German cyphers. And they were brilliant at it, working long, long hours and hastening the end of the war. Most of their achievements were kept under lock and key; after the war, they were forbidden to disclose the nature of their amazing contributions.
It wasn’t until much later that men became involved in the field. Once the power of computing was apparent, men became attracted to the area and in the process sidelined the female workforce into more "feminine" roles. Salaries rose rapidly as women were pushed aside.
Psychologists contributed to the process. During the 1960s aptitude tests and personality profiles became the primary selection tool, and it was these that created the geeky stereotypes that exist even today. Successful programmers were supposed to be “disinterested in people” and “excessively independent.” The acclaimed industry analyst described the typical programmer as “often egocentric, slightly neurotic, and he borders upon a limited schizophrenia.” It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although such psychometric testing has been discredited, it served to bias against women working in the sector.
How significant is the gender gap today?
While the blind prejudice of the 1960s has to some extent been eroded, it persists; women in tech might not entirely be second class citizens, but equality remains a distant dream. For instance:
- Women own just five percent of startups
- Only seven percent of partners in largest venture capitalist firms are women
- Just 17 percent of employers in the UK technology sector are women
- Women hold 25 percent of computing jobs
- 11 percent of executives in Silicon Valley companies are women
- Twice as many women (41 percent) as men (17 percent) quit jobs in high technology companies
- Average earnings for women under the age of 25 in the technology sector are 29% less than their male counterparts
- Salary offers to women are less than those to men 63 percent of the time
- 78 percent of large organisations admit they have a gender pay gap
Pay gap reports from big tech businesses
Let’s look at some recently reported figures from big tech companies on pay gaps between men and women; but first just a word on what these reported figures mean.
Understanding the stats: The difference between median and mean pay gaps
The way pay gaps are reported can confuse. While the mean pay gap is the difference between the average salaries of men and women, in other words, the total women or men earn divided by the number of female and male employees respectively; the median pay gap is the centre of the distributions. Half the female workforce earn more than the median pay, and half earn less. Mean pay is usually significantly higher than median pay as it is skewed by the top earners. Median pay levels reflect the experience of most workers. Note that when the mean pay gap is high in favour of men, this demonstrates the lack of women in higher paid executive roles.
Since April 2017 all large employers with 150 or more employees must produce a pay gap report. The reported figures are published by the UK Government. Summarising these reports for a selection of leading players:
Is it any surprise that women are angry about the current situation? Any anger, and that of their male supporters would appear to be entirely justified.
Despite the prejudice and clear glass ceilings, many women do forge breathtaking careers in the sector. Here is a small selection of the very many successful tech women who should serve as role models to all other women with ambitions to make it big in tech.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, was the first woman to serve of Facebook’s board. She had previously served as Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. She is also the author of the book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” which addresses gender equality.
Susan Wojcicki – YouTube CEO, organised some of Google’s most significant acquisitions. She has five children and is a champion of balancing family and career.
Ginni Rometty – IBM CEO and President, graduated in 1979 and joined IBM in 1981 as a systems analyst, and assumed her current role in 2012. She is considered by Bloomberg to be one of the 50 most influential people in the world.
How can we improve the current situation?
Although attitudes to women in tech are better than they were, there is still entrenched gender inequalities that must be addressed. There are several ways of approaching this:
- We need to start early, for instance by being better at and more inclusive regarding tech education in schools.
- We need to overcome the stereotypical geek. It’s not real, just manufactured and perpetuated by the media.
- We need more female mentors on universities, colleges, and business who actively encourage and support women advance in tech
- We should address conscious and subconscious recruitment bias, for instance by excluding names and gender information from job application forms, so that first stage selection is based entirely on qualifications and experience
- Businesses should promote the benefits of gender equality and learn from business who have already embraced this.
Currently, we are wasting a vast amount of potential talent by treating women in tech as in some ways inferior to men. We need to reverse the current exodus of women from the sector. Raising awareness of this, for instance by the Google walkout, is just a beginning. We still have a long way to go.
Just 17 percent of employers in the UK technology sector are women: https://www.recruitment-international.co.uk/blog/2017/08/only-17-percent-of-employees-in-uk-tech-sector-are-women-research-reveals
Women own just five percent of startups (and other stats): https://observer.com/2017/06/women-in-tech-statistics/
Sources for table of pay gap for big tech companies: e.g. https://gender-pay-gap.service.gov.uk/Employer/L7MA2NkS/2017
For all other organisations: https://gender-pay-gap.service.gov.uk/