Battling a culture of sexism: Why diversity is essential in the tech sector
There is no shortage of anecdotes about frustrations, discrimination women face in tech industry
"Professional women, are you properly curating your online first impression?"
That advice, which sounds like it's from a 1950s career guide, had there been the internet all those years ago, is the opening line of a recent Wall Street Journal blog post aimed at female entrepreneurs.
The post's advice features pithy nuggets, such as "Develop a gender neutral persona," "only use your initials," "strip out all preconceptions related to race, ethnicity and gender."
While the author, John Greathouse, a prominent tech industry venture capitalist, has since apologized for the piece on his Twitter account, it brings to light recurring issues around sexism and a general lack of diversity in the tech industry.
"Advice" like this is nothing new. These kinds of suggestions have been passed around to women and minorities for decades now.
"Many people of colour with what some might call 'ethnic'-sounding names are already regularly advised to submit to job postings using only their initials," said Ashley Lewis, the founder of Spark Makers, a Toronto-based educational startup aimed at teaching young women technology skills.
Gender always the 1st hurdle
It's worth pointing out that while Greathouse advises developing a gender neutral persona online, his advice is not for men, only women. In essence, the takeaway is to be successful in Silicon Valley, you need to be a man, or at least pretend to be one.
Unfortunately, this attitude is all too common in the startup world. The recurring theme in conversations among women in the tech industry — whether they are developers, product managers, educators or entrepreneurs — is that their gender is always the first hurdle to overcome in any new tech job.
Anna Starasts, who organizes Girl Geeks, Toronto's largest event for women in tech, says when Girl Geeks Toronto ran a panel discussion on sexism in tech in 2015, "it was eyeopening to hear about the many ways women were made to feel like outsiders in tech companies."
Lewis has felt this first hand throughout her career.
"I've found that I always have to be at least twice as good and half as flawed as my male counterparts in order to gain the same respect and trust from employees, team leads and clients," said Lewis.
There is no shortage of anecdotes about the frustrations women face in the technology industry, and the statistics reinforce those hurdles.
Number of women in tech declining
Not only are women underrepresented in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). They're also leaving those industries because of a culture that is developing a reputation for being "toxic."
"There is still very strong cultural conditioning around gender and technology — supported by media and marketing — that discourages girls and women from being included in these activities and professions," said Imogen Coe, dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University.
The irony is that it hasn't always been this way. While the broader workforce has become more progressive, the world of tech has seen a sharp decline in the number of women working in the sector over the last few decades, beginning in the 1980s, when personal computers started being marketed as household devices.
Primarily used as "toys," these PCs were marketed to men and boys, and that laid the foundation of a narrative that continues to dominate the tech world to this day.
The silver lining in all of this is that people have started to notice the troubling trend and are beginning to take steps to remedy it.
Melinda Gates, one of the most active philanthropists in the world, has recently turned her attention to increasing the number of women in technology-related fields.
"When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 per cent of computer science degrees and law degrees then," she said in a recent interview with the tech site Backchannel. "Law went up to 47 per cent now. In medicine, we were at 28 per cent in 1984. That's gone up to 48 per cent. Computer science went from 37 per cent to 18 per cent."
Who builds our tech matters
But it's not up to women alone to change the culture of the tech industry.
"It is up to the investors to change their approach, because diverse companies will not look the same, will not sound the same and will not be found in the same old places that investors have been looking for years," said Brady Forrest, the co-founder of Highway 1, a San Francisco-based start-up incubator.
Technology is consumed by all genders and must be created by a demographic that is representative of their audience.- Ashley Lewis, founder of Spark Makers
With advanced technology influencing more and more aspects of our lives, the urgency with which the industry's sexism needs to be addressed becomes more important than ever. After all, we are no longer just developing toys and gadgets; we are developing algorithms that shape how we perceive the world, making decisions about the information we come in contact with.
As this technology becomes smarter and more powerful, there is a necessity to be mindful of who is shaping it and whose values are influencing it.
"The people who ultimately get hurt by this are the consumers," says Lewis, "especially for products that are meant to be global equalizers like Apple and Google.
"Technology is consumed by all genders and must be created by a demographic that is representative of their audience."
Diversity is good for business
Diversity isn't an option, it is a necessity, and if the moral argument doesn't resonate, the bottom line should.
"Diversity brings varied perspectives, experiences and leadership styles to a company," and that, says Forrest, "enables them to solve problems and adapt quicker," all of which is good for business.
How can we truly expect to find solutions to some of the most complex challenges we face … if we only have half of humanity at the table doing the work?- Imogen Coe, dean, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University
There is data to back up the benefits of diversity. One recent report shows that gender-diverse and racially diverse companies financially outperform homogenous companies by as much as 35 per cent.
"Countless studies support the fact that diversity promotes creativity and innovation," said Coe.
"How can we truly expect to find solutions to some of the most complex challenges we face nationally, globally, as a species, if we only have half of humanity at the table doing the work?"