Women Fall Back In Tech Industry, And The Reasons Aren’t Entirely Clear

By Janet I. Tu
The Seattle Times.


When Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said last week that women needn’t ask for raises but should trust in the system to get the pay they deserved, a firestorm of reaction ignited around the issues of unequal pay for men and women and the gender gap in the technology industry.

Nadella, asked at a conference of women in computing what his advice would be for women uncomfortable about asking for a raise, said in part: “It’s not really about asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”

For some, Nadella’s comments seemed emblematic of biases or blind spots in attitudes and in company cultures, some subtle, some blatant, that can make it hard for women to thrive in the tech industry.

“I think one of the things that make it difficult for women in the industry is not men being malicious in any way; it’s just that they have different points of view,” said Tina Podlodowski, a former Microsoft executive who’s now an independent consultant on technology issues.

Until more women’s points of view are reflected in management, she said, “it’s going to be difficult for women to get positions in tech that they are qualified for and deserve.”

Nadella’s remarks, which he said shortly afterward were inarticulate and wrong, come as tech companies are criticized for the lack of women in their ranks.

No one knows for certain why the drop in women in tech has been so steep, though there are theories.

“I think that is the big question that the entire technology industry is trying to figure out and trying to solve,” said Susan Harker, vice president of global talent acquisition at

More difficult to pin down and change are issues of company culture and attitudes toward women in the tech world, factors that play a big role in whether women stay in the industry.

The No. 1 thing tech companies can do “is to create a welcoming and supportive environment within the company for female engineers,” said Ed Lazowska, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. “All of the outreach programs in the world for K-12 and college students, all of the advertising campaigns, all of the articles in the press, all of these together will not make nearly as big a difference as a visibly supportive corporate culture would make.”

The gender-gap issue is pressing because, unlike in many other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, computer science’s gap has widened.

In 1985, women made up 37 percent of undergraduates majoring in computer science. In 2012, it was less than 18 percent, according to the National Science Foundation.

And while women hit a peak of 34 percent of those employed in computer occupations in 1990, by 2011, that percentage was 27 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Meanwhile, the tech industry says it faces a shortage of qualified workers.

And as tech companies try to reach diverse, worldwide customers, having a diverse workforce creating products and services simply makes sense.

But for women working in tech, the field is still rife with less-than-welcoming attitudes, ranging from small slights to more blatant discrimination.

Christina Thompson is a student in Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle-based intensive software development training program for women.

Not long ago, she was on a train heading toward a conference focused on Ruby, a programming language.

When she mentioned to a man on the train that she was attending a Ruby conference, he asked if it was a gem gathering. Turned out he was a software developer, so he knew what Ruby was.

To Thompson, his response made it seem “like programming for women isn’t really an option.”

It wasn’t an intentional slight, Thompson believes, but it revealed an attitude and culture that needs to change if more women are to get into, and stay in, tech.

Kristin Acker, vice president of product teams at Zillow who has also worked at Microsoft, Expedia and startups, said there are things women have to consider that men may not be aware of.

“It can get lonely,” she said. “Sometimes you are the only woman in the room in meetings,” she said. And hanging out with a colleague, say, going to a baseball game with a guy, can be awkward or give the appearance of impropriety.

Another issue is work styles. At Microsoft, there were teams that had reputations for being super-combative and competitive. “To be honest, I avoided those,” Acker said.

Still, she said, depending on the workplace, there can be more flexibility in work hours, and “it pays well. It’s interesting work.”

At a recent Seattle Girl Geek Dinner, some of the women talked about a pervasive attitude that women are not as smart as men.

They spoke of many instances where the minute they began speaking, men would interrupt, something that didn’t happen if a man was speaking.

“I think there’s a different way that genders communicate and interview,” said Liz Morgan, senior recruiter at LinkedIn and founder of the Seattle chapter of Girl Geek Dinners.

In a highly competitive, fast-paced field, companies will also have to come to terms with the need to create more flexible working models if they are to retain women, she said.

“If they don’t have maternity leave or flexible working-from-home, sick days, that really plays into whether they retain women in the long term,” Morgan said.

Some women said they experienced blatant hostility in the workplace.

Coleen Carrigan, an assistant professor of anthropology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, who studies underrepresented groups’ participation in STEM fields, calls the pipeline, the path that takes women into the field, “very leaky.”

In her experience, she worked at Amazon from 1997 to 2001, and in her research, she’s often found “there’s a hostile work environment in computer science and engineering.”

Company cultures can be confrontational, valuing, or at least tolerating, belligerent, combative personalities.

At Amazon, Carrigan recalls, there was a colleague who would tell her to “settle down, girlie” if she voiced a different opinion during meetings. She had a boss who would give credit to male peers for work that she did.

“If I spoke up about it, I was called oversensitive,” she said.

Nancy Williams, a Microsoft employee, filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging that her male boss ignored her during meetings, excluded her from important internal communications, was dismissive of her suggestions and blamed her for situations not her responsibility, while treating his male subordinates favorably.

After she reported her concerns to higher-ups, her lawsuit claims, she was given a bad performance review and the company’s investigation into her case lagged while she was on sabbatical.

Microsoft responded in a statement that it “provides an environment where all employees have the opportunity to be successful. We take these claims seriously and will address them with the court.”

Microsoft released diversity figures this month that showed the company, like other tech giants, had a long way to go.

Only 29 percent of the company’s employees, it said, were female, a figure on par with other tech companies. That came after several years in which that figure had remained flat at 24 percent.

Microsoft was in the middle of the pack among its peers in terms of the percentage of women, 17 percent, working in technical positions. It was lowest among five giant tech companies in the percentage of women employees in leadership positions, also 17 percent.

“Much work remains to be done to increase the diversity of our company and the tech industry,” Lisa Brummel, Microsoft’s head of human resources, said in an email to employees.

The issue of workplace culture was one that Nadella, addressed rather thoughtfully earlier in his appearance at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which was named after a Navy rear admiral and pioneer computer programmer.

Nadella had talked about the importance at Microsoft of making “the culture of the place be such that women can do their best work” and the need to get more women not just into the company, but into software development specifically.

“I think we do pretty well in a lot of other functions. We don’t do as well in development,” he had said.

About three years ago, Microsoft made the hiring and retention of women one of the criteria for which managers are held accountable.

For senior-level jobs, the company strives to have women, and people of color (if the job is in the U.S.), among the candidates, said Gwen Houston, general manager of global diversity and inclusion at Microsoft.

In addition, when a woman is hired at the general manager level or above, her manager and others are asked to help her navigate Microsoft’s culture, including its written and unwritten rules.

The company also runs the DigiGirlz program to help high schoolers learn about tech careers.

Plus, there’s a Women at Microsoft group with some 10,000 members worldwide, and every other year, Microsoft holds a global women’s leadership development conference that attracts thousands of employees.

Amazon, unlike other large tech companies, has not disclosed its diversity figures.

Harker, vice president for global talent acquisition, said the company is making efforts to “build a more leakproof pipeline” including partnering with organizations such as the National Center for Women & Information Technology and Girls Who Code.

Amazon this summer hosted its first Girls Who Code immersion course.

Within the company, there’s the Women in Amazon affinity group, as well as Amazon Women in Engineering (AWE), which focuses on professional development and mentoring for female tech workers.

Such efforts are great, said Telle Whitney, president and chief executive of the Anita Borg Institute, which focuses on advancing women in computing and produces the Grace Hopper conference.

But “they’re not working fast enough,” Whitney said. “One of the things we decided at Anita Borg Institute is: Yes, we can help women stay in computing. But it’s only going to change if the organizations are welcoming to women.”

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