The week of December 28, 2014

Why 2014 was actually a positive year for women in tech

By Selena Larson

Technology has a sexism problem.

In 2014, revealing investigations and heartfelt admissions ripped the wool off the eyes of the industry and exposed the extent of this very raw and very real truth.

The news about women in technology this year was so dispiriting that you might’ve thought twice before encouraging the women in your life to pursue careers in the field. Countless incidents of sexism from hackathons to boardrooms have demonstrated just how exhausting and insufferable the industry can be for women: harassment lawsuits against companies like Tinder and Zillow; advice to women from the CEO of Microsoft saying they shouldn’t ask for raises, and harassment at GitHub that led to the public departure of a popular female developer—to say nothing of Gamergate.

At first glance, it’s just another year full of a number of very high-profile events highlighting how toxic the tech industry can be towards women.

But look again: 2014 was actually a great year. Not because of the things that happened, but because women are finally talking about their experiences. Perhaps more importantly, people are listening.

This is not a pipeline problem; it’s a retention problem.

Earlier this year, Heidi Roizen, a venture capitalist and technology entrepreneur, wrote a blog post about her experiences with the sexism and harassment she’s experienced as an entrepreneur since the early 1980s.

“It’s Different for Girls” explained the sexually charged interactions and gendered workplace persecution that Roizen and other women in the industry have to deal with. In the essay, she writes:

It pains and somewhat embarrasses me that I am not recommending calling out bad behavior and shaming the individual or individuals responsible. In a perfect world people would have to account for their behavior. But as an entrepreneur who spent years in a daily battle for existence, I did not feel like I could afford the hit I’d take in exposing these incidents.

Roizen, now a venture capitalist in her mid-50s, said she doesn’t experience this type of behavior anymore. But the sexual innuendos, groping hands up skirts and shirts, and uncomfortable jokes are still commonplace in the industry.

“These are hard issues, but I do think the first step to resolving issues is talking about them,” Roizen told the Kernel. “I think it is different today. Why did it take me so long to talk about my issues? When those things happened to me, I didn’t have a forum to put my own voice out.”

Roizen said when she was harassed, the only way to publicize issues was to go to the press, and her experiences didn’t necessarily qualify as news.

After she published the essay on Tumblr, Roizen said, men finally understood her experiences, and some told her they had no idea the kinds of inappropriate behavior she experienced.

“My goal was to be supportive of other women by just exposing what’s happened to me,” she said. “It furthers the dialogue about it, and it surfaces things and makes people more willing to speak up, and hopefully helps to change the behavior.”

This year, a number of tech companies have acknowledged that the tech industry needs to do something about systemic inequality and under representation of diverse groups, including women and minorities. Google set the precedent in May, releasing workplace statistics that illustrated just how diverse the company is—that is to say, not very diverse at all. Globally, the company’s U.S. workforce is 70 percent male and 60 percent white. Even more disheartening is the female representation in technical jobs, a measly 17 percent.

“One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they tell you about their experiences.” —Anita Sarkeesian

Though Google’s numbers are strikingly diverse, however, when compared to other tech companies like Twitter, where just 10 percent of technical roles are held by women.

These new company diversity statistics, led by Google, might have told a story we already knew, but they provided quantitative data to back up the first-person narratives discussed more frequently. The technology industry is not diverse, and now that we have the data to illustrate the inequality, and the voices willing to speak up. The diversity gap can begin to close, albeit however slowly.

For technology companies whose products and services touch the lives of billions, creating a culture where the people who build the hardware and software look like those who use them will ultimately lead to the creation of better products.

Reaching a tipping point

What happens when you become the female face of sexist tech culture? This year, Julie Ann Horvath found out when she sparked an industry-wide conversation after her high-profile company departure demonstrated just how toxic startup culture can be.

Horvath was a designer and developer at social-coding company GitHub. In March of this year, she left the company, alleging she suffered harassment from company leadership for years. Her exit was perhaps even more poignant because she was the founder of Passion Projects, GitHub’s outreach program that aimed to encourage more women to work in the tech community.

“I had spent a large part of my career at GitHub making their culture seem friendly to women,” Horvath told the Kernel. “I felt like I had lied to everyone. Like I had led women into a trap by letting them believe that meritocracy in tech is a real thing. That if we work hard enough, we’ll earn the respect of our peers.”

Horvath was outspoken about her experience, refusing to be comfortable with the sexism status quo.

GitHub launched its own investigation into Horvath’s allegations, and founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner left the company. Though GitHub said it found nothing to support some of Horvath’s claims, new CEO Chris Wanstrath said the company did find that “Preston-Werner in his capacity as GitHub’s CEO acted inappropriately.” In a blog post, Wanstrath also addressed the company culture and said that in an industry where inequality is the norm, GitHub needs to do better.

Horvath is living in Bellingham, Wash., where she works as a designer and developer, well away from the Silicon Valley bubble. She continues to be an advocate for other women to talk about their experiences, some of whom found courage after reading Horvath’s story.

“We have to deal with two different forms of stereotypes. We have to deal with being women, and we have to deal with what people think about black people.” —Erica Baker

“Since going public, I’ve had a lot of women email me personally seeking advice on how to deal with similar situations, and some even said they wanted to take their stories public, that my experience gave them strength and courage to leave their toxic workplaces,” she said.

Like other women I’ve spoken with this year, Horvath thinks that while headlines might make it seem like more happened to women in tech in 2014, the reality is that more women are making themselves heard, a spark that signals a shift in thinking.

“Now more than ever we understand that allowing these issues to be swept under the rug perpetuates misogyny—it doesn’t absolve it,” she said.

A significant struggle for women of color

When Google and its tech company compatriots released diversity data this year, two tiny slivers stuck out: For most companies, the number of minority employees in the U.S. averaged around 2 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic.

“We have to deal with two different forms of stereotypes,” Erica Baker, an engineer at Google, told the Kernel. “We have to deal with being women, and we have to deal with what people think about black people.”

As a six-foot-tall black woman, Baker says, some people have thought of her as “scary,” despite being an intelligent and kind-hearted human being. And, she said, her race and gender have affected her career as a computer scientist.

In an essay titled “The Other Side of Diversity,” Baker said she often feels like a “token” employee and struggles to fit into a culture that routinely ostracizes people who are different.

Being in Silicon Valley has been simultaneously great for my career but bad for me as a person. I’ve been able to work on multiple different teams and really interesting projects. Unfortunately, my workplace is homogenous and so are my surroundings. I feel different everywhere. I go to work and I stick out like a sore thumb. I have been mistaken for an administrative assistant more than once. I have been asked if I was physical security (despite security wearing very distinctive uniforms). I’ve gotten passed over for roles I know I could not only perform in, but that I could excel in.

Stereotypes and the culture of computer science prevented Baker from pursuing computer science in college, even though she’d been drawn to engineering since learning QBasic, a simple programming language, and forcing her mother to purchase the first CD-ROM drive as a child.

“I was a computer science major for a year,” Baker said.”I was one of two women in my entire lecture, and I was one of two black people—the only black woman. I would get the looks like, ‘Is she supposed to be here?’”

“Now more than ever we understand that allowing these issues to be swept under the rug perpetuates misogyny—it doesn’t absolve it.” —Julie Ann Horvath

In Silicon Valley this year, she continued to pursue her dream of programming and enrolled in Hackbright Academy, a 10-week programming training course exclusively for women. But her experience left her wanting—it was not what she expected it to be. Toxic tech culture can ooze into even the most women-friendly environments.

At Google, Baker’s colleagues have a better understanding of her experiences, thanks to her viral essay that illuminated the many hardships minority tech workers face, but her peers, and the company, admit there’s still a lot of work to do.

At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this year, a “male allies” panel drummed up significant controversy. The men on the panel provided general lip-service about fixing tech’s sexism problem to the women in the audience who knew from firsthand experiences that their advice did not work.

Instead of cowering to criticism, panelists, led by Google’s Senior Vice President of Search Alan Eustace, hosted a reverse male allies panel the following day, where women shared their experiences while the men sat quietly and listened. Baker was there. She said she was struck by the weight of the women’s words, and she thought about how powerful they would be if tech executives and employees across the industry heard them.

“If all these people just told their story publicly instead of just one small area, it would make people understand these aren’t just isolated cases,” Baker said. “People feel more comfortable believing incidences of harassment and exclusion are isolated incidences, and outliers. But if more people would speak up, it would do a lot for helping change that way of thinking.”

The problem with the pipeline problem

Advocates for fixing the gender imbalance like to focus on encouraging young women to pursue coding careers. Organizations like Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code evangelize computer science to young female students across the country.

The idea is if more women get into the tech pipeline at a young age, more women will be hired at tech companies.

“Why did it take me so long to talk about my issues? When those things happened to me, I didn’t have a forum to put my own voice out.” —Heidi Roizen

But the pipeline isn’t the only problem. What happens when we educate our daughters in a field where sexism is still an issue? Women leave technology much faster and much more often than their male counterparts. According to the Anita Borg Institute, 41 percent of women leave careers in technology after 10 years, as opposed to just 17 percent of men.

This is not a pipeline problem; it’s a retention problem. Leigh Honeywell, an engineer at Heroku, says it best:

That’s not to say that companies and organizations shouldn’t support young girls to pursue their dreams of coding—there are sexism problems and gender disparity at the high school level, too—but by focusing on retaining the women already in the tech workforce, companies could fix the culture, and close the gender gap, much faster.

“There’s not a week that goes by that I think, ‘Maybe I should just give it all up and focus on genealogy or photography or something,’” Baker said. That sentiment is regularly echoed across the industry.

Continuing the conversation

Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency and the video game documentary series Tropes vs. Women, became a favorite target of Gamergate harassment this fall. At XOXO Fest this year, she said what perhaps could become one of the most important quotes for women in 2014: “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they tell you about their experiences.”

People are embracing the radical. Instead of brushing incidents under the rug, companies, people, and the press actually listened, and a conversation began.

That conversation, that commitment to exposing and revitalizing tech culture in a way that not only supports equality but improves the development of products and software by listening to and implementing diverse perspectives, is what made 2014 a promising year for women in technology and the future of the industry itself.

Here’s to 2015.

Photo by hackNY.org/Flickr (CC 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman