Binary Bias: Recoding Women's Place in Technology

04/17/2015 02:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

How do you solve a problem like Maria, especially when our hypothetical heroine has a knack for computer science and radiates all of the key qualities of a technology leader? By all accounts, Maria solves a lot of critical problems on her own.

In every aspect of work, from product development to executive management, Maria faces an uphill battle in an industry where men often outnumber women five-to-one in the roles she's best qualified to take. Outright discrimination, sexual harassment and a laundry list of subtle, gender-belittling tactics so prevalent in the "brogrammer" culture may discourage Maria in the early stages of a promising technology career or, worse yet, keep her from pursuing one altogether.

Stories on gender disparities at technology companies are now so frequent that continued inaction risks public desensitization to the issue. There's even a new documentary, CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap (premiering at the TriBeCa Film Festival this weekend) that investigates and confronts the problem head-on. And in light of the recent Gamergate debacle, we can no longer ignore these issues. The social identity and imbalanced gender overlaps of gamers and developers are too similar to dismiss.

We know why otherwise capable women abandon technology careers or encounter disproportionate hurdles to advancement in a coding-centric workplace. We recognize all of these symptoms as they metastasize from the classroom to the boardroom. Now we must decide how to fix this broken code, something Maria understands all too well.

The Silicon Ceiling


Infographic: Percentage of Women in Leadership Roles at Nine Tech Companies (Source: Fortune, August 29, 2014)

While staggering, this infographic paints an incomplete picture of the gender disparities at some of the world's largest tech firms. In January, Fortune analyzed both leadership and tech teams at eBay, Apple, Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter and revealed that things haven't gotten any better. Women still only make up between 28 and 17 percent of leadership at these companies and tech teams fall into the disconcerting range of 24 percent (eBay) to 10 percent (Twitter) women.

Despite a growing public awareness of these matters, far too many investigative reports on gender imbalance in technology drown in a sea of negative press on the failures -- perceived or real -- of women who run these firms. Does Marissa Mayer take more heat for Yahoo's perennially awful performance than she deserves? It's not like she took the reins of a thriving company and singlehandedly ran it into the ground. Yet, it's hard to find articles that lambast her predecessors with the same vitriol.

Look also at Lean In and "Ban Bossy" founder Sheryl Sandberg, who receives perhaps as much praise as criticism for these campaigns. Seriously? These initiatives are designed for the express purpose of gender inclusion, equality and advancement in school and the workplace. Disproportionate coverage focuses instead on what they may or may not get wrong, which, by any objective measure, pales in comparison to what they get right.

Right now, all eyes seem to be on Ellen Pao, the former technical chief of staff / junior partner at Kleiner Perkins who just lost a major sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Silicon Valley VC giant. As the current CEO of Reddit, Pao could usher in a new era of gender equality at a company notorious for user-generated forums that promote misogyny, violence against women and nude pictures of women posted without consent. To her credit, Pao has removed salary negotiations from the company recruitment process, which disproportionately benefit men over women, and officially banned the aforementioned non-consensual photos from the user forums. She will nevertheless endure vehement criticism for initiatives that serve only to increase equality, inclusion and safety for women.

Crashing the Program


I'm both encouraged and dismayed that my company, Stride, posts a two-to-one gender leadership ratio. Encouraged because that ratio represents two women for each man, not the other way around; dismayed because we're notable outliers in the tech world. And I didn't have to move mountains to get where we are today. For starters, I asked myself and others the following questions in order to promote gender equality in the recruitment process. Debugging the gender gap starts with the approach companies take to bring new employees through the door. Every technology executive can and should address these questions before attempting to resolve issues of workplace gender diversity:

  1. 1) When a new applicant begins the recruitment process, approximately how many people will she interact with and what are their roles?
  2. 2) Do these people represent the company as a whole or just what you believe the candidate wishes to see?
  3. 3) Will the candidate feel welcome as she is or can you imagine any circumstances that would make her uncomfortable with the process?

It should go without saying that honest feedback from the candidates themselves will make the process even better. Don't forget to ask for it! You'll probably learn more from their answers about improving gender inclusion than any boardroom discussion can teach you.