How Code Words Hurt Female Coders

            Social media have been abuzz after Silicon Valley companies, including Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn began releasing their workplace diversity figures last week.  The numbers confirm what many already suspected:  Tech companies are mostly male, and white and Asian.  The leaders of these tech companies have mostly blamed the lack of diversity on the small number of qualified underrepresented job applicants.  Facebook can only hire those who apply and those who apply tend to be white and Asian men.  This may very well be true.  Social science research has shown that girls are discouraged from pursuing science and engineering from a young age.  Addressing the gender stereotypes that dissuade girls from pursuing technical subjects is important; however, placing the blame solely on schools too easily lets Silicon Valley off the hook.  Moreover, there is research to suggest that part of the problem stems from the culture within tech companies:  Women who enter the industry do not stay.  According to a study by Harvard Business School, 56 percent of women leave the private science, engineering, and technology field by midcareer.  This number is nearly double that for men.   While our school systems might be responsible for the lack of qualified female job applicants, tech companies only have themselves to blame for not creating a work environment that retains female employees.

            The problem is especially pervasive in tech start-ups, where the “no rules” culture results in an unwritten practice to look or act like the majority in charge.  When there are no rules, we fall back on our unconscious biases and, as a result, those who do not fit in are marginalized or outright excluded.  In 1988, the Supreme Court recognized that gender stereotyping is a type of gender discrimination impermissible under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Despite an outstanding job performance, Ann Hopkins was passed over for partnership because of her poor “interpersonal skills.”  In other words, the partnership committee did not think Ms. Hopkins acted like a lady.  She was “macho,” used profanity, and did not “wear make-up, have her hair styled, [or] wear jewelry.”  

            Lest you think this type of gender stereotyping died out in the 1980s, we see it frequently today.  Our female clients in male-dominated industries are chastised for using harsh language that is frequently thrown around by male colleagues, criticized for being too “aggressive” while voicing an opinion, or hyper-scrutinized when making the tough calls that male colleagues could make without question.  Despite what some courts have speculated, studies show that implicit biases do play a role in hiring, promotions, and how women and minorities are viewed in the workplace.  When performance is evaluated subjectively and when there exist no written criteria for promotion, those who do not fall within the majority are negatively impacted.  When we terminate or prevent from advancing those women who have problems with “leadership,” while advancing men who we feel like have a lot of “promise,” we leave little room for women to thrive in the industry.

            (And the harmful effects of stereotyping are not limited to women.  Where a young, white man can be an “assertive” and “powerful” leader when he gets angry at those he supervises, young black men get called “scary” and “aggressive” for the exact same behavior.)

            Facebook recognizes this in part.  In a blog post last week, Maxine Williams, Global Head of Diversity at Facebook, listed the company’s efforts to make the workplace more diverse.    One of the approaches is to provide unconscious bias training to employees.  Unconscious bias training can teach employees the implicit associations that we, as humans, naturally make between race, gender, ethnicity, and social roles.  Recognizing our own implicit bias is important, but unconscious bias training alone cannot solve the problem.  Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey in What Works for Women at Work argue that business processes need to be redesigned so as to not artificially advantage one group over another. Silicon Valley is no exception.

            In the past week, Google has introduced Made With Code, an organization dedicated to inspiring girls to write software.Facebook has also announced several initiatives to increase the number of women and minorities interested in coding.  But no one wants to enter a field where you cannot get ahead, where moving up to the executive level is unattainable, and where you do not have role models that look and think like you.  In order to truly increase diversity in the workplace, Silicon Valley needs to take a hard look at its own “coding.”

Blog by:  Erin Pressman, Julia Campins, and Hillary Benham-Baker