Interviewer: It’s been known for many years that women are underrepresented in many fields – the tech field being a prime example. One theory that’s been floated around is that women just don’t gravitate toward the field of their own volition. Do you think that’s an accurate view of why women aren’t in this field in the same numbers as men?
Samir: So let’s look at some statistics. Women studying Computer Science peaked in 1984 at around 37%. By 2014, only 18% of those degrees were being awarded to women. They appear to opt-out, beginning in Middle School. For those who do pursue this degree, they often experience an ‘unwelcoming’ work environment. There are lots of opportunities in other areas where women are likely to feel more welcomed and believe they have a better shot at achieving their career goals.
Interviewer: You mentioned the environment being unwelcoming to women. Are there other factors that contribute to why it has become so difficult for women to get a foothold into and thrive in the tech industry?
Samir: Sure, absolutely. There is both a conscious and unconscious bias at play here. We all remember the treatise by the Google engineer that said women just aren’t cut out to be in technical roles. That is clearly a conscious bias and his intent was to tee up that idea for discussion. But he was making a blanket assumption about people with a certain set of chromosomes and that they aren’t predisposed for this field. We fundamentally disagree with that. It’s important to note that he said what a lot of leaders and hiring managers in tech believe. That is what plays out in hiring decisions, who gets certain assignments, mentoring, sponsorship, compensation and promotion.
These assumptions are really limiting the pool of candidates. I spent some time in the commercial landscaping industry, and the percent of men in that industry and the percentage of men in the tech sector are getting pretty close. The irony here is that one is very technical and requires a very specific education and the other is not very technical and requires limited-to-no education, but the same theme is preventing companies and leaders from expanding the pool from which they hire.
Interviewer: Clearly, one of the consequences of this decline is that women just aren’t well represented in this field. You mentioned that one result of this decline is that it cuts the talent pool in half. Are there other consequences – either intentional or unintentional – that come up in that kind of environment?
Samir: When I first started in corporate America 25 years ago, the B2B case for diversity was still a little bit tenuous. But in this case it’s very clear. When you have positions you can’t fill, you are losing opportunity to build and grow your business. Right now, the biggest barrier to growth is a lack of people – a lack of talent. Women make up over half of the population, so if you’re not fishing in that side of the pond, you are limiting yourself and losing out on business opportunities. That is the business issue number one. At a recent IT Conference, a leader in one technology company said that there are currently one million open cybersecurity jobs in the US. With all of the concerns about data breaches due to hacking, it’s more imperative than ever for companies to make sure that they are well equipped to protect their customers confidential information.
Business issue number two is not just women, but a broad swath of people from different backgrounds with different life experiences who have different DNA bring different ideas and different ways of looking at problems. Hiring people that are exactly like you will ultimately provide a narrowly tailored solution to problems. So you are missing out on the broadest possible innovation to solutions, idea creation, and problem-solving opportunities.
And of course, number 3, is the reputation of the company or industry. With women being ultimate buyers of many products and services, the reputation that is formed from the tech sector is going to have at least an unconscious impact, but likely a conscious impact on women decision makers who are buying products and services.
Interviewer: It’s pretty clear that the industry discourages women from getting a foldhold into this field. What factors do you think contribute to this systemic discouragement?
Samir: At the core of it, it’s the conscious and unconscious bias that exists. Perhaps not having exposure to women in the university degree programs, to see how they contribute at that level. That certainly has an impact. At the end of the day, we are fairly tribal as humans, so we are more comfortable with people like us and we’d rather have comfort than discomfort. So surrounding ourselves with people who look and act like us so we can have some shared camaraderie — that is typically who you will default to want to be around at work.
Interviewer: What, if anything, is being done to fix this?
Samir: In 2012, Girls Who Code was established by Reshma Saujani, an Indian American lawyer and activist who noticed the gender gap in computing classes in schools she visited in New York City after deciding to run for a Congressional seat. What started with 20 girls in the heart of New York City has grown to 50,000 girls in all 50 states. 60 top companies have pledged to hire Girls Who Code Alumni and over 160 companies are providing financial support ranging from $10k to over $500k. They specifically target middle school girls because that’s when they begin opting out of science. Another research study discovered that girls are more likely to become interested in technology when they have a female teacher. For boys, it doesn’t matter if the teacher is male or female.
Interviewer: What do you think needs to change in corporate America in order to have some positive movement here?
Samir: First and foremost accepting that this is a business issue. It isn’t some philanthropic or social movement, but that there are three compelling issues discussed above that have a financial impact on your organization. So realizing that is a good starting point. Then, really getting your leaders in a place where they are exploring their own unconscious biases and how they are impacting their decisions. And finally, reaching out to the women who are in your organization and making sure that there is nothing in their current experience that will prevent them from being ‘all in’ at work and being able to be their true selves.