A crisis of diversity in tech, but progress depends on aid from allies in industry

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The United States' chief technology officer offers a way forward at SXSW

AUSTIN — Only 19% of computer science graduates in the US are female. That wasn’t always the case. In 1984, women accounted for 35% of degrees awarded. On Day 3 of SXSW Interactive, Chief Technology Officer of the United States Megan Smith detailed the reasons for that mass exodus in a keynote panel that should serve as a warning to the advertising industry.

The tech world’s problems begin with its pipeline. The high levels of training required for many jobs means good candidates need to start early in life, but there are few visible role models for underrepresented groups.

That’s not because they never existed, though. "We run our history through a rinse cycle and wash the women and people of color, and then we write the story without them," Smith said, citing influential female inventors like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper who are only now beginning to be recognized, sometimes a century or more after their accomplishments.

Even now, young women don’t see people who look like them in tech. "I had to go out of my way to get my daughter exposure to women who were coding, who were doing amazing things," said panelist Trae Vassallo, an investor and tech industry advisor. Vassallo paired up her daughter with a computer science major at Stanford, a scenario she noted isn’t a solution for most people.

Issues of access and attrition are compounded for minority groups. "African-American and Latino women look at the industry and say, ‘Why would I want to put myself through that? Why would I want to build my career at a place where I’m going to be made to feel like a token, where there’s going to be microaggressions throughout the day, where the systems and institutions may be biased against me so that I’m not actually going to be able to attain the highest levels of success that I might be able to see elsewhere?’" said panelist Laura Weidman Powers, co-founder and CEO of CODE2040. "There is an issue of proactive, very rational opting out."

That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress, but Smith said efforts have fallen short. "We’ve walked away from the majority of overt bias. It’s still there, but we’ve made no progress in pretty much the last 30 years in implicit bias."

Institutional bias is also a factor, she added, and can manifest in surprising ways. When Salesforce reviewed the salaries of all its female employees, Smith said, the data showed that women at the company were being overpaid. A deeper analysis revealed that was because senior women had been passed over for promotions, placing them at the top of the pay scale in lower-tier positions.

And even in cases where management is aware of a problem and wants to rectify it, good intentions can go awry. "A lot of mentorship and sponsorship, if allowed to happen organically, tends to be people at senior levels who pick people who remind them of themselves," Powers said, a process that compounds underrepresentation. Among senior management, there’s also a "hesitancy about providing direct feedback," she said, that stems from a fear of being perceived as racist or sexist, even if that feedback would actually be helpful.

"Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable," Powers said, addressing both minorities and the people working with them.

Much of the equivocating and hand-wringing from industry is unnecessary, Smith said. The best way to hire more women and people of color is to just hire them. It’s easy to find underrepresented talent, simply by asking for recommendations.

People often come up and say, ‘My friend is applying to your company.’ Inevitably it will be a majority man. I want to hire them, and I ask the second question: Do you know a woman or a person of color that’s that good? And I get a name."

Smith added that the onus for making changes in the system must fall on those who benefit from it as well, not just those who are shut out. "We can only fix it if we all fix it," she said, a sentiment Powers echoed.

When asked to name the greatest contributor to real change regarding women in tech, Powers pointed to the gatekeepers. "I think it’s men."


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