The Stack Archive Feature

The Voice of the Industry: Fixing the gender diversity travesty

Thu 7 Dec 2017

Very few people alive today can remember the era when women couldn’t vote. As laws and attitudes continue to improve, many argue that society has arrived at the destination of gender equality.

That illusion has been violently shattered in recent months. A scandal in Hollywood has once again raised the question of sexual harassment at work, followed by the #MeToo campaign, and Time magazine’s decision to name the ‘Silence Breakers’ as its Person of the Year.

These battles are fought everywhere. Women in tech are shining a light on the blatant inequality that still exists in what is, unfortunately, a male-dominated industry. Here are three women in the industry and their take.

Lin Classon, Director, Commercial Product Management, Hyperscale Cloud, ‎Ensono

Classon got in touch with The Stack after attending AWS re:Invent and discovering a disturbing lack of women. Particularly noticeable to her were a series of deserted women’s bathrooms. Here she speaks about her experience at the event. The Stack reached out to Amazon for comment but has not yet received a reply. 

The question that popped into my head as I walked into every session at this conference was inevitably, “Am I the only woman here?” Then I would spot a few other women sprinkled around the vast conference rooms, and I’d sigh a quiet sigh of relief. I actually participated in a brief exchange, estimating what the percentage was. We came to an agreement of no more than 5%, not counting the staff.

I had a few Twitter exchanges with other women – the format of social media tends to encourage an open thread discussion where people come together to share similar experiences. But other than the above mentioned brief exchange at the event, no. We may smile at each other when we spot another female – or at least, I make a point to. We don’t get together to gripe, in all honesty.

We attend these events because we are engineers, product managers, inventors, entrepreneurs, analysts, etc. who happen to be women. We are not actively seeking evidence to prove what we already are aware of. There is no intent to “gotcha”.

I was at the Gartner IT Symposium, an event targeting CIOs and CTOs, in October. I took several pictures of empty, clean and comfortable ladies rooms there also – this has been an inside joke with my girlfriends. A great sense of humour is oftentimes the best defence and offense.

Although I’ve come to take it for granted that I would not see a lot of women at tech-related conferences, somehow AWS re:Invent caught me off guard. Perhaps it’s the sheer volume of attendees that amplified further the gender disparity. What may also have compounded the situation was, the fact that events like AWS re:Invent and Google IO attract a lot of software developers – and statistically, there are a lot fewer female software developers.

Companies with diverse employees tend to be more innovative and more profitable

On a high level, the stark presence of women in the tech-oriented sessions at re:Invent is a symptom of what we’ve been talking about in the tech industry for a while now. We need to grow and sustain the pipeline of women in the STEM field.

We need to ensure girls are not discouraged from choosing a career in STEM; we need to ensure young women do not leave the field after they obtain their degrees in STEM; we need to ensure women do not step out of the workforce often because they feel they’re made to choose between a career and a family.

Sandy Carter from Amazon responded to my tweet. As with all female leaders, she’s fully aware of the statistics and the challenges. In fact, she’s the kind of female leaders we need more of – she’s outspoken about the need to grow the pipeline of female leaders, serving on the board of Girls in Tech.

I believe that Amazon, like all other big tech firms, is making a conscientious effort to bridge the gap. It created a Diversity at re:Invent site, and there was a session and networking event, “She Powers Tech: Women Supporting Women in Tech,” showcasing female innovators.

I think it’s every company’s responsibility to foster diversity within their employees. It’s also simply the smart thing to do – diversity is good for business. Companies with diverse employees tend to be more innovative and more profitable.

For companies such as Amazon, or any of The Four (as NYU professor Scott Galloway has taken to calling Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google), I also believe it’s their responsibility to step up and help guide the change and pave the way for the world we want our children to live in.

My short term solution is this: Continue to host more of these events to showcase women in tech and connect them with female leaders who could serve as mentors and supporters. There could be more of a focus on special scholarships, applications, stipends, etc. to encourage women to apply and attend schools where they can receive a STEM education.

call-for-women-2018-1Events and conferences should continue to have female keynote speakers on stage. Representations are important, not just for the other women currently in the industry or are considering entering the industry.

Arguably, representations are even more important for bringing up the next generation of women engineers, inventors, and leaders – you can’t be what you can’t see.

This leads me to some ideas for how to solve this long-term: Generate awareness of unconscious bias – this includes how parents and educators may unconsciously discourage girls from pursuing interests that are traditionally not thought of as for girls. Support and participate in organizations and events such as Girls Who Code.

I know that not every girl wants to be a software developer, but the way the world is moving, it is important for every child to have the basic understanding of how software code works.

We won’t be able to raise the number right away, but it is important that we continue to make steady progress and do not backslide.

Case in point: CES (Consumer Electronic Show) has been under fire for having an all-male keynote lineup at the 2018 event this January. The reason given was that because they’re looking for CEOs, female keynote speakers were hard to come by. 

Tara O’Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft

There have always been challenges with women entering jobs that are seen as ‘for men’ – from directors all the way to the Supreme Court. Let’s face it, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) compromises mainly of white males.  People tend to hire people they recognise and identify with.

Encouraging women to get into STEM ultimately starts with education – from school to the boardroom

This unconscious bias can foster negative attitudes and lead to damaging stereotypical behaviours that affect the education, hiring, promotion, and retention of women in STEM. Just look at James Damore’s Google manifesto.  He truly believes the age-old adages: that women are better suited to social and artistic careers; that they would struggle with making controversial leadership decisions. Without realising, many men carry these views subconsciously.

These views, however, simply don’t stand up to the facts. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, Forbes found. Additionally, a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee than non-diverse companies did.

Encouraging women to get into STEM ultimately starts with education – from school to the boardroom.  In school, coding should be mandatory for everyone; complex problem solving and critical thinking should be part of everyday life. In the workplace, training programmes can help people understand conscious and unconscious bias; both helping people to change the way they think, and call out unfair behaviour.

Marianne Calder, VP & MD for EMEA at Puppet

The tech sector is infamously hard to break into for women, and in light of recent directives for gender equality and women’s leadership, there is still a vast amount of room for improvement. In my role leading EMEA for Puppet, a fast-growing software automation company, I find that most of my peers are male.

Diverse teams always perform better, and it is our job to make sure we are facilitating this

Women hold only 5% of leadership positions in the tech industry. This is a disappointingly low figure and something I’m passionate about changing. I believe that gender equality begins when employees are empowered to use their voices to create change, and women leaders can actively champion them.

For all industry decision-makers and managers, there is also a clear responsibility on our part to ensure we are recruiting the best of the best. How can this be achieved however if we are only concentrating on half of the talent pool? In my experience, the entire HR process from recruitment to development and onto career progression need to reflect a true desire for diversity.

We need a larger pipeline of diverse talent to fuel a stronger intake and then a strong set of role models and mentoring programs to help support women as they successfully progress into management roles.

Diverse teams always perform better, and it is our job to make sure we are facilitating this.

Come back next week for more new takes on hot topics.


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