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Ending the Unconscious Sexism of the Tech Industry

“Are you… a feminist?”

This was a colleague's opening question to me, delivered after a long pause, during a meeting between us several years ago. This was not how I had expected our meeting to begin and, taken aback somewhat, I paused an equally long time before replying “Yes… and don’t you think that I should be?”

Eventually, he approached more directly what was on his mind. I had recently promoted a woman to a relatively senior position within the organisation and there had to be some explanation. That she was an experienced, capable professional, ready for advancement couldn’t possibly be it. So perhaps the “problem” was that I was a feminist?

I must admit that there have been occasions during my career in the tech-industry when I have felt a little ashamed of my gender. That conversation was one of those times.

I was reminded of that feeling again, this summer, as grisly cases of Silicon Valley harassment and discrimination came to light, and made our industry shift awkwardly on its feet. But at least I can say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of professionals that I have worked with in my career would be as dismayed by those revelations as I am.

Far more damaging to our industry and its people than these calculated abuses of power is the unconscious sexism of the type displayed by my then colleague, the stuff that doesn’t make the news but that persists in the background. We bemoan the shortage of talent that impedes the development of our organisations, our industry and the rate of human achievement.

But, at the same time, a low-level, unconscious bias still operates inside too many businesses, making the technology sector a more difficult environment for women than it is for men. In addition to the impact this has on the individuals subjected to it, the aggregate effect is to remove talent and potential from our industry. This subject is still largely taboo in the technology sector. But we need to talk about it, because this is the 21st century and it shouldn’t be like this by now.

Early in my career, I remember being irritated upon reading or overhearing views like those I’ve just expressed. Maybe that's how you are feeling too, having read the lines above. After all, like you, I was personally convinced that I operated with no trace of gender-bias, nor could I perceive that anyone around me did. Sure, I would occasionally come across unreconstructed sexists from time to time, but they increasingly stood out awkwardly in the environment of a modern, professional and meritocratic software company, and I knew that I and the majority of my colleagues weren’t like that.

And I also had confidence in the explanation that women were under-represented in technical and executive-technical roles because the schools and universities didn’t produce a sufficient pipeline of female technical graduates. Yes, I was vaguely troubled as to why they weren't able to, but there was nothing that I could really do about it, so I let the thought pass. And that’s where I left the subject for a long time.

But then I started to realise that my comfort on all these points was misplaced. The more experience I gained in the industry, in technical, leadership and consulting roles, the more uneasy I became about it. I started to notice and pay attention to patterns of business behaviour that, once the nuances and indirections were stripped back, could perhaps best be described as soft-discrimination. This largely unconscious behaviour was practiced by both men and women towards women.

The recent and unfortunate Google employee memo dispiritingly illustrates this bias painfully well. The author is, I’m sure, well-intentioned in his way, but he mis- understands the cause-and-effect of the matter. In fact he has it exactly the wrong way round. He accounts for the lack of women in technical and executive roles by suggesting that women, on average, aren’t as biologically or temperamentally suited to such positions, which accounts for the lack of available graduates which, in turn, accounts for the lack of women in tech, generally.

What he doesn’t account for is the effect that views like his, taken in aggregate, have on women who want to pursue such careers in the first place, nor for the effect this bias has on the younger generations considering their university and school-subject options.

When I read that memo, I picture all the corridor-conversations that led to it, and similar views that remain unexpressed directly but that manifest elsewhere, in promotion-boards, interview de-briefs and other decision forums. This aggregated exclusionary pressure has a cascading effect, from businesses to universities to schools, right down to pre-school social programming: without a sufficient number of role models and established norms at the level above, the effect is to reduce participation in the level below.

So, while we debate the reasons for an insufficiency of women in senior or technical roles today, we are actually just observing the effect of the attitudes of the preceding generation. The unwitting discouragement given to women in one generation creates the pipeline shortages in the next. This is the true nature of the cause-and-effect that’s operating.

What does that discouragement look like, on a daily basis? Well, here are some examples:

  • We think of certain hiring roles as “male” and communicate about them accordingly. Examples include senior engineer, product-manager and director. When we refer to roles such as these that are open for recruitment, many of us still refer to the currently unknown future person that will fill that role as “he”. It may seem like a small thing, but what effect does that conditioning have on the women in an organisation who aspire to such roles?

  • A woman in a senior or other classic “male” role receives more scrutiny of her performance than a man of the same ability and experience. Example: If a project or product is experiencing problems then there’s a greater likelihood that the project or product manager will be considered to be personally responsible for those problems if she is female. And not after a systematic analysis of the actual causes has been performed, but before.

  • If she demonstrates assertiveness or passionate leadership, a woman is likely to be counselled later by a well-meaning executive for being “too aggressive” or “too emotional”. A man of equivalent assertiveness or passion will almost certainly not be. In fact, he may well be applauded for it. Men are assertive but women are too aggressive. Men are passionate but women are too emotional. Conversely, if she doesn't display those attributes, then she is "too nice" or "too meek" while her male equivalent "gets on with the job" , "is a team player" or "keeps his own counsel".

  • We make little allowance for a woman joining a male-dominated executive team in a tech-business. It’s natural to feel more self-conscious and initially less confident if you are the only woman on that team. Precedent-setting is lonely. A voice in your head whispers “Why are you the only woman here? Do these guys think you don’t belong? Maybe you don’t... etc.” As if to confirm that doubt, you can sense the dynamic change as you enter the room, that slight uneasiness you feel at your intrusion upon the boys’ club. It’s quite an additional stress-tax to load onto a woman who is finding her way in her first senior role. But, as colleagues, we rarely acknowledge that tax, let alone attempt to reduce it or otherwise mitigate it. In fact, more likely we will aggravate those self-doubts when we then act as per the point above.

  • "Who did she sleep with to get that promotion?" No further comment required on the undermining effect of this one. But how many of us can honestly report that we've never heard someone say that about a female colleague, or words in kind? This is a crude example of the generalised form: "what aspect of being female outweighed the limitations of being female in this case". Another example in the same vein is the whispered: "I see we have a woman on the board now... I guess they needed to tick that diversity box."

The net effect of all this is that women are frequently expected to consistently perform at a higher standard and with more discipline than most of the men around them to be assessed as being equal to them, when in a “male” role. It’s not the official policy of any business that I know, no-one consciously plans it that way, or thinks about it in those terms. But there it is, just the same, in too many workplaces. Little wonder, then, that a large percentage of women who enter the tech industry, leave it early.

In aggregate, these types of pressures lead to a ghetto-ization of women in the tech industry; implicitly discouraged from senior roles and other "male" disciplines, women find themselves in functions "more suited to women", like HR and Marketing. Both are certainly very important professions, but women should be able to operate across the full spectrum of opportunity without constraint, just as men do. And in those disciplines where the majority of employees are female, the VP is nevertheless very often male.

One small step for man, one giant leap for womankind?

I’m proud to work with many men and women, CEOs and those in other positions, who have actively championed progressive and balanced workplaces. But how do we finally and completely eliminate this remaining, unconscious bias that does so much damage to individual career fulfilment and to our industry as a whole?

The first step we take needn't be so very large for it to nevertheless bring about meaningful change. Most of the people in our industry are well-intentioned; they care about doing what's right and fair, once conscious of an issue and its root causes. With such a tail-wind, we can travel a long way, and quickly.

The first step then is simply to make the unconscious, conscious. We could each begin by accepting that a bias does exist within our industry, or at least by being open to the possibility that it does, and that we – both men and women – are contributing to it. We could take seriously the possibility that the inter-generational cause-and-effect of that bias greatly increases not only its potency but also our individual agency in being able to eliminate it. And that, with agency, comes responsibility.

Suppose more of us took that position, stepping out from under that comforting shelter of believing that gender differences and genetics entirely dictate the state of the industry's demography and that it's all out of our hands to address. That would be enough to increase our self-awareness of our own biases beyond the threshold of unconsciousness. In time, that consciousness would change how we think and what we decide to do, on a day-to-day basis.

Specifically, we could each spend more time reflecting on what it’s really like to be a woman trying to break into a senior technical or executive role, and the headwinds that she faces. And, whichever gender each of us is, we could regularly reflect on our own behaviours, language, assumptions and reactions to the various situations that arise in business, in this regard. We could check-in regularly with ourselves as to whether, through what we have done today, we have contributed to the further reinforcement of gender bias or to its dismantlement.

Change = Intent X Awareness. If each of us took and sustained just these simple steps then, fuelled by our good intentions, a better business environment would begin to form for women in tech today and for their daughters to follow.

Because, in the meantime, we just aren’t moving fast enough towards equality of treatment in the tech-industry, and we are all complicit. Future generations will look back on ours with scorn and disbelief at the retarding attitudes that persist within it today. At engineering teams that are female deserts. At boards and executive teams with few or no women on them. At the tacit belief among too many otherwise intelligent professionals that “women just aren’t as biologically or temperamentally suited to senior-management and technical roles”, and that belief's befuddling effect on our understanding of the part we each play in the exclusionary cycle of cause-and-effect.

Such a description wouldn’t sound out of place in an article written in the 1800s or during the female-enfranchisement struggle of the early twentieth century. We should all be uneasy, if not ashamed, about its relevance to the twenty-first. We may not be able to repair the demographics of the tech-industry overnight, but we absolutely do have a shared responsibility to begin.

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