We need to change the way we talk about women in tech
2017 (and 2018 so far) has seen an explosion of women opening up about sexism in their workplaces, from the athletes of USA Gymnastics to Susan Fowler’s expose of her treatment at Uber and the thousands of other women who have raised their voices with the flag of the #Metoo movement.
And with the raising of these voices have come hundreds of thinkpieces, discussing incredibly important questions of the roots of workplace sexism and, most importantly, how we can best do away with hiring discrimination in the tech industry.
We, as an internet of people who read and feel and talk about things, need to interrogate these assumptions we have, so that we can make sure our conversations are centered on the right issues. The internet is filled with smart, insightful opinions, but also with a lot of arguments that people really need to stop making, such as:
“We shouldn’t lower our hiring standards!”
The argument is tantalizingly intuitive: Companies that use affirmative action to hire women are necessarily hiring women who are less qualified than their male peers. This could exacerbate sexism because men get used to seeing women as producing a low quality of work.
For example, this popular thinkpiece by an ex-Google project manager claims that in her experience, women who are hired because of diversity programs “show up at work and perform not as great as we want them to. It reinforces to the male population that was already peeved by the diversity push that women aren’t that good at tech after all.”
Unfortunately, research shows that this argument is wrong in most cases.
The London School of Economics found that gender quotas actually don’t harm the overall quality of workers in a group. The strongest impact they have is that of pushing out mediocre men. In the political organizations the school examined, “On average, a higher female representation by 10 percentage points raised the proportion of competent men by 3 percentage points.” Meanwhile, “For the competence of women, we observe little discernible effect.”
At the end of the day, gender-based affirmative action doesn’t mean companies are hiring incompetent employees. It means they’re correcting for factors of societal discrimination that are keeping competent women out of the tech industry.
“This doesn’t fix the ‘real problem’!”
I can’t even count the number of thinkpieces I’ve read in the past year or so that have criticized a technology or hiring practice because it misses “the root cause,” “the point,” or, most frustratingly, “the real problem.”
Katharine Zaleski’s widely read New York Times op-ed criticizes voice-warping technology that masks the gender of interview applicants because it’s a “distraction from the hard work of evaluating and fixing the ways in which their cultures drive out the women who are actually hired.”
This Medium article argues that we need to stop stop focusing on hiring more women, and focus instead on encouraging women to pursue software engineering in college. Another Times op-ed argues companies should focus less on driving more women to enter the field, and more on decreasing sexism in the hiring process.
Tech Crunch claims that above all else, hiring more women is the “simple solution to tech’s gender imbalance,” while Entrepreneur counters that companies should stop focusing on hiring more women and focus instead on getting the women it has into leadership positions.
It’s important to note that all of these pieces are incredibly insightful, and are written by women with extensive personal experience with the issues they’re writing about. But perhaps the fact that they all come to different conclusions about what the “real” problem with workplace sexism is indicates that maybe we’re going about this conversation the wrong way.
Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to figure out what the “most important” issue is. If so many qualified women are claiming that different issues are important, perhaps we should recognize that gender discrepancies in the tech industry, as is the case with many social issues, is a problem with many facets and layers, and all of them are important.
If a solution doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, that’s a bad solution — attack it on those grounds. But we shouldn’t claim claim someone’s solution is a bad solution because it doesn’t solve every single problem women have. Instead, we should recognize that most problems have many causes, and we should try to solve them all.
“These places shouldn’t be hiring women anyway!”
People tend to make two arguments to support the broader point that women just shouldn’t be in tech jobs. The first is the claim that women are biologically predestined to be worse tech workers, as coined by James Damore’s infamous Google memo. I don’t have much to say to this argument except that it is wrong.
The second, and more interesting, argument I often hear is that workplaces should abandon attempts to recruit more women because these women will just face sexism once they’re hired.
It’s an unfortunate truth that most workplaces, despite their best efforts, haven’t been able to eradicate sexism. This Wired article makes a legitimate and important point about the toxicity of workplaces in the tech world.
The author points out, correctly, that the current system of recruiting women into companies, but not doing anything about the toxic workplace environment they are brought into, is unsustainable. “Tech company recruiters are novice plumbers patting themselves on the back because they found the problem and patched it, except the real pipe burst is a few years down the line, when the women who were just hired leave.”
The conclusion: “Silicon Valley should stop recruiting efforts to hire women.”
Not as explicit, but still following similar lines, is the aforementioned Times piece about gender-masked interviews. The author argues that when women aren’t anonymous in interviews and are then rejected, they’re pushed out of workplaces that would otherwise have treated them badly. “And what if her identity had been hidden?” the author asks of a woman who was rejected after an unmasked interview with a sexist manager. “The hiring manager would have probably driven her from the job in a few months, wasting his time, her time and the company’s resources.”
We can all agree that this situation is a problem. But for companies that care about their bottom lines, the solution should not be to stop hiring women. It should be to keep trying to hire more women — and to eradicate sexism in their offices at the same time.
Hiring more women makes companies grow more and perform better. Innovation-focused companies are $44 million more valuable on average when women hold their positions of power. Other research shows that female tech entrepreneurs generate 35% higher returns than male counterparts. An investment in both hiring and retaining more women actually leads to growth and greater returns for companies — hiring fewer women does not.
Female employees could also be more likely to recognize that sexism is a problem. Pew found that only 41% of men even believe that women face significant obstacles to success (compared to 63% of women). Additionally, Gallup found that women tend to make better managers than men — and a better manager is probably better able to curtail sexist behavior on their team.
Overall, it’s possible that hiring more women will help decrease workplace sexism for some companies. It certainly won’t be the entire solution — but it’s a good start, and it’s worth trying.
And finally, we should support women’s autonomy. That’s why we’re writing these thinkpieces and fighting this fight, after all: equal opportunity for women, and freedom of choice.
I want each woman to be able to choose a workplace that’s right for her, taking into account her compatibility with her position, her coworkers, and the company’s mission. Women overall will benefit if they have more job options, and if sexism (either in the hiring process or the office itself) doesn’t bar them from jobs where they might otherwise find fulfillment. So will the entire tech industry.