Friends without benefits: the trouble with women and tech

Women are quitting the technology sector in their droves, and brands should pay attention, writes Nicola Kemp.

The culture and hyper-masculine language of the tech start-up scene has been underpinned by Facebook’s early mantra "Move fast and break things". Moreover, it is a way of thinking that has left more than a trail of nimble new products and venture-capitalist-backed innovation in its wake. 

From female co-founders whose involvement has been edited out of their company’s business stories by their male peers to women journalists facing the possibility of smears by start-ups, and the death threats and misogyny displayed every day on social-media platforms, it is clear that the technology sector is facing a monumental diversity problem. 

While the "move fast" motto aptly encompasses the gains that technology has made, critics believe that, at the same time, its culture remains in the dark ages, with significant implications for brands. For many women, the principle is particularly grating when their experience of working in the sector is more akin to a slow demise brought about by the myriad faces of sexism. 

In a quietly savage assessment by Julie Pagano, a software engineer who currently works at Google, detailing her experience as a woman at male-dominated former employers, she wrote: "I learned early that sometimes being a software engineer means death by 1000 cuts because you don’t have the power to make it stop. Even the tiniest little things add up to something big – sometimes it’s really death by 1000 paper cuts."

Broken promises

The technology that promised to liberate us all and forge greater connections, and which has, to its credit, provided the airways for a vibrant fourth wave of feminism, is also systematically excluding and abusing half of the population.

While the number of conferences and events that promote women in technology has risen dramatically, in real terms, representation within the workplace is falling, as women drop out of the tech sector in their droves.

According to findings from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Harvard Business Publishing, via the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 56% of women quit the tech sector by mid-career – a statistic no amount of ‘wine and cheese’ evenings can adequately address.

Belinda Parmar, chief executive of campaigning creative agency Lady Geek, says that, despite growing awareness of the problem over the past 20 years, the proportion of women in computer science in the US has dropped from nearly 40% to 20% today.

In the US in 2012, 17% of the tech workforce was female but in 2013 this had dropped to 16%. "We’ve seen an increase of women in medicine, law and physical science, but we have not seen an increase in the number of women in computer science," she adds.

These figures make for depressing reading, but why should brands care about the lack of diversity in the tech industry? "Technology brands have failed to realise that this is a commercial agenda, not a feminist one," says Parmar. "More women now buy smartphones and play casual games, and every social network, with the exception of LinkedIn, is now dominated by women."

 

Is i-equality reality?

i-Equality

The uncomfortable juxtaposition of networks pre-dominantly run by men but populated by women is firmly under attack. In fact, many in the industry argue that we are approaching a tipping point when it comes to the relationship between women and technology. 

There were more than 6m instances of the words "slut" and "whore" posted on Twitter in English between December 2013 and February 2014

Liz Bacelar, founder and president of Decoded Fashion, a global event series connecting decision-makers in fashion, beauty and retail with technology companies, says that things are beginning to move in the right direction. 

"At Berkeley – a top school for the computer science world – women now out-number men on one of its introduction courses," she adds. "Some tech giants, such as PayPal, Yahoo! and Apple, have made headlines with new female hires in leadership roles, and the number of female VCs is also on the rise."

In line with this, some in the industry believe that we should take a more ‘glass half-full’ approach to the issue of under-representation.

Rebecca Moody, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London, asks whether "the ladies are protesting too much" about this perceived tussle between women and tech, especially given that this century is being touted as ‘the century of the woman’. She adds: "Yes, women are currently under-represented. But I am hopeful that a whole new era of i-equality is fast approaching."

However, it is difficult to support the ‘protesting too much’ argument in a climate where Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, used the platform of a women in technology conference to implore them not to ask for a pay rise and instead have faith that "the system" would deliver appropriate compensation. At a time when the pay gap between genders remains eye-wateringly wide, i-equality is far from a reality. 

Technology may be developing apace, but it is difficult to argue that the sector’s shift to embrace diversity has been anything other than painfully slow. 

"Recruitment is largely relationship-based," points out Bacelar. "Male developers teams tend to hire more of what they know best – [other] male developers.

It has been working well: from the venture world to the developer world, tech was a boy’s playground. Everything started changing in 2013, and the narrative has arisen – gender diversity matters and is achievable. The initial argument was that there were not enough women to hire or fund. The answer to that today is – you’re not looking hard enough."

Certainly, the biggest tech brands recognise they have a problem. Google said in a statement: "We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity." It added: "All our diversity efforts are designed to ensure Google recruits and retains many more women and minorities in the future. We are making investments for the long term to increase the number of women and minorities in computer science. Among other things, since 2010 we’ve given more than $40m to organisations working to bring computer-science education to women and girls."

Elsewhere, Facebook and Apple have taken a more controversial approach to this problem, hitting the headlines with the news that they include ‘egg-freezing’ in their employee health benefits. 

Regardless of the uncomfortable ethical issues, some have inferred that it suggests these companies actively encourage their female employees to delay having children in order to pursue a career. 

However, Caireen Wackett, managing director of integrated agency Portas, believes technology brands should be applauded for challenging the norm. She explains: "Although controversial from any employer, egg-freezing offers women more choice in their own destinies, which can only be a good thing."

Nonetheless, some HR professionals have baulked at the suggestion that egg-freezing is the solution to tech’s diversity problem. Rosie Shimell, HR manager at digital agency iCrossing, says tech companies need to show that they will properly support those women looking to have children. "They need to offer flexibility, which they are very well-placed to do. Tech companies should be leading the way in the world of working mums and yet they are limping along at the back of the pack."

56% of women quit the technology sector by mid-careers

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc.

Mind the VC gap 

The lack of diversity in the technology sector is particularly apparent in start-ups. This is despite the fact that research conducted by the Kauffman Foundation has shown that private technology companies led by women are more capital-efficient, achieving 35% higher ROI, and, when venture-backed, 12% higher revenue than their male-owned equivalents. However, the Founda-tion’s study into ‘Gateways of venture growth’ points out that the VC sector remains very ‘male’ and ‘clubby’, and the lack of female role models creates a self-perpetuating cycle.

Certainly the heady combination of fast funding and a failure to understand the basics of HR management in creating an ethical company culture has helped forge a start-up world peppered with sexism. One recent example was a lawsuit brought against dating app company Tinder by Whitney Wolfe, who claimed she was stripped of her co-founder status because her male colleague felt that having a young woman as a co-founder "makes the company look like a joke".

The potential damage this type of culture can do to a brand has been placed into sharp relief by the ongoing trials and tribulations of Uber and its outspoken chief executive, Travis Kalanick.

No stranger to controversy, he reportedly refers to the taxi-app company as "Boober" because the brand’s success has boosted his attractiveness to the opposite sex.

The company hit the headlines late last year after an executive’s dinner-party conversation, during which he raised the idea of smearing a female journalist, was leaked. The journalist in question, Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy, summed up Uber’s corporate environment as being part of a wider "asshole culture" and called on readers to delete the app. 

While Uber is perhaps an extreme example, it is clear that toxic company cultures have the potential to seriously damage consumer-facing brands. 

However, it is not just start-ups that are failing women. Apple highlighted the inherent flaws in an app economy created primarily by men, for men, when it unveiled its much-hyped Apple HealthKit last year. The app, which tracks almost every conceivable measure of health, has one glaring omission – menstruation.
Tech website The Verge asked: "Is it really too much to ask that Apple treat women and their health with as much care as they’ve treated humanity’s sodium intake?" 

Unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she’s stupid

The trouble with Twitter

The lack of diversity within social-media companies is particularly unsettling in the light of the volume of abuse directed at women on social-media platforms. Brands that have had commercial messages appear next to this kind of content have already suffered substantial repercussions, so marketers should beware of believing this is a niche issue. 

A report, ‘Misogyny on Twitter’, published by research and policy organisation Demos last June, found more than 6m instances of the words "slut" and "whore", in English, posted on Twitter between 26 December 2013 and 9 February 2014. An estimated 20% of those tweets surveyed for the study appeared threatening to the researchers.

Amy Kean, head of futures at media agency Havas Media, says that such trolling, however brutal and emotionally damaging, is a legal issue and should be treated as such. She explains: "When public figures with big followings act in an intimidating way, it’s the role of the platform, such as Twitter, to ensure people are using it appropriately."

It is not only public figures that are victims of abuse – or perpetrators of bullying – online. According to the Pew Research Center, 25% of young women online have been sexually harassed there and 26% have experienced stalking. Moreover, Pew found that women overall are disproportionately targeted by the most severe form of online abuse. 

Kirsten Miller, managing partner at media agency Maxus, says that technology brands should tackle the bullying and abuse that happens on their platforms, ensuring it is minimised and removed where possible. 

However, she adds: "We shouldn’t blame technology brands for bullying. Penalising those companies is just a sticking plaster on a much bigger problem. These are societal issues – the problems have always been there. Social media just offers the same idiots apparent anonymity and a bigger platform for shouting about it. What’s needed is education to stop it happening in the first place."

Indeed, it is important to remember that this is not specifically a ‘social-media problem’. As historian Mary Beard, who has faced savage attacks on Twitter, explained in the London Review of Books, these attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hardwired into our culture. "Unpopular, controversial or just plain different views when voiced by a woman are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she’s stupid."

 Leigh is a Security Engineer at Heroku, a Salesforce.com company

Fourth-wave feminism

Despite these issues, social media, has, as mentioned, also helped to forge a vibrant ‘fourth wave’ of feminism. It has created a space for people of all backgrounds and experiences to express themselves and amplify their voices. According to Twitter, the conversation about feminism on the platform has increased by 300% over the past three years. Meanwhile, research from Change.org shows that women are 2.5 times more likely to sign online petitions than their male counterparts.

Women’s voices are a powerful force. In one high-profile example, in just seven days, a campaign by Women, Action, & the Media, the Everyday Sexism Project and the activist Soraya Chemaly led Facebook to change its policies on content endorsing rape and domestic violence. 

Private technology companies led by women are more capital-efficient, achieving 35% higher ROI, and, when venture-backed, 12% higher revenue than male-owned equivalents

Notably, it was the decisive action of brands with advertising that had run next to distressing content on Facebook that heaped the pressure on the social network to act quickly. Those that escaped unscathed from the debacle were the ones that acted not only swiftly, but with integrity. Nissan UK, which was one of the first brands to suspend its ads, took a very human approach by pointing out how much the content had upset people in its office.

In contrast, when under pressure, Unilever’s Dove, a brand that was built on the notion of empowering women, completely under-estimated the weight of support for the campaign. It declared: "As Facebook advertising targets people, not pages, we cannot select which pages our advertising appears on." 

The backlash against Dove was predictably fierce, and remains a telling reminder of what happens when a brand fails to be true to its values, or believes its advertising appears in a moral vacuum. As each week seems to bring yet another example of barbaric and antisocial behaviour, online marketers would be well-advised to see Dove’s failure as a brand morality tale for the digital age.

 

Beyond the window-dressing 

The success of online activism is just one facet of the many ways in which women are successfully reshaping and rebuilding online culture. Yet, while there is no shortage of events and discussions about the role of women in the technology sector, critics contend that this is little more than window-dressing. 

When more than 50% of the sector’s female workforce is leaving halfway through their careers, focusing the discussion on the lack of women on boards, or the few women who make it to the top, is the corporate equivalent of salads at McDonald’s – it’s something no one is buying. Yet, arguably, it provides an easier ‘problem’ for tech brands to address, as opposed to unpicking the complex economic and social constructs leading women to quit.

This is certainly the approach taken by Shanley Kane, editor of independent online tech title Model View Culture, who has been a fierce critic of the ‘corporate feminism’ espoused by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Kane explained: "One of the fundamental objections is that it tends to ignore broader systems of sexism, racism, queerphobia, transphobia, and these structural oppressions are at the root of why women don’t succeed in technology. Instead of talking about that, Lean In says ‘You need to work harder and smarter, and you personally need to become very successful’, which promotes exceptionalism, rather than structural change. You know, many women are already working harder and smarter than everyone around them."

Many forward-thinking agencies are attempting to address the diversity issue head-on. Matthew Payne, head of creative tech-nology at social agency We Are Social, says to truly address the lack of women working in technology, there’s still much to be done at a grass-roots level. Appointing more female leaders and senior management in tech companies, as long as they are right for the job, is a good first step, but that is all it is. 

"We need to tackle the issue much earlier on by getting children excited about technology, regardless of sex, and train them from an early age," he adds.

Yet many women believe an emphasis on the ‘talent pipeline’ and education serves to protect companies from addressing the internal structural and economic reasons preventing more women from embarking on a career in technology, and why, of those that do, such a high proportion subsequently leave. 

As Leigh Honeywell (pictured, above), an engineer at app services company Heroku, so aptly tweeted: "A small request: next time you see a company promoting a ‘getting girls coding’ project, ask what they are doing to retain women employees."

The current situation is both unsustainable and commercially damaging, as it prevents brands from reaching their true potential. If a business fails to retain women in the workplace, how can it possibly hope to maintain them as long-term customers and advocates for the brand? 

Subscribe to Campaign from just £57 per quarter

Includes weekly and quarterly print issues, plus unrestricted online access.

SUBSCRIBE

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Just published