This post originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
This July at a downtown Toronto restaurant, several IBM executives were caught exchanging some disturbingly candid views on women in the workplace. Freelance computer coder Lyndsay Kirkham, who happened to be seated at a nearby table, live tweeted the overheard conversation. “Apparently IBM doesn’t like hiring young women because they are ‘just going to get themselves pregnant again and again and again,’ Kirkham tweeted. “They went on to say that they only look at ‘mature women’ who aren’t likely to have kids. Absolutely awful.”
In fairness, it should be pointed out that IBM hasn’t acknowledged or responded to the Tweets. But the comments, sadly, track some of the prevailing undercurrents in the industry. Tech — for all of its obsessions with innovation, disruption and challenging stale ideas — remains in many respects an old boys’ club. Even at some of the most progressive companies, the gender imbalance is pronounced.
At Google, 30% of global employees are women. But only 17% of tech roles and 21% of leadership positions are filled by women. At Facebook, women constitute 31% of employees but fill only 15% of tech positions and 23% of senior level roles. Stats at Twitter, Yahoo and Intel — all of whom should be commended for voluntarily disclosing these employment figures — are surprisingly similar.
After reading this, I wanted to see how my company stacked up. Among Hootsuite’s roughly 600 employees, 40% are women and they fill 23% of tech roles and 38% of leadership positions. This comes out a bit better — but certainly not much — than at the other companies. I began to wonder what exactly we were doing differently and, more importantly, what we could do better.
I don’t think the impact of workplace culture can be overstated. Although we may have a youthful spirit at my company — foosball, taps in the office, rooftop parties — we’ve tried to avoid the testosterone-drenched fratboy atmosphere that sometimes prevails at startups. To the extent we’ve succeeded, I think this might have something to do with being based in Vancouver, a city with a history of liberal politics and ideas. But it also has a lot to do with the group of people who started the company and their own role models.
Anecdotes don’t carry much weight in the data-driven startup world, but I’ll briefly say that my mother was an entrepreneur herself. She ran a clothing boutique in a small town. She encouraged me to start my first business when I was still in high school. So to me, there was never anything remotely out of place about women in startups.
I think as a result we were able to embrace the best elements of the Silicon Valley scene — the willingness to take risks, the disrespect for precedent, the relaxed, come-as-you-are office environment — and steer clear of some of the misogyny and other hangups. We hired the best people for the job, and they found an atmosphere where merit and enthusiasm, not gender, mattered. Bringing aboard the right kind of people, in turn, created a virtuous cycle: As we expanded to dozens, then hundreds of employees, the culture we created evolved and thrived thanks to their contributions.
This type of atmosphere can make a big difference. Overall, more than 52% of women in private-sector science and tech jobs drop out without returning, according to a 2008 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy. And one of the main reasons cited is “hostile macho cultures — the hard hat culture of engineering, the geek culture of technology or the lab culture of science.”
Companies that enable or encourage fratboy, brogrammer antics — be that in the form of tasteless jokes or rude lingo or general narrow-mindedness– actively alienate women from their workforce. How they can possibly afford to do so? — When tech talent is so hard to come by – is another matter altogether. As entrepreneur and advocate Dan Shapiro notes, “To literally handicap yourself by 50% is insanity.” Given the apparent pervasiveness of this kind of antagonistic environment, it’s little wonder that a gender imbalance persists.
But there’s another side to this story — obviously related but distinct — that also needs to be told.
A major part of the reason there’s a gender disparity in tech is that there are so few women applying for tech positions. In a recent post, I noted that out of every 10 people interviewed for a tech role at our office, nine are men. I don’t think this is unusual. In other words, it’s not necessarily that women are being screened against in job interviews (as the IBM Tweet controversy suggests); it’s that there aren’t a lot of female applicants out there to begin with.
The numbers bear this out. Over the past two decades, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in almost all science and technology fields has increased, sometimes dramatically — with one important exception. “Computer science actually is more male-dominated today than it was two decades ago,” writes the New York Times’ science columnist Catherine Rampell. In 1991, women received 29.6% of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.; in 2010, they received just 18.2%.
Something is deterring young women from entering the field in the first place. But when is this happening and why? By the time girls are in high school, tech has often already been ruled out as a career option. Less than 1% of high school girls express an interest in majoring in computer science in university, according to a report from the American Association of University Women.
Clearly, making headway on gender imbalance requires getting more girls interested in computer science at an earlier age. This isn’t a quick fix or an easy one. It involves rewriting perceptions of programming as a “boys’ thing” and showing that rewarding careers await women as well. Fortunately, there’s a growing movement afoot to do just that.
Efforts are scattered across North America but expanding fast. Started in 2012, Girls Who Code has spawned a nationwide network of clubs and camps to teach young girls everything from mobile design to robotics. Meanwhile, Canada-based Ladies Learning Code has introduced more than 8,000 women and girls to programming since 2011. Concerned about its own gender gap, Google recently pledged $50 million to programs like these and offers a comprehensive list of opportunities on its Made with Code website.
Breaking the Cycle
Of course, in the startup world, entrepreneurship and tech often go hand in hand. And the same gender disparities that affect tech roles are even more pronounced when it comes to startup founders. Just 1.3% of founders at privately held, venture-backed companies are women, according to a 2012 Dow Jones study.
For me, finding ways to interweave entrepreneurship and tech — and get young women interested not just in engineering but in creating their own businesses — is an absolutely critical step in changing tech culture and addressing the gender imbalance. Women founders, after all, have the opportunity to create their own workplaces, actively redefining the atmosphere and attitudes in the startup world.
Fostering just this kind of shift was the motivation behind starting an entrepreneurial mentorship program called The Next Big Thing. This year, we’re receiving our first group of 10 young entrepreneurs, three of whom are women. Chosen in a competitive process from hundreds of applicants, they’ll spend a six-month residency inside our company, incubating their own startup ideas and getting the technical and business tools to succeed. It’s no accident that the program’s co-founder, Meredith Powell, is a successful entrepreneur herself with a long history of supporting women in tech. The goal is to show participants that both women and men can be a force in the startup world.
The gender imbalance in tech has proved stubborn for good reason: To borrow a line from The Children’s Defense Fund founder and social justice activist Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Getting young women interested in tech and providing role models is an important step forward (though certainly not the only step). Once women are able to realistically see themselves in tech careers and at the helm of startups, the self-perpetuating old boys’ club myth will start to crumble.
Help us change tech’s gender imbalance. Check out our careers page and apply today.