Monday, March 30, 2015

Silicon sexism

In February this year a sex discrimination case hit the headlines in Silicon valley, California. It involved Ellen Pao who claimed that she had been unfairly held back (i.e. not promoted) by her investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers because she was female. The firm eventually fired her at which point she filed against the company seeking millions of dollars ($17 Million) in compensation; she lost her case on all counts. Now, I've no idea what the details of this case were, sounds like it wasn't that strong since she lost on all counts but no matter, the rights and wrongs of it aren't the point of my interest. What's interesting for me is how the media have reported this story and the angle they've chosen to take on it.

Most of the articles I've seen on this case conclude or suggest that there's a problem in the technology industry to do with the fact that Women are under represented in top jobs, some go on to suggest that Women aren't properly represented in the technology industry across the board and that there may be gender bias going on, it's these broader issues that I want to examine. It's also interesting to note that Ellen Pao wasn't actually in the technology industry, she was in the finance industry working for a venture capital company providing investment to technology companies, an entirely different thing, perhaps a more pertinent question in this case would be is there gender bias in financial services?

So, is there gender bias in technology industries? The short answer is no. The long answer is, it depends whether you consider preference to be the same as bias, i.e. if less Women choose to take technology related courses at school and university and are therefore under-represented when it comes to technology jobs then is that the same as "bias"? I would argue it's not; bias to me means when there are 50% female job applicants and an industry ends up with a 20% female workforce, this is clearly not the case in technology. I haven't seen any verified figures on the gender of job applicants vs. employees but I have anecdotal evidence that gender bias is not at the root of the undeniable discrepancy in the ultimate gender proportion of employees.

I've worked in the technology industry for 25 years and have probably hired in excess of 500 people across many companies and into many technical roles. Only 10-15% of the applicants for those jobs were female and that's roughly the same proportion that have ended up in those roles. When I look at the (technical) team in my own (technology) company we have 5 Women in a team of 20 people which I think is probably slightly over the average. Most technology leaders I know, and others I have spoken to, all say they would hire more Women if they could, the problem is that they don't have an adequate pool of female candidates to select from so what we end up with are teams that are male dominated by definition. Rather than posing the question "is the technology industry gender biased?" a more prescient question would be "how can we attract more girls into technology subjects at school". I would go one step further and suggest that our real problem is that technology subjects (like computing) are hopelessly under represented (compared to job demand) regardless of gender in all but a few UK schools and universities, it just so happens that Women find technology less appealing than men and therefore there are less to choose from when it comes to filling technical jobs.

So, how can we encourage more girls to take up tech? I don't know the answer but I do know it's probably got nothing to do with building more pink computers; maybe what we need is to chill out a bit regarding this whole "gender politics" thing. Perhaps by educating everyone better about the challenges, diversity and advantages of a career in IT we might end up with more Women deciding for themselves that it's is a worthwhile path for them to take.

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