Local companies and organizations are tackling the shortage of women and minorities in the tech job pool, but experts say company cultures and hiring practices also must be addressed
Photos by Rachel Coward
On Oct. 8, 2014, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gathered a group of employees for a candid discussion about the barriers women face in his company.
“We were in a closed room. It was Satya talking to 80 Microsoft women … and it was a free-for-all Q&A. That was brutal,” said Dona Sarkar, a manager in Microsoft’s HoloLens division. “We asked him hard questions like, ‘Satya, have you ever been told to smile more?’ Or, as someone had been told in their performance review, ‘Satya, have you ever been told that you would be more effective if you weren’t so assertive?’”
Sarkar said Nadella acknowledged that women experience different biases than do men. The following day, he told women not to ask for raises.
These two sides of Nadella were on display at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, the keynote of which was a discussion between him and Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a Microsoft board member. Nadella spent much of the chat iterating and reiterating how the tech community had to make the industry more culturally and financially equitable for women, but most people remember only Nadella’s infamous response after he was asked about how women should seek a raise:
“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along,” he told Klawe. “Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust.”
Nadella backpedaled after he made the comments, but it wasn’t enough to dam the torrent of public disdain that followed. He was no longer just the “mobile-first, cloud-first” guy; to many, he was the ignorant guy, the guy who, like so many other executives in technology, just didn’t realize that the system is rigged against women.
An industry built on constant pivots in the marketplace is pivoting quite slowly on the cultural front. Tech CEOs publicly decry the lack of women and people of color in the industry, and concede the ones who do make it past the hiring round must navigate company cultures that often clash with their values.
What’s left are executives like Nadella — folks who realize demographics are askew and who want to correct the imbalance but might not understand how best to do so.
Nadella’s comments accelerated an equity discussion that had acquired much of its momentum just a few months prior, in May, when Google released its workforce demographics to the public. It was a move every tech giant except Intel, which shares its Equal Opportunity Employment Committee reports each year, had shied away from. After Google’s report was released, it was clear why the company had hesitated: 70 percent men; 61 percent white; 5 percent black or Hispanic. For programming and engineering jobs, the numbers were even more skewed: 83 percent male; 3 percent black or Hispanic.
Google’s numbers weren’t what diversity advocates would like to see, but its report did pressure other tech giants to release their own stats. Of the dozen or so companies that did, nearly every one was about 70 percent male and about 60 percent white.
Among tech workers, though, there were differing shades of male and pale. Social media seems the ultimate boys’ club: Facebook’s tech workforce was 90 percent male; Twitter’s, 85. Engineers for all the firms were largely white or Asian. Of all the companies who have released demographics, only Apple has an engineering force in which non-white (23 percent), non-Asian workers make up more than 8 percent of the staff.
The companies’ disclosures added hard data to anecdotal evidence of the struggles women and people of color face in the industry. It’s an unflattering trait of an economic powerhouse in the area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 110,000 computer science jobs in the Seattle metropolitan area, and with a median wage greater than $104,000, their economic power is stout.
The women and people of color in tech are part of a powerful industry, but their experiences don’t reflect it. “I think it is hard to be in a climate where you are outnumbered all the time. I think it is hard when you work among coworkers who have different social expectations,” said Kieran Snyder, a former Microsoft and Amazon employee who founded Textio, a Seattle company with software that tracks gender bias in job postings.
Snyder said the difference in expectations became most clear when she had a child. Many of her coworkers had stay-at-home partners who handled childcare, but Snyder split time between work and home with her then-husband. “When everybody (else) has the same social context, and you don’t, the people within the context don’t observe the difference,” she said. “I worked with a team for a while that held meetings on Saturdays. Well, I take my daughter to soccer on Saturdays. I got to a point of seniority where I could say no, but I would have been scared to say no earlier in my career.”
To Ryan Whitley, a cofounder of Tech Diversified, a programming education group in Seattle that targets people of color, loneliness sums up life in tech. “I’m used to being the only black person in the room,” he said. “My experience in the workforce is the same as my experience living in Seattle.”
Thanks to clamoring employees and media coverage of incidents like Nadella’s faux pas last October, tech executives are more aware than ever that their companies’ cultures might not be as merit-based as they had believed. But awareness of an explicit issue doesn’t mean it is easy to confront and change the inherent biases that cause the problem.
“The bottom line is women are in an environment in society, which is amplified in the tech companies because they are predominantly male, that subjects them to behaviors that tell them they aren’t as smart as men, that they don’t belong there,” said Anne MacLachlan, a University of California, Berkeley researcher who studies gender biases in the sciences.
While little research has been conducted exclusively on the tech sector, scholars have detailed the biases that adversely affect women in science academia, a field with a similar culture. (The body of research studying racial biases in the sciences is far smaller; examining gender apparently is more black-and-white than studying race.) Studies have shown that women must provide extra evidence to be seen as equally competent compared with men. Women who display traditionally masculine traits are often considered aggressive or unlikeable. As University of Waterloo philosophy professor Carla Fehr has said, feminine traits are often shunned in the workplace, “but if you’re an aggressive go-getter, then you’re a bitch.”
Snyder has conducted informal surveys on the topic and written about them in Fortune and the Washington Post. Last year, she analyzed 248 performance reviews of 180 tech employees, 105 of whom were men and 75 women. She found that 71 percent of reviews of women had negative feedback, while just 2 percent of men’s reviews did.
The common response among tech companies to claims of discrimination and bias has been to blame what’s known as the pipeline problem. Their logic is that workforce demographics align with those of job applicants, so before companies can diversify, the applicant field — the pipeline — must be diverse. The pipeline rhetoric is the strongest and most pervasive in the tech diversity discussion. Some organizations are addressing it at the bottom of the hiring chain.
On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Brian Kenney walked up to a whiteboard in front of an audience of about 80 and wrote:
“Workplace conflict is:”
“All right, word hurricane,” Kenney said. “Go.”
The group — mostly people of color, all trying to land a job in the tech sector — began firing away:
“Inevitable.” “Politics.” “Racism.” “Belittling.” “Constructive.” “Beefin’.”
The exercise took place at the Seattle office of Year Up, a career-development organization tackling the pipeline problem with urgency. The Boston-based nonprofit recruits low-income young adults and, after an intensive, and free, yearlong program divided into curriculum and internship, throws their names in the job pool.
“The baseline assumption here is that all of these young people want those jobs (at tech firms),” said Janice Javier, associate development director at Year Up. “So if you make that assumption, then you wonder, why aren’t these young people in four-year colleges when we know that there are (student aid) funds that they can access?”
Javier said many Year Up students’ home lives compromise their ability to receive education beyond high school. If a parent lives separately from the student, is struggling with addiction, or simply doesn’t see the value in higher education, filling out applications for student aid can be a challenge. “Now you have a young person who is super talented, but is disconnected from their family,” Javier explained. “They don’t know where to go. They don’t know what to do. It really makes them angry; some of them feel their only pathways are jail or social services.”
The program begins with six months of computer science and professionalism training, and the code of conduct is strict. Tardiness results in stipend reductions, and each session begins with a headcount and explanations of why a student is missing (if nobody knows where a student is, a flurry of phone calls follows). “Part of that conversation is, how would this affect your job?” said Owen Robinson, operations manager at Year Up. “You miss a deadline; you might lose your job.” Students are expected to dress in business attire, which for many means making a trip to Goodwill or a relative’s closet.
Year Up’s environment is comfortably formal and very practical. When unprofessional behavior is observed, the offender must address the group and explain why their behavior set a bad example. Instructors set the tone, but a good deal of critique comes from fellow students. For example, when a quiet intern was presenting a PowerPoint about her workplace to the 80 fellow students on hand, another in the audience interrupted, asking her if she wouldn’t mind “projecting a bit more.”
One student in the room was Zebedee Hill, a 21-year-old father from Seattle and an intern at Expedia. A couple hours before the meeting in Belltown, Hill was doing IT work on 10th floor of the Expedia Building, a place he never considered a work option until recently. “I thought you needed years of education for this stuff,” he said.
Like most Year Up students, devoting a few years and many thousands of dollars to a college education wasn’t an option for Hill. He once had planned on going to college after high school — Florida A&M caught his eye — but instead got an apartment with his girlfriend and, soon after, had a son. He found work with a furniture-moving company and his family’s cheesesteak restaurant, but continued looking for a more secure career to provide for his family. He eventually committed to Year Up.
Year Up’s weekly gatherings during internships help students hone their professional skills, but they also are an arena to discuss the difficult-to-explain but undeniably perceptible cultural differences students face at their internships. Hill doesn’t think his race has altered any judgment of his character or work at Expedia, but, coupled with his age, it left a cultural chasm he was struggling to transcend.
“It’s weird; I’m not going to lie about that,” Hill said. “At Year Up, there’s a lot of diversity. Even if it’s not just black people, there are a lot of different colors. Our cultures are different. So I’m going to joke with somebody one way, especially with somebody my age. I’m not going to joke with Dan (Van Rens, Hill’s supervisor at Expedia, who is white) that way.”
During the March gathering, Hill met with Kenney, his adviser, and four fellow interns to discuss standing out, the biases they perceive, and the challenge of proving themselves. The interns struggled to, or couldn’t, find mentors of their race or gender, so discussing shared experiences with someone in the workplace was difficult or impossible. Furthermore, managers often held expectations the interns felt were unrealistic. Most of today’s college students have spent more than a decade familiarizing themselves with computer applications through school and recreation, while many Year Up students had just six months prior looked at a line of code for the first time.
One intern recalled a manager expressing disbelief that he didn’t understand a certain task. “He made me feel dumb, but I don’t think I’m dumb at all. I just don’t know this. I’ve never used technology in my life (before Year Up), and you’ve done this your whole life. … The employees just need to know how to work with us.”
“Yeah, they act like we’re all from Stanford,” another quipped.
Year Up is just one area organization trying to diversify the tech pipeline. Ada Developers Academy, named for Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century duchess said to be the first computer programmer, has its own tuition-free program, but it targets women, many of whom already have college degrees and careers but want to break into a tech field they previously didn’t consider a viable career option.
“Programming is not sitting by yourself in the dark in your mom’s basement. It’s being creative, working on a team, thinking about what the client wants,” said Elise Worthy, Ada’s cofounder. “Those are all skills women excel at, but aren’t advertised as computer science prerequisites. So it makes sense to get people who already have those team skills into these CS jobs.”
Ada and Year Up both receive funding from the companies that take on the students as interns, which is among the most blatant gestures of these firms’ commitment to diversifying their workforce and opening new recruiting channels. The symbiosis isn’t based solely on goodwill. Studies have shown that more diverse workforces can result in improved productivity and revenue.
“Each of us brings our own cultural baggage to any creative process,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates chair at UW’s school of Computer Science and Engineering, whose 2015 class was 32 percent women, about double the national average. “So if you exclude part of the population from the process of designing software, there are going to be solutions and problems you don’t consider.”
Ada and Year Up have proven efficient at diversifying workforces. Eighty-eight percent of Year Up students land a job within four months of completing the program, and each of Ada’s first 15 students landed tech jobs.
That’s the outcome Hill and Calla Patel, an Ada student, are hoping to realize at Expedia. Patel’s path to Expedia was far different than Hill’s. She already had an economics degree and a stable career as a financial analyst, but the allure of tech’s casual atmosphere — and the sexism she experienced in finance, a field with a reputation arguably worse than tech’s — drew her to a job with Macy’s web division in the Bay Area. While at Macy’s, Patel came across the rare figure Year Up students clamored for: a mentor who looked like her.
“I started talking with her, and I found out she was self-taught — she was a receptionist beforehand,” Patel said of her mentor. “So it was exciting to see I could do this myself.”
Patel said she came across computer science late because it was never presented as a possible career for women — a systematic message that has been built up over decades.
Computer science once was a woman’s field. As Thomas Misa notes in his book Gender Codes, programming originally was viewed and marketed as clerical work, so women built most early software while men constructed the room-filling gargantuan hardware of the time. But as software gained prestige, women’s presence in the field dwindled. In 1979, 40 percent of computer science graduates were women; in 2011, that number was 15 percent. Women’s share of the workforce has fallen, too. Census figures show women held a third of computer science jobs in 1990. By 2011, the figure had slipped to 27 percent.
Patel‘s parents steered her toward Wall Street, and college peers led her to believe the computer science field was too difficult. “All the boys would tell me (the introductory computer science course) was tough. And these boys were smart. So if they’re struggling, I’ll definitely struggle. … It was definitely a show of men ranking higher than women in school.”
Had a young Calla Patel been visited by Dona Sarkar, the Microsoft manager, she might have considered tech a more welcoming industry for women. Sarkar defies the gendered stereotypes associated with tech workers. She’s a fashion designer and an author of teen-fiction novels, and she doesn’t see Redmond as a nerds-only workplace.
“Tech is super glamorous,” Sarkar said. “I can show up to work in 5-inch heels every day. It’s one of the few jobs that is as glamorous as you imagine it to be. It’s one of the few jobs where you get up on stage and present things that never existed before.”
Sarkar regularly speaks to students, industry groups, and professional women’s organizations. Those engagements, according to UW psychologist Sapna Cheryan, show a wider range of people, in a very explicit fashion, that tech is not only for geeks. “What I advocate is diversifying the image,” she said. “There is a place for the people who identify as geeks, sure, but there are also people who identify as being feminine, outdoorsy, and people who care about social justice. You can show a lot of different types of people.”
Cheryan‘s research has found that pre-existing notions — true or not — about the companies, necessary skills, and values of the industry are what typically drive women away from the field before they even take an introductory programming class.
Those stereotypes are typically transmitted three ways: through the media, through physical environments — in one study, Cheryan found female Stanford students who entered a classroom decorated with nature posters were significantly more interested in computer science than those who entered a classroom with Star Trek posters — and through characterizations of people in the field.
One Microsoft commercial, which highlighted a video game designed to operate on Microsoft’s cloud platform, exemplified all three of Cheryan’s transmission lines. The scripted media production was broadcast during the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament in March and April, and every game developer depicted in it was a man. Only one person in the ad was wearing non-casual attire, and the setting was a free-wheeling office — all stereotypical traits of tech environments. Furthermore, most scenes showed solo workers rather than collaboration, thus projecting an appreciation of the independent “genius,” which Cheryan said is a common deterrent for women. The only woman in the 30-second commercial, a character in the video game, was on the screen for one second.
Diversifying the images and characters associated with a company, Cheryan said, is critical to luring more diverse employees. “It’s a lot harder to change who’s in the industry than it is to change … what’s associated with it,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to change stereotypes than to say, ‘We’re just going to wait until we get more women.’ The process is so recursive that if you don’t change the image, you’re just going to keep getting the same type of people.”
Companies are taking multifaceted approaches to banishing the stereotypes that might deter women or people of color from applying. Microsoft, for example, laid out a three-tiered inclusivity plan following Nadella’s controversial comments: ensuring equal pay for men and women in similar positions (no word on pay comparisons among ethnicities), recruiting a more diverse workforce, and subjecting employees to inclusivity training.
On the first front, Nadella wrote in the memo, published by Geekwire, that base pay at Microsoft varies by less than 0.5 percent between genders. As for recruiting more diverse workers, Microsoft appears to be relying on outreach governed by the pipeline theory. The company sponsors organizations such as Year Up and Ada, and it operates programs such as YouthSpark and DigiGirlz aimed at introducing underrepresented populations to computer science. Its most prominent inclusivity boast is its employee resource groups, which are networks of employees who share a gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. Microsoft declined 425 Business’ requests to elaborate on its inclusivity training programs, hiring goals, and metrics for success.
Other large companies are hiring executives devoted to diversifying the workforce and building a more welcome culture for underrepresented populations. The person with that task at Expedia is Britta Wilson, who previously held a similar position at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.
Wilson, who was hired in March, is planning a campaign based on “awareness of exclusion” — employees of all races and genders understanding that the experiences and the biases coworkers face differ from their own, and that all have been excluded in some fashion.
“You start by creating awareness through training, and then there’s typically follow-up where you escalate the conversation,” she said. “OK, so now that you’re aware of these biases, let’s have an honest conversation about where you’re still struggling, or where your team has indicated that you are still struggling.”
Wilson said measurements of success, as well as recruiting and hiring policies promoting diversity, are in the works. On the diversity front, the company will establish demographic targets at all levels of its hierarchy. It will recruit in places tech firms historically ignored and staff interviews in a fashion that promotes diversity-minded hiring. Wilson said firms can’t simply begin interviewing candidates from historically black colleges and staff those interviews with white men as they always have. “We would likely instruct to have people of color in that interview booth, because they can best understand the prospective employee’s experience,” she said.
Hiring more women and people of color certainly would introduce current employees to a wider variety of cultures, but is that a panacea for the pipeline problem? Does diversity alone eventually yield inclusivity?
“Absolutely not,” said Berkeley’s MacLachlan. “If you’re going to bring women or people of color in, you have to bring them in at the level at which there’s a problem, which is usually the managerial level. … You can’t just bring in women and people of color and randomly distribute them amongst a complex corporate structure. They’re still alone.”
Studies suggest implicit biases of leaders can permeate an entire organization. Studies show that hiring managers who are disproportionately critical of female job candidates aren’t just men, women also were critical of female candidates.
Sarkar knows the feeling. She recalled a conversation with a male manager, who said a female colleague called Sarkar’s confidence “surprising coming from a woman” and off-putting. “So I said, one, that’s not cool,” Sarkar said, “and two, I know exactly who you’re talking about — you have one female coworker.”
This dynamic isn’t lost on companies. Expedia’s Wilson said measuring retention can help determine whether a company culture is valuing the varying traits its employees possess, and she said Expedia plans to promote diversity at all ranks through managerial hires as well as enabling ladder-climbing by employees brought in at lower levels.
Few executives see diversity as holistically as Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox Learning in Bellevue. Woolley-Wilson is one of the few black women who are chief executives in the nation, let alone in the tech industry. Her company aims to level the educational playing field among rich and poor schools by designing software tailored to an individual student’s needs.
“In a lot of classrooms across America, the potential of a child is limited by what guardians think they are capable of,” Woolley-Wilson said. Race, gender, socio-economic status, “all of these things go into the unconscious assessment of possibility, of belief. … In a DreamBox learning environment, the computer doesn’t know what you look like, it doesn’t know where you grew up, it doesn’t know what language you speak. It just knows how you’re solving math problems. So the individual learning experience is untouched by the perception of possibility.”
In her executive role, Woolley-Wilson finds herself trying to reconcile tech’s meritocratic reputation with the underlying perceptions of possibility surrounding minority workers. Growing up in Delaware, Woolley-Wilson wasn’t burdened by some of those perceptions. She attended top-flight schools, where she noticed a trend that would shape DreamBox’s mission.
“The people that I saw around me, who came from a lot of different cultural backgrounds, had two things in common. They had access to a great education, and they had guardians — not always parents — during their formative years who made them believe that they had something special, that they had a spark. It was an expansive environment.”
Tech’s still trying to create those expansive environments. Studies thus far have quantified the problem and given a tangible reason to fix it; what’s been harder is shoring up a method of creating a company culture that welcomes the cultural variety of employees. Woolley-Wilson said that can be solved, in part, by executives broadening their social networks and deliberately looking in new and uncomfortable places for hires and ideas. Also, the right intent must be in place.
“If (tech leaders) are approaching it as doing a favor for a group of people … versus doing something with a group in partnership, you probably aren’t going to get as far,” Woolley-Wilson said. “It’s one thing to sit back and say, let’s have more women, let’s have more Latinas, and let’s have more African-Americans. It’s quite another thing to engage in a conversation with women and with racial minorities about what their experiences have been, what they would need to feel better supported, and then to have them lead the change in the culture.”
Each year, David Harris hops a bus filled with schoolkids and tours the headquarters of area tech giants. The settings are familiar to Harris, who left Michigan after college in 2006 to work for Microsoft. But for students at the Technology Access Foundation Academy, a science-and-math-focused school in Kent, visiting Redmond or South Lake Union is a new experience.
TAF is a sixth- through 12th-grade public school that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Sixty-nine percent of students are people of color, and more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Though the students live nearby, Harris said the field trips offer many of them their first trips to Seattle.
“They’re looking at the Space Needle as if it’s Disney World,” said Harris, a program director at the school. Once they arrive, “these kids have no filter. They’ll be the first ones to say, ‘Where are all the black people? Where are the Latino people?’”
Schools have long toured companies to show pupils what’s possible after graduation. But the message TAF brings home after field trips is one most schools and the tech community have largely ignored.
“(Field trips) are communicating to students that the value in their community is not there; the value is outside their community,” Harris said. So if a student from a diverse neighborhood defines success as landing a tech job — an increasingly common definition in present-day Seattle — that means he or she must leave for the wealthy and whiter burgs that host major corporations, often leaving behind cultural norms in the process.
Stopping that trend is what Harris is doing at TAF and Hack the CD, a group he organized to promote entrepreneurial activity in Seattle’s Central District, where he lives. Hack the CD kicked off with a namesake Startup Weekend event in September that featured more than 100 participants.
“I’m trying to change the perspective of value,” Harris said. “We do have a lot of value in this neighborhood. … With access to the same tools and resources that are in South Lake Union, Bellevue, and Redmond, we can start to change the narrative and the paradigm and show that there already is a lot of power in this community.”
What is that power? Harris points to music. Jazz, blues, Motown, and hip-hop were all born in black communities, and all helped shape popular music. Now, as technology is as much a part of popular culture as music, Harris sees no reason the black community can’t be as involved in shaping the apps we use as it is in setting music trends.
But doing that means getting black people into technology. When Harris left Detroit for the University of Michigan and then Microsoft, he underwent a trying cultural shift. “It’s a culture of competition,” he said. “As I start to read more as I get older, I see it’s a capitalistic culture. … I came from a highly relational environment, and what I found at Michigan and Microsoft was different.”
Strategies of diversifying the tech industry typically center on diversifying its existing companies. All the outreach and training sessions going on in Bay Area and Puget Sound offices is geared toward this goal, but if successful, those efforts bring more diverse employees into a culture like the one Harris found himself in, one built by white men — Gates and Allen, Jobs and Wozniack, Page and Brin — who, as humans so often do, hired others who looked and acted like them. Perpetuate that trend over decades, and you’re left with company cultures that suppress the creative ambitions of nonconforming groups. From these cultures rise stereotypes that cause the pipeline problem we see today.
“You look at the high-tech companies,” Harris said, “they’re all owned and operated by white men. So it’s not surprising that their staff is white and male. You see the same thing in the startup world.”
But the startup world is more conducive to change. Harris argues a more diverse roster of founders can yield a more diverse and inclusive industry. A company is more likely to value the experiences and cultures of underrepresented groups if it was started by a woman who has been asked to smile more, a black man who has looked different from everyone on his floor, or a mom who wanted to raise a child and work simultaneously.
Harris loathes the pipeline analogy. “It’s not a pretty picture when you’re forcing people down a pipe,” he said. “Fertile ground is a better example. (We need) fertile ground for people of this community to explore what it would be like to work with Microsoft, not just a pipeline out of their community to Microsoft.”
The work of area companies and organizations introduced Zebedee Hill and Calla Patel a possible career in tech. But that could be just the first step toward Harris’ fertile ground; cultivate it properly, and Patel and Hill could found their own companies someday. Odds are they would hire people like themselves.