Opinion by Jonny Evans

The technology world's sexism needs to end

The pace of change is too slow for most people now alive to see parity in their lifetimes

Opinion by Jonny Evans

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The technology industry is sexist, and it will take years before endemic discrimination dissolves.

In fact, it might take decades. A Deloitte report cites Catalyst CEO Ilene H. Lang, who suggests that, when it comes to the imbalance on corporate boards, "it could take until 2075 for women to reach parity with men" if progress continues at its current pace.

Think about what that means. A 21-year-old woman graduating from college this month wouldn't see women and men occupying an equal number of seats on corporate boards until she's 82.

Lang was talking about all industries. For the tech industry, the situation is worse. A 2013 Fenwick & West survey revealed that 43.3% of the top 150 Silicon Valley firms had no female directors, and 40% had just one. There's more parity in other industries; of Standard & Poor's top 100 U.S. firms, just 2% have no female representation at board level and just 13% have only one.

And the problem isn't restricted to the boardroom. In the 2012 U.S. workforce, women held 57% of the jobs in all professional occupations, but only 26% of the jobs in professional computing occupations.

This institutionalized sexism helps perpetuate unacceptable behavior. Look at the brouhaha around a couple of hacks deemed misogynistic at TechCrunch Disrupt last year. Those kinds of things can only happen when guys are used to being surrounded by nothing but guys. And when they do happen, they draw protest only because tech isn't really an all-male arena; it can just feel that way still. As Alexia Tsotsis, co-editor of TechCrunch, noted, "Tech has been a guy-dude-bro area for a while now. Now as it becomes more mainstream, more women join the workforce and are exposed to these locker-room-type attitudes."

How do these locker-room attitudes impact women in IT? Head over to the Everyday Sexism project to read testimony like this example:

"Despite the fact that I had, on average, five years more experience and two years more education than any of the men on the team, took only the challenging service calls and those that involved cleaning up messes made by some of the more junior men on the team, and consistently outperformed everyone else on the team by every measure, I was paid $2 less per hour than even the entry-level guys. Management rationalized this to me (and themselves) by claiming that it was simply 'risky' to hire women in IT," a female techie notes.

I suppose the riskiness involves biology; women have a greater tendency than men to get pregnant and take maternity leave. Once they become mothers, some women decide to say goodbye to the workplace and stay at home. Some of that may be self-fulfilling, of course; if companies treated women the same as men, there's a good chance that fewer of them would be so willing to sacrifice their careers for motherhood. Meanwhile, at higher levels of management, there might actually be more risk in hiring men. I am not kidding about this: "Women-led tech companies achieve 35% higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bring in 12% more revenue than male-owned tech companies," notes Google. (It's a shame that despite this realization, Google has just three women on its board, and one female senior executive.)

Addressing the problem is complicated. GoDaddy is working with the Anita Borg Institute to encourage better female representation in technology. Not only this, but approximately one third of GoDaddy's leadership team are women. Don't let the irony hit you over the head, though; this is the same GoDaddy whose use of scantily clad "chicks" in its advertising has routinely caused consternation.

Legislation could help; look at what Title IX did for women in sports. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a law that would prohibit companies with 15 or more employees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender. It has languished in the U.S. Congress for years.

Part of the problem seems to be that even people who consider fighting prejudice on the basis of race, gender or sexuality to be worthy of support tend to agree when they hear ENDA opponents say there is no real discrimination to fight anymore. They tell themselves, "It's 2014; surely there isn't a problem still?"

It is 2014. And there is a problem still. Particularly in tech.

It will also help if powerful people wake up to the problem. Apple's Tim Cook recently put his name to the push against prejudice. "The House should mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by passing ENDA," he wrote on Twitter, "We shall overcome" he added.

Of course, Cook leads a company with only one woman on its board, and Apple had none among its highest-level executives until it brought aboard new retail chief Angela Ahrendts in April. Is Cook waiting for ENDA to push Apple to do more?

Meanwhile, many ambitious women, in a quest for self-fulfillment, have turned to free enterprise. What are these talented female minds doing? They're saving the economy, while the men-folk play with Google Glass. The number of women starting small businesses in the U.S. is growing at twice the rate at which small businesses as a general category are growing here (according to Deloitte). This is important because small businesses are creating jobs faster than any other sector in the country. That means a lot of guys are going to be trying to get jobs from women who couldn't claim a seat at tech's table.

How do you think that might go?

It could be uncomfortable for some people for a while, but I have to wonder whether women turning to entrepreneurship isn't our best shot at finally eliminating tech's sexism problem.

Harvard small-business professor Nancy Koehn puts it this way: "What we need to start thinking about is how we capitalize on the vast network of women entrepreneurs. How do we nurture them? How do we fund them?"

How do we empower women (or any other disadvantaged group) to gain an equality denied them simply because of their sex?

Jonny Evans is an independent journalist/blogger who first got online in 1993. He's author of Computerworld's AppleHolic blog and also writes for others in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Winner of an Azbee Award in 2010, Jonny enjoys new and disruptive technology and likes music almost as much as he likes his large and shiny dog.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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