Getting More Women Into Tech Is Going To Be Awkward

Big tech companies are pushing hard to get the word out about their efforts to be more inclusive for women, people of color, and other minority groups.

We recently covered Google’s latest efforts to get women involved in tech, including sending “at least one person each” to upcoming tech conferences via a new scholarship program and committing $50 million over three years to a massive new initiative to get girls into coding.

These are only early efforts. The demographic imbalance in the tech industry is so embedded in its culture that it will likely take years for the initiatives to propagate into wider network effects. The actual interactions between people who’ve been affected by these initiatives is what will lead to more women earning technical degrees and a decline in the rampant “dude-bro” mentality at industry events.

Until that happens, things are going to be awkward. As Google CodeJam Project Manager Emily Miller told me, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: The culture won’t shift until there are more women in tech, and many women won’t feel comfortable in the tech industry until the culture changes. In the meantime, efforts that force progress will make some uncomfortable or seem insincere because they don’t move the needle enough.

The other tech elephant in the room, Apple, isn’t new to these kinds of efforts. An Apple spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that the company has been working with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (one of Google’s partners on the “Made With Code” initiative) since its founding 10 years ago. And we’ve heard that Apple has started an internal team called Women@Apple-Tech that aims to increase the number of women in technical roles both within the company and elsewhere. Yesterday, the company noted its participation in an initiative to get 3,500 more women into technical roles in the U.S. by 2016.

Despite its experience, Apple’s initiatives face criticisms of their own. For an example of the awkwardness involved with getting these discussions started, we can look at Apple’s “Women in Tech Get Together” session at WWDC earlier this month. The session was reportedly attended by over 400 people, most of whom were women:

The session had speakers from Apple as well as from elsewhere in the industry. We’ve been told that the group included representatives from Autodesk, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and Kleiner Perkins:

Some developers who went to the session feel that it paid lip-service to women in attendance rather than provide substantial information. While the session highlighted women who were given opportunities to succeed within Apple, it didn’t have much to say about how those opportunities could become prevalent elsewhere.

Kleiner Perkins partner Megan Quinn was one of the session speakers. In an email, she told me that the session was “energizing for both the attendees and leaders.” Her portion of the session had to do with turning ideas into companies, teaching women interested in becoming entrepreneurs about “reaching VCs, the various stages of raising capital, developing pitches, hiring teams and so on.” She continues:

For some of the attendees, I was the first VC they had met. For nearly all, I was the first woman VC. So, there was a lot of discussion about how to foster women entrepreneurs and the differences between pitching men and women VCs. My impression is that attendees were appreciative that Apple provided them with the opportunity to interact and ask questions in a casual, comfortable atmosphere with several technology leaders.

Quinn also reiterated a point made by ReadWrite’s Selena Larson after WWDC:

It was also great for attendees (and me!) to meet and spend time the women executives from Apple. Apple has a pretty homogenous executive team if you just look at their company profile, but it was refreshing and enlightening to hear from the women VPs in the hardware, software, and App Store divisions. It’s clear that Apple is cultivating a strong roster of women leaders we just don’t have the opportunity to hear from very often, but that are guiding and leading core parts of Apple’s business. I just can’t wait to see some of them on stage at WWDC!

Kaming Li, an iOS developer and organizer for the WWDCGirls luncheon, told TechCrunch that while she felt the session could have used a more formal structure, “I’m glad they at least were trying, however minimal the effort was.” She was also a fan of Quinn’s section.

One speaker during the “Inclusion and Diversity” discussion also demonstrated the counter-productive bias that can emerge when some women are able to succeed within the industry’s current culture: they think that because they have done well with their particular privileges and life paths, that those struggling are facing issues that exist “only in their heads”:

When it comes to increasing diversity in the industry, criticism, awkwardness, and defensiveness are always going to come from all sides. What one person sees as a positive step forward looks like a tepid move to another; one woman’s success looks like privilege to those who haven’t had doors opened to them; and sometimes positive intentions will be interpreted in ways that companies and individuals don’t expect.

That’s why it’s tricky to evaluate these initiatives from the outside. There will always be more to do, even for those pushing the hardest, and because of that, positive steps can easily look just like half-hearted PR stunts.