Editor’s note: Telle Whitney is the President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute and co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Connecting, inspiring, and guiding women technologists is her passion.
The conversation about women in tech is shifting as technology companies begin to hold themselves accountable. Recent moves, such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo releasing their employee diversity numbers, show an intensified commitment to making real change for women technologists, but the sentiment is not industry-wide.
We often hear from tech leadership that they would like to hire more women in technical roles, but they continue to reference the lack of women in the STEM pipeline as the cause. Deferring accountability will not affect real systematic change.
On HBO’s “Silicon Valley” – a show that often hits too close to home to be considered satire – one of the running jokes is the app Nip Alert, one character’s creation that helps locate women with large breasts. This app, of course, is based on real-life incidents in the tech industry, which crop up every day, and then are all too often swept under the rug.
When it becomes commonplace for technical conferences to include a twinge of sexism or to uncover a startup founder’s misogynistic behavior, it is a red flag that the startup fraternity culture is out of control. The tech industry’s “boys will be boys” mentality in the face of these recent events is taking a toll on diversity in the STEM pipeline.
In the face of all the negative stories coming out of the tech industry, it is no wonder that young women are not flocking to be the next target. Intelligent young women are generally uninterested in joining a frat house environment that stereotypes them in negative ways and demeans them regularly. A perceived lack of opportunities to flourish in a tech career may be keeping young women out of the computer science and engineering pipeline.
There is a way to enact a cultural change, and it starts with the men in tech. Women will continue to be vocal and push for change, but it is just as important for men to step in and speak up. This includes men at all levels of the technical workforce, leadership and especially at venture capital firms.
The tech brogrammer culture that startups are known for is a major reason for women being put off from working in the industry.
As it stands, many of the recent controversies in tech were met with silence and inaction from VC firms. When Julie Ann Horvath spoke up about the harassment she faced at GitHub, the only response from the company’s VC firm was a lonely tweet from Marc Andreessen supporting the founder who resigned. There was no apology to Horvath and no indication of support for improving the work environment for women. Similarly, when the CEO of RadiumOne, Gurbaksh Chahal, was convicted of two misdemeanors for domestic violence and battery against his girlfriend, the drawn-out inaction of RadiumOne’s board of directors only resulted in his firing when the media firestorm became too much.
Even when laws aren’t being broken, the absence of women has failed to register as an issue for VCs, such as the lack of women on Twitter’s board just before their IPO in 2013. Silence in the face of incidents like these, especially from those who hold the purse strings, sends a terrible message to women technologists and young women considering careers in the field. A culture that glorifies the boy genius founder and encourages a frat house environment in spite of all the warning signs is not a place where most intelligent young women feel they can succeed, leading them to pursue other careers.
At the Anita Borg Institute we regularly see men in leadership positions stepping forward to take part in the conversation. Over the past 20 years of hosting the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, we often feature many of our committed board members, including Alan Eustace from Google, Mike Schroepfer from Facebook, Justin Ratner from Intel, and Rick Rashid from Microsoft. This year we have Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as one of our keynotes. These men understand that changing tech’s culture is not just a women’s issue, it is an innovation issue.
Now is not the time for complacency. There are many actions men in the technology industry can take to show their support. The most important action is to speak up in opposition to inequality and inaction and to speak out in support of women technologists, especially when you see actions or messages that are inappropriate or condescending. Individual male support for women in tech will lead to a greater grassroots effect that will bring about a more accepting and innovative tech culture where all parties can thrive.