Women In Tech: It’s Not Just A Pipeline Problem

Why are there so few women in tech jobs? Repeat after me, robotically, defensively: “It’s a pipeline problem!” So says David Cohen of TechStars, echoing many others, e.g. Paul Graham and CNN. But come on, folks. We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend that’s the only obstacle here. The pipeline problem is very real; but so is the trapdoor problem.

It’s true that it would be better if more women went into technology to begin with, but it’s disingenuous to turn a blind eye to the fact that many women who do enter the industry subsequently drop out of it. Why? Well, let’s just look at a few recent headlines, shall we?

European Investor Admits He Pestered Female Entrepreneur For Sex In “Deal” Email” (TechCrunch)

Armoring Up: Surviving Sexism As A Female Founder” (Forbes)

No skin thick enough: The daily harassment of women in the game industry” (Polygon)

Coder livetweets sexist remarks allegedly made by IBM executives” (Daily Dot)

Tinder Co-Founder’s Lawsuit Reflects Tech Industry’s Rampant Sexism” (VICE)

That’s just the last two months. Too anecdotal? OK: here’s a 2008 Harvard Business Review research report (PDF) on women in science, engineering, and technology, which found:

Between ages 25 and 30, 41% of the young talent with credentials in those subject matters are female … [but] 52% of this talent drops out … The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments … 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment.

I haven’t found any comparable studies from the last five years, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks things have gotten much better since 2008 — until, maybe, just this last year, when more people seem to have become willing to at least discuss the issue. As long as you don’t suggest it’s anything more than a pipeline problem.

But guess what? If you create an environment wherein a whole class of entrepreneurs and employees goes unnoticed by deeply flawed industry-wide “pattern recognition” heuristics, and/or one where they have to be perpetually on their guard, and must pretend not to notice all the myriad microaggressions that make them feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and out-of-place…

…then many of those entrepreneurs and employees will decide, rightly, that the tech industry is not worth the hassle and grief.

And so: “52% of this talent drops out.” That’s the trapdoor problem right there.

Still want to talk about the “pipeline”? OK, let’s. Consider this (PDF): “Fewer women pursue STEM careers than would be expected based on the number of girls who earn very high math scores.” Or this: “In 2012, 18 percent of computer science majors were female; in 1985 it was 37 percent.” Maybe, just maybe, a perception of the tech industry as a toxic environment for women has had something to do with that decline. Maybe the pipeline problem is not independent of the trapdoor problem.

Now, for all the hand-wringing about predatory investors and brogrammers, it’s fair to say that the industry has finally taken a few steps in the right direction of late:

But we’re still a long way from nirvana here. Pretending that it’s only a pipeline problem does no one any favors. Please stop saying that. It’s not true. What’s more, the trapdoor problem is one we can collectively work on without having to wait for a new generation to filter through; and the first step towards solving any problem is admitting that it exists.

Image credit: Wikimedia.