Women in tech: What’s the real problem?

In my 20-plus years in tech, and now in Silicon Valley as part of a tech foundation that supports innovations, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with many entrepreneurs and help foster the growth of dozens of startups for social good. As a woman, the fact that I’m still working in tech, and in a leadership position, is not lost on me.

By now, I’ve grown used to being one of the only women in the room. I’m used to walking into both young startups and tech giants, seeing the woman behind the receptionist desk and realizing that she is the lone female. I’ve gone to meetups and networking events that at times felt more like a frat party than a gathering of like-minded techies. Don’t get me wrong, things still get done; startups excel and the product reaches market and makes the world a better place — but could it get better?

What’s keeping women out of Silicon Valley — and away from the tech industry in general? Is the male-dominated environment intimidating talented women? While women represent more than half of the college graduates in the United States, they make up only 30 percent of workers at large technology companies.

This should be alarming to an industry so desperate for talent that its hiring practices have led to much-publicized “talent wars“ and legal action. At the same time, women are taking legal action for being pushed out or passed over at major tech companies. Quite a dichotomy.

There’s no doubt this is a complicated problem, and there is no one solution. To increase the amount of women in tech, we need to think both short term and long term, and break down the walls that institutionally keep women out.

Technology, we have a problem

The first step is admitting there’s a problem. While some Silicon Valley giants have had to answer for their lack of diversity, many companies still think their hiring policies are fair and work environments are just fine for women. Yet, the numbers show we’re losing women at an alarming rate. In fact, 50 percent of women with careers in STEM fields will eventually leave because of hostile work environments, according the Harvard Business Review.

Most women don’t experience obvious forms of discrimination or sexism. Instead, they face an undercurrent of condescension that leads to a feeling of isolation. It’s time for all tech companies to admit there’s a problem and tackle it head-on. That means implementing policies that create cultures that are open to women and support their career advancement — and getting men to buy in, too.

I’ve gone to meetups and networking events that at times felt more like a frat party than a gathering of like-minded techies.

Providing innovative maternity leave policies with a flexible return to work can ensure that talented women stay in the workforce, and can mitigate burnout after returning from leave, as well as having to choose between a career or having children. There also needs to be a conscious effort to get women into leadership positions, which can help lead to more female-friendly environments. Not to mention that technology is better for everyone when it is designed by everyone (tech companies — half of your market is female!).

Change the VC cycle

It is tough for women entrepreneurs to get venture funding. That means the next generation of tech companies probably won’t be led by women. With just 9.7 percent of all partners at venture capital firms being women, it’s no wonder just 8.3 percent of venture capital-funded U.S. tech startups founded in 2014 were led by women CEOs, according to PitchBook.

The heavy male presence in the private VC process is one not talked about much in the diversity conversation within the tech community. Male VCs invest in male-led startups, then end up on the boards of those startups, which then grow into major male-led tech companies. To break the cycle of male-dominated tech companies, we need to also look at this male-dominated VC cycle. By bringing women into the fold, VCs can diversify investments that serve the other half of the population.

Get ’em when they’re young

We need to fill the pipeline with more talented young women. This is where we have the opportunity to make the greatest long-term impact. In middle school, 74 percent of girls express interest in STEM subjects, but when choosing a college major, just 0.4 percent of high school girls select computer science, according to Girls Who Code. So, why does this gender parity start between middle and high school? Part of it is the lack of technology education options at the middle-school level, and part of it is STEM’s image problem with girls.

We need to change the perception of science and math as masculine fields by providing girls with female role models, and giving them hands-on experience with all different kinds of technology. Great organizations like Girls Who Code and TechGirlz  are already making a dent in these problems, and future tech companies will be able to reap the benefits.

STEM education is about more than just leveling the playing field for women — there simply aren’t enough men to fill the growing workforce. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. If we keep heading down the same road, U.S. universities are expected to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of these jobs.

My simple recommendation to everyone is this: Start noticing who is in the room and how many women are there. We can start looking in our own backyard — technology can play an important role to diversify our workplace.

Look at what Kapor Capital is doing, for example. I recently went to an event where they showcased a group of early-stage ventures leveraging technology to mitigate bias at scale by reinventing part of the HR/People Ops/People Analytics process. Everything from recruiting, hiring, interviewing, assignment, performance evaluation, promotion, compensation, complaint-handling, training and other processes were discussed. With this thinking, companies are starting to make actual numbers commitments to get women involved — with that, we will be able to measure and see if it’s really happening.

So, the tech industry actually needs women, but the question is will they do what’s necessary to win them over? Change is coming — however slow it might be.