Site navigation

The Gender Inequality Issue and What to do About it

Sue Duris


Gender Inequality Global Technology Sector

To mark International Women’s Day, Sue Duris investigates gender inequality in the global technology sector, asking “where we are and where do we go from here?”

The Chinese say ‘may you live in interesting times’. If you’ve been following world events lately, it has been nothing but.

2017 was a watershed year for women, with marches, the #MeToo movement, #TimesUp campaign and many women coming forward with their revelations of being sexually harassed by powerful men.

Since October, women have been coming forward in droves to say they were either sexually harassed or assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. Allegations have been made against other high-profile men, including former head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, The Today Show’s Matt Lauer, CBS This Morning’s Charlie Rose, former US Senator Al Franken, actor Kevin Spacey and hip-hop mogul, Russell Simmons. The list of powerful men being accused of sexual harassment keeps growing. And, as a result, sexual harassment has become a central topic of conversation.

While gender inequality seems minor compared to sexual harassment, it is the former that has led to the latter – it’s the pay and power imbalance that puts men in a position to control, and ultimately, harass women. Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has even said “Men who demean, degrade or disrespect women have been able to operate with such impunity—not just in Hollywood, but in tech, venture capital, and other spaces where their influence and investment can make or break a career. The asymmetry of power is ripe for abuse.”

Gender inequality is magnified in the heavily male-dominated tech industry. Studies show that women hold only 25% of all computing jobs (down from 36% in 1990), represent only 11% of the executive positions at Silicon Valley companies, account for slightly less than 15% of all board seats at tech companies, and hold only 7% of executive roles at the top 100 venture capital firms. In addition, only 17% of startups have a female founder. And, in 2017, women founders received only 2% of all venture capital dollars.

Women have to do so much more than men to succeed in tech. The following quote sums things up nicely:

“It’s more like doing everything backwards and in heels while some guy is trying to yank at your dress, and another is telling you that a woman can’t dance as well as a man, oh, and could you stop dancing for a moment and bring him something to drink?”

Hostility for women in tech can be unbearable. Workplace conditions, limited access to key roles, being stalled in one’s career and undermining behavior from managers are top reasons why women leave these jobs.

The rate of women leaving is more than twice as high (41%) as it is for men (17%).

Progress has been slow.

In reaction to allegations of sexual bias, some Silicon Valley companies have promised improvements. Large companies, like Apple and Google, have promised changes and to publish data to track those changes.

Other companies are doing more.

Intel Corp. is investing $300 million in suppliers, startups and anti-harassment awareness programs in hopes that, by 2020, it will be the first tech company with women and minorities in the same proportions as the U.S. workforce.

Last year, First Data partnered with Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that aims to close the gender gap in technology, to host a seven-week summer immersion program. Girls Who Code found that while two-thirds of six to 12 year old girls are interested or enroll in computing programs, the number drops to 32% for 13-to-17-year-old-girls and 4% for college freshmen. As a result, it focuses on after-school clubs and camps for 6th to 12th grade girls to teach them computer science skills.

In 2016, a number of companies, including Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, IBM, LinkedIn, and Microsoft signed the White House Equal Pay Pledge. As part of the pledge, employers commit to conducting an annual company-wide gender pay analysis across jobs; will review hiring and promotion procedures to shed more light on unconscious biases; embed equal pay efforts into broader equity initiatives; and promote other best practices to close the national wage gap.

Asana engaged Paradigm, a diversity consulting firm, to help build a culture that helps women and minorities to be successful  after they’re hired. It has started a mentorship program in which new employees are matched up with a mentor.

In some areas, progress has worsened. Women hold less computer and mathematical jobs in the U.S. today than they did in 1960. The percentage of women graduating with computer science degrees has dwindled since its highpoint of 36% in 1986. Today, only 18% of computer science graduates are women. Many believe that this is because of the change in the video gaming industry moving from neutral to male-oriented games. Once that happened, women started leaving the industry

The real problem has been the tech startup culture that has enabled sexual bias and harassment to endure. Many startups begin with a group of young male employees with no clear rules. Human resources is non-existent in the beginning.  And they live by the ‘growth at any cost’ mantra, which has been instilled in them by venture capitalists and investors who hold the purse strings. The mentality is as long as the company is growing, all is good. These habits get engrained in the company’s DNA. And it is a lot of hard work to fix the culture of one company, let alone an entire industry.

Ellen Pao and her gender discrimination case that she brought against her former employer Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers in 2015 has had the most impact. Even though she lost, the case did show a spotlight on sexual discrimination and harassment.

As a result of the trial, seven senior tech women banded together to conduct the Elephant in the Valley survey. They asked 200+ women (mainly in the SF Bay area) – focusing on women with at least 10 years of experience – a series of questions about feedback and promotion, inclusion, unconscious biases, motherhood, and harassment & safety.

84% of the respondents had been told they were too aggressive; 66% felt excluded from key networking opportunities because of their gender; 88% had experienced clients/colleagues direct questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them; 75% were asked about their marital status, children and family life in interviews; 60% reported unwanted sexual advances (of this number, almost two-thirds said the unwanted sexual advances came from a superior) and of those harassed, nearly 40% didn’t report it out of fear it would negatively affect their career.

It brought to light the fact that one would really be hard-pressed to find a woman in tech who hasn’t had to cope with some type of sexual bias or harassment in their career.

Susan Fowler blew the door open about sexism at Uber when she detailed the goings on there. This helped enable others to go public with their stories of sexism and sexual harassment. Fowler’s post ultimately led to CEO/Co-Founder Travis Kalanick’s resignation.

In the past, women were criticized or shamed for complaining. Now women are coming forward with accusations, which is leading to consequences for the men involved. Several high-profile names have been shown the door, including 500 Startups founder Dave McClure, Steve Jurvetson, of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, SoFi CEO Mike Cagney, and tech blogger Robert Scoble.

Gender Equality is a global issue

The UK has made zero progress in tackling inequality in the past decade. Its performance declined in the field of educational attainment between 2005 and 2015, according to Gender Equality Index 2017. In the UK, women represent only a quarter of board chairs, presidents and chief executives; 14.4% of all people working in STEM jobs, and 17% of employees in the tech sector.

Unfortunately, the global gender gap is widening. According to the World Economics Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2017, it will take 100 years to close the gap at the current rate of change. It worsened from 2016’s estimate of 83 years. The workplace gap – which measures such things as wage equality, seniority and labor force participation – would now take 217 years to close, compared to 170 in 2016.

Gender Equality Impacts The Bottom Line

Gender Equality is much more than a moral and social issue, it is an economic one as well.

Studies by MSCI have proven that companies that employ women at the most senior operating levels actually outperform their non-diverse counterparts and create greater shareholder value. MCSI also found those with at least three women on the board had gains in return on equity 11% higher, and earnings per share 45% higher, than companies with no women directors.

McKinsey Global Institute found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 if all countries in a region could match the progress of the best-improving country in the region. And $28 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 in which women played an equal role to men.

In research it conducted last year, McKinsey looked at 1000 companies covering 12 countries. It found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile (up from 15% in 2014).  It also found these companies had a 27% likelihood of outperforming fourth-quartile peers on longer-term value creation.

Having gender equality on executive teams, specifically, is more closely correlated with higher profitability across geographies supporting the role that executive teams – where the majority of strategic decisions are made – play in a company’s financial performance.  Having more women executives in line roles is more closely correlated with financial outperformance. Even though women are underrepresented in line roles, top-quartile companies have a greater proportion of women in line roles than do fourth-quartile companies.

Gallup has shown through its research that employee engagement impacts the bottom line. When compared with business units in the bottom quartile of Gallup’s database, those in the top quartile of engagement realise 17% higher productivity, 20% higher sales and 21% higher profitability. And top organizations achieve earnings per share growth that is more than four times that of their competitors.

And, gender equality impacts employee engagement

Recent CEB data shows that workers in highly diverse and inclusive organisations result in a 26% increase in team collaboration and an 18% increase in team commitment. Additionally, employees who are part of organisations with high levels of diversity report a 7% higher intent to stay than their peers in organisations that have low levels of diversity.

Catalyst, a global nonprofit that helps organisations build the business case for diversity and inclusion, found in its research the more included employees felt, the more innovative they reported being in the their jobs, and the more they went above an beyond the ‘call of duty’ to help other team members to meet workgroup objectives.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While being aware of sexual bias and harassment is a very important first step, we must do more to move the gender equality needle.

Educate Early and Often

Teach STEM properly in schools

Teach all aspects of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – in schools and ensure they are interconnected and integrated. Teach teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving with STEM by applying what has been learned in a hands-on exploratory environment to teach students how to be curious and ask questions while solving real-world problems. Doing so will help students understand how their classwork relates to future careers. Teachers must continue to learn through professional development and other means so they are increasing their STEM knowledge and identifying the best methods to teach STEM. Involve parents and the community in the process so students continue learning outside of the classroom.

Teach students emotional intelligence skills

Teach leadership, empathy, appropriate behavior, how behaviors and actions affect other people, respect, fairness, responsibility, motivation, conflict resolution, communicating, praising others, inclusion and challenging stereotypes.

Educate girls about STEM through organizations like American Association for University Women (AAUW), Girls Who Code, Million Women Mentors, Girl Geeks and SmartSTEMS.

Also, teach girls and young women to challenge stereotypes around successful women, who often feel like they have to trade likeability for success. According to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, schoolgirls feel less empowered when they are out-shouted by aggressive boys. But, when women are more aggressive, they are reprimanded. Sandberg says “the data shows one thing. Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”

Encourage young women to get STEM degrees. Provide scholarships, internships, fellowships, work-study programs, and educational and extracurricular opportunities to encourage female students to pursue STEM careers.

Create a culture of inclusion

Re-engineering a culture is hard work. But you have to do it if you want to fix the gender equality problem. And that involves everybody.

Talat Yakoob, Director of Equate Scotland, Scotland’s expert on gender equality throughout the STEM sectors, agrees. “Institutionalised culture, deep imbedded behaviour and attitudes, and policies and structures need to change to tackle gender stereotypes, to attract girls to study STEM and retain the women who have studied STEM. We need a holistic approach from early years to advanced career. This isn’t an issue simply for the person in HR with the ‘equality and diversity’ in their job role, it is everyone’s role.”

So, what can organizations do?

Start at the top – Creating, encouraging and valuing diversity and inclusivity in the workplace starts at the executive level. The C-Suite, whether it’s the CEO, Chief Diversity Officer, Chief People Officer, or some other C-suite executive must champion gender equality, which includes:

  • Establishing and driving the gender equality vision
  • Aligning and influencing the organisation by ensuring every employee – from leadership to the front lines – understands this vision and its importance and their role in it, and ensuring that employees take ownership and are accountable for their piece of this effort
  • Creating a safe and comfortable work environment
  • Ensuring women are in the room, are treated with respect and their contributions are valued
  • Managing metrics and trends regularly to ensure equal treatment of employees in pay and opportunity

Revise recruiting practices – Review recruiting content, how/where you source candidates, resume review, interviews and candidate selection to remove any unconscious biases towards gender inequality and replace with behaviours, words and speech of inclusion and diversity.

Ensure all employees have equal access to career development programs. Managers should build gender equality into training and education, coaching, mentoring, sponsorship and networking opportunities so all employees feel supported and respected so they build confidence as they grow in their careers. Aim for 50-50 gender split on all teams.

Offer work-life balance programs. Provide flexible working arrangements, like flextime and remote working, as well as other work-life balance programs such as childcare, and maternity/paternity leave.

Build gender equality into your voice of the employee program. Use multiple channels – surveys, interviews, small group sessions, etc. – to find out what motivates or troubles employees. Take immediate action on the feedback you receive. This sends a message to employees that all voices are being heard and you care about them.

Ensure balance on corporate boards. Vacant board seats are opportunities to address gender imbalance. Studies show that more women on boards boosts growth and return on equity.

Catalyst came up with an infographic of things we can do to be inclusive every day:

Women Must Be Supportive of Each Other

Women can be their own worst enemies. They can be unsupportive and sabotage each other.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 30% of corporate bullies are female and they target other females two-thirds of the time.

Carol Vallone Mitchell, PhD, says women don’t support other women for three main reasons:

  • They want to show that they are part of the men’s club. They want people to know they’re not like other women. They’re not there to represent the female gender, and by association, not to advocate for any women.
  • They face subtle or not so subtle disapproval from male peers. Emerging women leaders feel pressure to distance themselves from other women.
  • Women helping women is not perceived as a value. It is still viewed as a negative. While men coming together is seen as networking, sponsorship or succession planning; women coming together is seen as socializing.  Also, according to research in the Academy of Management journal, women or minorities who promote diversity in the workplace are penalized in performance reviews but men who do so are not.

Women must support other women through mentoring, sponsorship, promotion, and advocacy.

Men Must Become Advocates

Lynne Cadenhead, CEO of Women’s Enterprise Scotland relayed a story to me of a recent non-executive director (NXD) meeting in which two of the 100 NXD’s in attendance were women. She said, “when I asked one of the men about it, he said he didn’t even know there was a gender issue.”

This brings to mind the quote, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

Men must get involved in gender equality, their active participation is key. When they lead by example, and take the gender equality message to other men, they drive change.

Men should:

  • Acknowledge gender inequality exists and more progress needs to be made. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real.
  • Educate themselves by conducting research. Challenge stereotypes. Then join the gender equality conversation.
  • Advocate for women. Promote and give them the credit they deserve. But also be aware of how your behaviors and actions are enabling bias. It only takes a slight shift to change your life and the lives of others.
  • Sponsor more women to help build the pipeline of women leaders. According to the Center for Talent Innovation, those with sponsors are 23% more likely to advance in their careers than those without sponsors.
  • Mentor women. Share your knowledge and life experiences. Coach and guide them in the pursuit of their goals.

Gender Equality can be achieved. It will take everyone’s commitment to make it happen. What action will you take today to move the gender equality needle tomorrow?

Sue Duris

Sue Duris

Co-Founder/Director of Marketing and Customer Experience, M4 Communications

Latest News

%d bloggers like this: