After tech giants like Google and Facebook released their entirely unsurprising (yet disappointing) employee gender statistics, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg weighed in on the problem of gender parity in the tech industry, claiming there are simply not enough women available to hire for tech positions — a problem that begins with the education system. “We all understand that we have to increase the numbers going into the funnel,” she said.
The so-called pipeline problem has been pointed out by many observers: despite efforts to encourage more women to pursue computer science degrees, Sandberg and others have noted that less than one in five current computer science college majors is a woman. “We can't go much above 18 percent in our coders if there's only 18 percent coming into the workplace,” said Sandberg.
Perhaps. But 18 percent of all majors is still a fairly large pool of talent, especially as the major has grown in popularity. Demand for computer science degrees has surged in recent years, at universities from Harvard to Stanford to the University of Washington. A report by the Computing Research Association noted more than 1,000 female graduates got computer science bachelor degrees in 2011 and nearly 700 more attained computer engineering or information technology degrees. And the total number of women in computer science and related programs was expected to be even higher this year.
Sure, the ratio could be better. But as some tech companies proved this week, it’s quite possible to fill out the ranks from the available talent and improve the ratio in the workplace.
Popular crowd-funding site Indiegogo, for example, revealed that 45 percent of its staff is female, 33 percent of technology positions are filled by women and, most notably, 43 percent of senior leaders are women. Women also make up nearly half of the staff at Pandora, a music streaming service, and close to 39 percent of its leadership roles are filled by women. China-based powerhouse Alibaba also shared new data about its leadership ahead of it’s U.S. IPO (scheduled for next month), revealing that nine of its 27 partners are female — a ratio that’s almost unheard of in the tech industry.
Meanwhile, at Facebook, LinkedIn and Google, women only make up between 30 and 40 percent of all employees and that figure drops to about 20 percent in leadership roles.
How is it that companies like Indiegogo and Pandora have been able to fill its ranks more easily than Sandberg’s Facebook and other tech giants have? Do they have access to some secret cache of tech-savvy women that no one else knows about?
The difference is that those companies have made efforts to hire women by creating cultures that support their female employees. Alibaba is a particularly strong example of a company actively working to hire women and to create an environment that supports female staff: the company has policies in place that work to confront the ingrained cultural norms that create gender disparity in the first place.
Alibaba has a specific e-mail system for job openings, for example, that notifies employees of new positions with specific instructions on how to apply — “a proactive approach [that] helps women overcome their shyness in asking for better opportunities,” reports Bloomberg. A former female employee tells the outlet, “There’s an established system for us to nominate ourselves or our bosses to nominate us; it [is] very open and transparent…I felt like whatever the men did, women could also do.”
In the United States, research has found that women are often passed over for promotions simply because they are taught to avoid advocating for themselves at the risk of appearing overly ambitious, and therefore losing crucial likeability points at work. The email policy both acknowledges and bypasses that social stigma.
That may seem like a small step, but it can make a big difference in the gender ratio. Compare that to the system at many U.S. startups, which do a lot of recruiting through referrals. “So if you have four white guy programmers, and they’re referring their friends for jobs, they’re very apt to look like them,” says Elizabeth Ames of the Anita Borg Institute, who describes working there as feeling “like you’re part of a frat house, and that’s not very attractive to a lot of women.
Sandberg isn’t wrong — we do need changes in education. There’s no way to achieve 50/50 gender parity in tech until more women seek out related degrees.
But as these companies demonstrate, there are women out there who are qualified and willing, provided the companies create environments that encourage diversity and opportunities for women, and don’t allow for a “chilly” workplace culture that puts women at a disadvantage, as one study of STEM professions found happens in many U.S. tech companies.
The number of women looking to achieve professions in technology would almost certainly increase if the payoff were better and the culture friendlier. It’s not just an issue of a limited talent pool; it’s an issue of limited efforts among tech companies to change the ratio within their own ranks.