Exodus of qualified women might be tech’s biggest problem yet

As many as 50% of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will eventually leave because of hostile male culture, lack of a clear career path and a sense of isolation, a 2008 Harvard Business Review study had discovered. Fast forward to 2014, same study shares that the reasons haven’t significantly changed. Most women interviewed for the study said that the attitudes holding them back are subtle, and thus more difficult to challenge.



We have often lamented over the declining enrollment of women in technology. Over the years, we have seen several of the top technology companies and civil society associations running tech bootcamps, especially for women, to help encourage them to partake in STEM related jobs. Even after all these efforts, why is it that women only make up for a quarter of the workforce in STEM, a number that critically goes down when we start looking at the decision making positions of the STEM organisations.



Some argue that this is because women are not interested in science, math and eventually, computer science, completely forgetting that computer programming was pioneered by none other than a woman. As we see, it is not that women aren’t interested in science and technology but something else, more severe.



In September this year, Katie Moussouris, a Microsoft employee, sued the company for gender discrimination alleging that the female technical employees earn much less than their similarly qualified male colleagues. Moussouris who was responsible for Microsoft’s Vulnerability Research in the company’s Trustworthy Computing Group added that the company disproportionately favors men over equally or even more qualified women.



“As a result of Microsoft’s policies, patterns, and practices, female technical employees receive less compensation and are promoted less frequently than their male counterparts. Microsoft company-wide policies and practices systematically violate female technical employees’ rights and result in the unchecked gender bias that pervades its corporate culture.”



While this case is still running, it hasn’t been the first or even the last of the year involving a major technology company. Earlier in the year, Chia Hong, a former employee of social networking site Facebook claimed that she suffered three years of harassment and was wrongly terminated in October 2013 after she complained about being discriminated against by her boss. Facebook, of course, offered the lipservice that the company believes in gender diversity, however, has “substantive disagreements on the facts” and believed that “the record shows the employee was treated fairly.”



Another tech giant, Twitter was also involved in a similar case when a former Twitter Software engineer Tina Huang claimed in a proposed class action lawsuit filed in March, 2015 that the company’s promotion mechanism favors men over women employees. Huang said that due to a lack of formal procedures for granting promotions, the company relies on a “shoulder tap” process which is the primary reason why there are very few women in top-level engineering positions.



All three of these leading tech companies being taken to the courtrooms over gender discrimination and wage disparity have maintained that they believe in gender inclusion but none of them found records in which they can support the claims of the plaintiffs.



While these cases are yet to be resolved, it is starkly evident that people engaging in gender discrimination are no longer naïve enough to leave traces or indulge in race or gender hatred explicitly or, aggressively. While the court demands hard evidence, subtleties and nuances are never accounted for making it harder for victims to have a strong enough case to win. The undercurrents of sexism, after all, are impossible to prove in front of a jury. This, in turn, sets the precedent for others in the industry as they see going public about discrimination not only completely futile but also financially and personally exhausting.



Ellen Pao, a former partner at Venture Capital firm Kleiner Perkins (KP) and then the interim CEO at Reddit, had a very long running case against KP, which she announced in September she will no longer be pursuing it. While a loss at the end of a tiringly long run, the case got substantial following starting a much needed debate around gender discrimination in the tech sector as her story brought to life some of the obstacles that women face in the industry, especially in leadership roles.



In a heart wrenching announcement, Pao shared, “Seeking justice in the courts has been painful for me personally and professionally, and for my family. My experience shows how difficult it is to address discrimination through the court system. Our society is struggling with workplace discrimination and harassment. These often happen in subtle but highly hurtful ways.”



Looking at how strenuous it is to prove gender discrimination and harassment inside the courtroom, the onus then comes to the world’s largest technology companies like Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to respond more sincerely. While many businesses are ill-equipped to prevent or address these problems as they arise, as Pao puts it, the leaders of the industry have to create a transparent system to prevent wage disparity and harassment at the workplace. And when unfortunately it does happen, these technology giants need to listen to their employees who raise discrimination or harassment concerns, instead of silencing their voices setting unfair precedents making it impossible to lessen the hostility that women encounter in this industry.



Wage discrimination is real and uncomfortably common and it makes the work environment more hostile to women. As women continue to face challenges that either discourage their promotions or worse, force them to leave the workforce, rather than giving token responses to the media and initiating programs that encourage women to embrace technology, it’s time technology leaders start retaining their currently hired and qualified female employees, making them feel happy and rewarded about their positions, and more importantly, doing away with the “shoulder taps” based promotions and reward system.

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