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The elephant has left the building

“It's hard to see myself as a 50, 60, 70-year-old woman working and living in San Francisco,” lamented my much younger, very talented colleague. “I see a lot of men that age in my industry and city, but where are all the ladies? It makes me worry that they’re leaving to have a more balanced life somewhere else and that I might have to do the same one day.”

This revelation came as we two women in the tech industry stood talking over tequila and live music. We were at SXSW—the annual mecca of technology, acceptance, and diversity.

The Elephant in the Valley

Throughout the week I’d hear that sentiment echoed over and over. Not just for women in the Bay Area, but for women across technology. Gender bias is such an important discussion that it’s a critical mission—from Hollywood to Silicon Valley for, “The coolest job in the world for a woman, for now, the CTO of the United States.”

That’s consultant Michele Madansky talking about Megan Smith, who since 2014 has run the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. They were joined onstage at SXSW by two equally powerful women (although with arguably less cool jobs)—Laura Weidman Powers, the CEO of CODE2040 and Trae Vassallo, an independent investor and senior advisor at Kleiner Perkins.

Powers and Madansky had only met the night before. Smith and Madansky met in college. And Madansky and Vassallo? They’d collaborated on one of the smallest, yet most impactful studies of technology and women to date—sardonically entitled Elephant in the Valley.

Elephant in the Valley, inspired by the Ellen Pao and KPCB trial, began as a survey of 200 Bay Area women with at least 10 years of experience in the technology field. A quarter of the women are C-level, 77 percent over 40-years-old, and 75 percent have children. Elephant in the Valley has now morphed into a vast collection of heart-breaking (and empowering) stories from women around the world. “We’ve clearly struck a vein in people wanting to share their experiences,” says Vassallo.

Back in 1984, when Smith and Madansky met, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. Now it's only 19 percent. Today, fewer than 9 percent of CIOs are women. It is estimated that there are over 600,000 open tech jobs in the United States right now, and they are not being filled by women.

There’s a lot of speculation on why the tide turned from the 1986 height of women in technology to today: everything from social pressures to hostile workplaces, a sense of isolation, to cultural attitudes. But the outcome is clear—

The dirty and complicated part is ‘why’. These four women have a lot to say on that subject.

“‘Why would I want to put myself through this? Why would I want to put myself into a field where I might not be able to reach the highest levels in my field like I might elsewhere?’” - Laura Weidman Powers

“Here’s what we’re hearing,” says Powers. “‘Why would I want to put myself through this? Why would I want to put myself into a field where I might not be able to reach the highest levels in my field like I might elsewhere?’”

Smith tackles the question a different way, “It’s death by 1000 cuts. In many cases, we’ve moved away from overt bias, but in the last 30 years, we haven’t overcome implicit bias or institutional bias.” That leads the conversation back to Elephant in the Valley and more serious concerns.

According to the study, women in technology:

  • have been told they were too aggressive (84%)
  • felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities because of gender (66%)
  • witnessed sexist behavior at company offsites and/or industry conferences (90%)
  • were asked about family life, marital status, and children in interviews (75%)
  • reported unwanted sexual advances (60%)

Smith agrees that any combination of these factors make women hesitant to go into technology or to be entrepreneurs. But it’s the big one, the unwanted sexual advances, that stands alone and is of most concern. “Sexual harassment is a very serious issue nationally, not just because it’s serious harassment,

And those women that have chosen to be data scientists, engineers, or developers, are leaving. Leaving in droves. A 2008 Harvard Business Review study found that half of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will eventually leave because of hostile work environments.

And yes, women still feel pressured to choose between building a family and building a career in STEM. Elephant in the Valley found that over half of women who went on maternity leave shortened their allotted time because they thought it would negatively hurt their career.

“It's hard to find female mentors in San Francisco who have made it to the top levels of companies and who also have a family,” said my colleague. “It’s very, very hard.”

Getting girls out of their comfort zone

Driving more women into technology, according to the women on stage, needs a two-pronged approach. The first tine: get more girls interested in STEM. “Don’t be afraid to take your daughter out of her comfort zone,” says Vassallo. “You’ll feel like a bad parent, but it will be worth it.”

According to a study by the Girl Scouts of America, only 13 percent of female teens say a STEM-related career is their first choice. And in another study, less than one-third of teenage girls have ever considered a career in engineering.

“I loved math and science as a kid,” says Powers. “But it never occurred to me that I could build a career in STEM.” It wasn’t until she was 25 that she took a job in technology. “I was late to the game, but it’s never too late.”

“We are in the heart of Silicon Valley and there should be opportunity everywhere, yet my daughter is the only girl on her math team.” - Trae Vassallo

“We are in the heart of Silicon Valley and there should be opportunity everywhere,” bemoans Vassallo. “Yet my daughter is the only girl on her math team.” That motivated Vassallo to immerse her daughter into her working world—bringing the child to the office, into board meetings, and introducing her to women in the STEM field—giving her multiple female role models. “She wasn’t inspired about technology until her interest was properly piqued.”

Smith says that schools need to look at the way they are teaching STEM subjects so that they appeal to both sexes. "Let's teach this stuff [tech] like we teach art and music, not in a scary boring way.”

It’s a man’s world

For the elephant to truly be chased from the building, the second tine has to be in place. Men have to step up. “Men in power,” specifies Powers.

Powers says it all starts with empathy. It starts with men spotting their places of privilege and identifying with women in the places they don’t.

"Men need to be the ones that are advocating and pushing for women to rise up, and not just rely on the one percent of women who are already at the top to do it," said Scarlett Sieber, vice president of operations at tech company Infomous, in an interview with the LA Times. “Men are crucial for creating an environment where women thrive.”

Vassallo encourages women to have conversations with their male counterparts. “Make sure you are conveying your frustrations very clearly. You might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome. And just because you decide to exit that particular firm doesn’t mean you should exit the industry.”

While encouraging women to join and stay in STEM careers is not an easy challenge to solve, it is far from unattainable, says Smith. “None or all of us created the problem,” she says. “We live in a historic problem. We could move incredibly quickly to solve this because we are in tech, and that’s how we roll.”

Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.