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Can Education & Early Exposure Reduce Silicon Valley’s Gender Gap?

Former Uber employee Susan J. Fowler penned her reflection on a spending a “strange year at Uber,” exposing rampant sexism, not just in this particular company, but in tech startups across the entire industry. A representative of Uber itself has actually been reported to have told a potential employee that sexism is ‘systemic in tech’ very recently.

While misogyny in tech has been explore before, some believe that this Uber case could be a watershed moment in for women in STEM fields.

Uber’s rocky start to 2017 was marked by the #DeleteUber campaign that led to a reported 200,000 user exodus in protest of CEO Travis Kalanick’s initial silence against Trump’s primary travel ban–and it’s only gotten worse from there.

Shortly after, former employee Susan J. Fowler penned her reflection on a spending a “strange year at Uber,” exposing rampant sexism, not just in this particular company, but in tech startups across the entire industry. A representative of Uber itself has actually been reported to have told a potential employee that sexism is ‘systemic in tech’ very recently.

While misogyny in tech has been explored before (see: donglegate), some believe that this Uber case could be a watershed moment in for women in STEM fields.

The Numbers Point to a Pervasive Problem

“Look around you, look in your group and ask yourself: How many women are on your team?” Melinda Gates said in a recent interview with The Seattle Times about women in tech. “If it’s less than two, that’s probably too few.”

Gates has begun a personal crusade to bring more women into the computer science fold, stating that “less than 5 percent of companies that get VC funding are led by women.”

In trying to address the root of the problem, Gates thinks that better, more effective educational approaches in universities and colleges across the country could be the answer we’re looking for. “I’ve learned that there’s a leaky pipeline that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through university and through the industry,” she says.

Gates’s thinking is in line with findings from a recent report by PwC, who show some starting gender gap stats. According to the summary on ITPro.co.uk:

  • While IT and tech careers appeal to 27 percent of female students, only 3 percent of women surveyed were actually pursuing those careers as a first choice.
  • On the other hand, 62 percent of males are interested in tech careers, with 15 percent of them pursuing those careers as a first choice.
  • 33 percent of males respondents were encouraged to enter the tech field, while only 16 percent of women reported the same. Only 19 percent of all student respondents regardless of gender had experienced this type of encouragement.
  • 83 percent of women couldn’t name anybody who had inspired them to pursue a technology career.
  • Nearly two-thirds of female respondents were “put off by the tech sector” because they have received too little information about what it’s like.
  • About 25 percent of women said that they weren’t interested in the tech sector because it is too male dominated.

Fortunately, PwC list of recommendations includes simply trying to integrate them with the tech culture earlier on, which may include exposing them to STEM fields in education as well as a concerted effort by tech companies to help them into the field. ASU Online points out that education has led to a projected 5.4 percent increase of women in the workplace by the year 2022, and has lead to equality in many other fields–unfortunately, the numbers point to a pervasive problem in tech specifically.

The Problem and Solution: Societal Norms

These recommendations are essentially asking us to challenge societal norms that many may not be aware of. Sexism is a subtle thing, as Amanda McKenna points out in her article published via Campaign:

“It’s a shame that such progressive products are reinforcing gender stereotypes. While it’s true that studies show that both men and women find a female voice more appealing, shouldn’t such outdated ideas (woman = secretary) be actively challenged? And when 60% of women in Silicon Valley report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, is it healthy that these subservient virtual assistants carry sexual connotations that would be totally inappropriate in the real world?”

The good news is that pieces like the one above challenging women’s roles in tech companies are beginning to push the perception in the right direction.

The same measures that help women succeed in business outside of tech must be adopted within tech. For example, the first half of Intuit’s online guide for women starting a business are essentially “to recognize the challenges of being a woman in business,” “to create a support network,” and “to close the gap with education.” These measures could be adopted and adapted for any business venture, including those in the tech sector.

Additionally, even though the Trump administration has been characterized by multiple misogynistic statements in the past, the end of February saw legislature aiming to increase the number of women and girls in STEM fields. Erin Carson with CNet writes that the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act (aka the INSPIRE Women Act) “gives NASA three months to present two congressional committees with its plans for getting staff — think astronauts, scientists, and engineers — in front of girls studying STEM in elementary and secondary schools.”

As odd as the Trump administration’s advocacy for women’s rights and participation in STEM sounds, it stands to benefit the entire country. Brittney Neale writing for Appnovation’s blog points out that not only is more women in STEM good for women, it’s good for everybody. A diversity of thought means that women’s unique perspectives can be applied when it might have otherwise been otherwise. Neale points to the accomplishments Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Margaret Hamilton (the latter of whom was instrumental in helping humanity get to the moon) for examples. In a time when even the fundamental foundation of cities is changing due to tech, varied perspective couldn’t be more necessary.

While all of these measures comprise a great start, it’s only the beginning. Freada Kapor Klein, the investor who, along with her husband Mitch Kapor, published an open letter imploring Uber to investigate charges of misogynistic culture, understands this well.

“Fixing this will be a marathon, not a sprint,” she’s quoted by the NY Times as saying.

All in all, the fact that the Uber case could even be considered watershed means we’re moving in the right direction–but the sentiment is truly meaningless unless it’s ultimately acted upon.

Written By

Andy is a tech writer from Boise, ID. He enjoys wine, beer, and being drunk--but unfortunately is on a health-conscious kick at the moment, meaning he'll be drinking neither any time soon. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer

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