The Best Companies For Women In Tech Are Harder To Pinpoint Than You'd Think

Say "there's a problem with women in tech" to anybody who follows business news and, unless they're a men's rights activist, they'll probably nod and wait for you to say something more original. Info from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women in tech earn a shocking 24 percent less than male counterparts. Which is why, when it comes to companies actually doing good by their female employees, a little bit of celebration is in order.

A list of the top 10 businesses for women in tech? Hurrah! Get the champagne! But hold on a bit. Something odd happens when you compare a few of the celebratory lists out there about good tech companies for women — and that oddness illustrates what's really happening in the industry, and how we might be able to solve it.

To see why, let's compare two lists about great companies for women who work in technology, both highly respected and conducted by companies who want to smash the glass ceiling to smithereens: The first is the Anita Borg Institute study, which in May released its list of top 10 companies for women technologists in 2015. It focused on women who are into computing, and looked at the recruitment and promotion of every woman on the staff of a company. Every girl through the door and up a pay rung was counted.

And The 'Best' Tech Company For Women Is ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The winner of the Anita Borg study, surprisingly, wasn't a giant like Google, but the investments company BNY Mellon, which has a strong computing component. The others on the list contained both familiar and lesser-known names: Accenture, American Express, Apple, eBay, GoDaddy, Goldman Sachs, Google, IBM, Rackspace Hosting, Salesforce, T. Rowe Price and USAA. There were also a few big absences. Where the hell was Facebook? (They hired a global "head of diversity" in 2013 to try to fix that problem. Borg clearly hasn't seen much difference.)

So far, so good. These companies are doing right by their women, hiring and progressing them at a sensible rate. But a major Glassdoor report in 2014 showed that the gender pay gap is still a thing in technology: for example, a female software engineer with nearly 10 years' experience gets $91,730 at HP, while a dude with 8.5 years experience in the same job gets $96,423.

But what's truly interesting, if you get into the data, is how little crossover there is between this list and another seriously important one: the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE)'s list of the top 50 U.S. companies for female executives in 2015. While the Anita Borg list measures the treatment of female technologists throughout an entire company, the NAFE list looks straight to the top — and to say there's a bit of a gap is understating it.

In NAFE's top ten, the only name you'll recognize is IBM — because they've got a female CEO. Accenture and American Express turn up lower down, and, well, that's it for Anita Borg's list. Interestingly, other tech companies show up that Borg didn't award, like Cisco and Intel. BNY Mellon, the winner of Borg's highest accolade for women all the way through the company? Not a single look-in in the top 50 for female executives.

So, what's actually going on?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Some of the lack of crossover can be explained by differences in criteria for the people making the lists, but here's the reality. No matter how well women technologists are being treated, and it's indisputable that the industry still has a long way to go, the contrast between the two lists shows a fundamental truth: women, it seems, aren't regarded as business leaders in the tech community.

It highlights that there seem to be only two ways to be a woman in tech: push your way up from the bottom and probably get exhausted before you can reach the top, or be one of the rare executives — and look down to see very few women below you. Either way leaves women isolated, and that's hurting us. Companies can either hire and promote more women or have more women bosses; but if the data is to be believed, they're not prepared to do both.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and her female-friendly company are a ridiculously rare exception to this rule, but we live in the age of sprawling technology conglomerates, and every Kickstarter entrepreneur or up-and-coming engineer envisions themselves as a part of that structure. Why isn't there more room at the top for female leaders of tech companies, female-friendly or not?

Women hold just 11 percent of all the executive jobs at big Silicon Valley firms, and the reason seems to be a widespread and accepted idea that ladies just can't handle the big decision-making or aggressive environment, and may quit before they reach CEO to raise kids. Articles about workplace environments in tech that disparage women are basically a dime a dozen. Even though STEM companies are getting a lot of attention for big-name women at the top — think Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg — there's still a series of massive sexist obstacles in the way for other women who want to rise to be bosses, from on-the-job harassment to colleagues not valuing their skills. Glass ceiling? Think glass roadblock. With spikes.

How Do We Fix This?

Guang Niu/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Tech giant Cisco made the NAFE list but not the Anita Borg one — indicating that it's got a few female executives (though one fewer as of today, as Padmasree Warrior is probably quitting), but not a lot of diversity lower down. The company has announced that it wants to attract more women, not only with role models at the top but with diversity in job candidates.

And this is the common denominator in how we give more change in tech: more representation at every level, guys. This matters, both for the bosses and for the worker bees. In 2014, The New York Times criticized the low levels of women at the top levels of tech, and sought the opinion of Professor Linda Bell, an economics prof at Barnard. Her advice to them is pretty compelling: “The help of women by women is an important factor in the career outcomes of women." This is borne out by a 2014 survey of 350 female entrepreneurs: when asked about their biggest challenge, "lack of available advisers" was the highest one. No other women were around to ask for advice. Women in tech are islands, trying to form mentoring relationships against substantial odds.

The realities are pretty stark for women helping women. Google, which made Anita Borg's top 10, only has a 30 percent-female workforce. (If that's the highest level, it scarcely seems worth rewarding.) With that few support networks, no wonder it's hard for women to get ahead. And it's getting worse: there's an increasing trend of highly qualified, awesome women leaving the tech industry behind, because even its fast-moving structures and high-level role models aren't doing enough.

So it's one thing to get excited about teaching girls to code, emphasizing the importance of engineering to school kids and luring teenage women to college courses on tech; it's another thing to make the industry female-friendly all the way through. But more women, everywhere, being paid the same as men, would be a start, at least.

Images: Getty