The internet went crazy over a Google employee’s internal memo that leaked last week, which stated that biological “differences” between men and women were responsible for the gender gap in tech, and criticized diversity initiatives at the company. The views espoused by the 10-page document are not only sexist, but also just plain incorrect. So why there is a gender gap in tech? Hint: It has nothing at all to do with these so-called biological differences the Google memo writer cites.
The author of the screed, James Damore, has since been fired from Google for violating the company’s code of conduct, according to an all-staff email sent by CEO Sundar Pichai. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai wrote.
Some of the controversy about the memo stems from the interpretation that Damore is being censored, or that his views about the company are being suppressed. But another huge issue that's taken the back seat in the debate over this memo is the very real, quantifiable gender gap in tech. According to Google’s own diversity statistics, only 20 percent of the company’s tech staff is made up of women. This needs to change, not be rationalized in a sexist memo. Here are a few of the actual reasons the gender gap in tech exists, and ways we can try to combat them.
Gender Stereotyping In Children
It seems almost too obvious to note, but gender stereotyping for children is a rampant problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. By second grade, girls are already associating boys with math, according to a 2015 study, and the reason could be what they see around them. A simple Google Shopping search for “toys for girls” leads users to a sea of pink make-believe toys, while an equivalent search for boys leads to pages of cars, construction sets, etc. — all things that encourage boys to focus on machinery and engineering, the building blocks for a so-called “natural” aptitude for math and science. By diversifying the kinds of toys children have access to, parents can encourage a more diverse range of interests in boys and girls alike.
Lack of Representation
Like having access to toys that cultivate diverse interests and skills, having representation of women in tech is critical to show young girls that they, too, can one day join their ranks. Having women like Uber’s Bozoma Saint John as public figures in tech is an enormous breakthrough, but role models are even more likely to come from closer to home — such as college professors. Unfortunately, a study published in 2016 cited that only 21 percent of professors in STEM fields are women, and without addressing these systemic issues, that is unlikely to change.
Lack of Female Peers In College
Having female role models in tech while in college is a wonderful goal — if women could get to those programs in the first place. Girls received 57.3 percent of bachelors degrees in 2013, but only 17.9 percent of computer science degrees, according to the National Science Foundation. Many people attribute this drop-off to the problem of proscriptive gender stereotyping highlighted earlier — but some suggest that a way to attract girls to studying tech might be through the social media side of things, which can often be coded as female. A story from NPR cited members of the group Techquería, an organization for Latinx professionals in tech, who got interested in coding through MySpace. "It gave me a lot more confidence of being able to pick up coding,” one woman, Dalia Icedo, told NPR.
If you ask certain people, learning to code may seem like the fast track to getting a job with a high salary. Yet the tech industry, with all its startups, is rife with instability and failing companies. (And that’s if you ignore the rampant issues at even successful startups.) According to an article in Fast Company, as many as 75 percent of startups are destined to fail. Some students, especially ones from lower-income backgrounds, are choosing to move away from tech toward more stable industries, according to that same report from NPR. According to a study reported by the Harvard Business Review, female-led startups also perform worse than startups led by male entrepreneurs (though, curiously, only if they're supported by all-male venture capital firms). So there are a number of financial barriers to entry that, because of concerns about financial instability, exclude women from joining the ranks at tech companies.
The writer of the manifesto said of roles in tech, “These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.” For lots of women, long, stressful hours aren't a problem (especially not because of any so-called biological difference); the problem is that when they get home, they take on a second shift of unpaid domestic labor that is disproportionately allocated to women, adding the equivalent of another full-time job onto an already-full schedule. Forget about work-life balance; women are more often trying to juggle a work-work balance. For many working women, especially working mothers, it simply isn’t feasible to work in an industry that requires an average 52 hour working week. Creating a culture that is friendlier to working moms, by mandating shorter hours or allowing flexible schedules, will reduce a very significant barrier to entry for women.
Sexual harassment is by no means an isolated issue to the tech industry, despite the fact that it’s been a hot button issue as of late (see: the very memo that prompted this article). But as with many male-dominated fields, sexual harassment is much more prominent — and much less likely to go reported. An astounding 60 percent of women in tech reported “unwanted sexual advances” at work in one survey; 39 percent of women who were sexually harassed at work did not report it because of the possible negative impact on their careers. Creating accountability in the workplace and adequately disciplining perpetrators of sexual harassment is one way to make sure women feel safe at work, but as with rape culture in general, it feels unlikely that concrete steps will be taken to do so any time soon.
While many people (including the writer of the Google memo) are quick to blame so-called biological differences for the gender gap in tech, the truth is that the real reasons for the gender gap are the result of societal conditioning and pressures that uniquely affect women. As the world continues to become a friendlier place for women, with laws that make it easier to have a work-life balance or hold perpetrators of sexual harassment accountable, the tech industry will surely follow suit. As one glass ceiling breaks, the rest of them will without fail come crashing down, too.