Hannah Levintova at Mother Jones talks to Tracy Chou, who dug out the stats on gender imbalance in Silicon Valley. The industry has been hiding them for years.
Starting in 2008, news outlets filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Labor, hoping to obtain the workforce diversity data the tech giants refused to release. The companies lawyered up—as of March 2013, most of the top firms (Apple, Google, Microsoft, et al.) had convinced the feds their stats were trade secrets that should remain private.
Their real reason for withholding the data may well have been embarrassment. Although tech employment has grown by 37 percent since 2003, the presence of women on engineering teams has remained flat (at around 13 percent) for more than two decades, and women’s share of what the US Census Bureau calls “computer workers” has actually declined since the early 1990s.
Why? Because it used to be seen as mindless grunt work, suitable for women.
Despite her success, [Chou is] more than passingly familiar with the obstacles the Valley’s sausage fest creates for women—from brogrammer pickup lines to biased hiring and promotion. (Not to mention pay: As of 2011, census data shows, women in technical fields were making about $16,000 less, on average, than men.)
Fed up with the data void, Chou came home from her conference and wrote a Medium post calling for more transparency: “The actual numbers I’ve seen and experienced in industry are far lower than anybody is willing to admit,” she wrote. “So where are the numbers?” With her bosses’ permission, she started the ball rolling: Just 11 of Pinterest’s 89 engineers (12 percent) were women, she revealed. (Today, it’s around 17 percent.)
Her post got attention, and people started collaborating with her.
To keep track of the numbers, she set up a repository on the code-sharing site GitHub and invited all to participate. As word spread, more techies stepped up. Within a week, her repository had stats on more than 50 firms. (It now has more than 200—including GitHub, whose 104 coders include just 14 women—making it the most comprehensive available source of coders’ gender data.)
The numbers were as bad as you might expect: Just 17 of Yelp’s 206 engineers (8 percent) were women, for example. Dropbox was barely better, with 26 out of 275 (9 percent). Nextdoor, a social-media tool for neighborhoods, had 29 engineers—all male. Change.org, which bills itself as “the world’s platform for change,” had less than 13 percent women engineers; it has since changed for the better, with 20 percent.
Cue the anti-feminists saying this is because women choose to arrange flowers instead.
When she started out studying computer science as a Stanford undergrad, “I felt really out of place,” she told me. “There weren’t many other women.” The coursework was tough, and the guys in her classes talked a big game. “My self-calibration was off,” she explained. “There’s research on how guys are generally inclined to give themselves more credit. So their calibration was ‘I’m awesome; this is super easy,’ when I felt like I was doing poorly.”
Concerned she wasn’t qualified for CS, Chou switched to electrical engineering. But the more she excelled, the more pushback she got. Male classmates would interrupt her or tune out when she spoke. During group projects, guys would reject her proposals and debate alternatives for hours before returning to her idea. “It’s okay to have a girl in the class if she’s not very good,” she said. “But it felt like once I became better than they were, it was not okay anymore.”
And it wasn’t any better in the world beyond school, either. Maybe in another…100 years? 500? In colonies on Pluto?