Hey, 13% is practically half

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?


  1. says

    Having been on the technical side of high tech nearly two decades now, and in some fairly large organizations (you’ve heard of a few of them, certainly), I have to say I find these numbers pretty unsurprising from what I’ve observed.

    As to why: I’m no expert, but I think you’ve read it in the news. Suffice to say the environment just isn’t real welcoming for a wide host of reasons, mostly more covert now, as the laws have made overt stuff actionable at HR. Some of my male colleagues especially tend to get their backs up a bit hearing this, but anyone knows the sociology knows the larger story well enough. And it’s rarely so much about any single person’s attitudes as the collective weight of a lot of things, and not so much what people think they think as how we collectively act.

    The sort of odd part about that: looking around at the people I work with immediately, they’re mostly pretty politically progressive. Tends to be the direction in the profession, and if you came out of rural Canada into the urban milieu to take your degree, you’ve had your eyes opened a bit to how far there is to go. I can’t imagine many of them going on about a woman’s place being in the kitchen or the like, and despite being more on the technical side of things and a bit behind on the social sciences, most of them probably wouldn’t be strong subscribers to poorly substantiated ladybrains-are-bad-at-this-stuff notions (though this would, I suspect, come out far more than cruder expressions of sexism)… And yet here we are. Momentum, in part: it gets to be a bit of a locker room atmosphere to some degree just as a matter of who’s present, I could go on. And then the larger industry is so generally hostile, women run an obstacle course to get to the higher ends of the profession especially.

    It bugs you, now and then. The company I’m with right now does do some things, maybe more than token, these leadership seminars emphasized for and by women, and I get to thinking sometimes if we didn’t have at least that, how could anyone imagining themselves at all progressive even stay in the profession? I wouldn’t accept an invitation to a whites-only country club, and yet I work for what’s very nearly a men-only one. If you didn’t think now and then this isn’t right, just when do you think at all? It bugs you, and I wonder sometimes if that’s some of what’s behind the misogynist raving on the net: technical people sticking their fingers in their ears, shouting as loudly as they can it’s really the meritocracy they want to believe it is, trying not to notice just what an express lane they’ve been given, even as resentment swirls around them.

  2. latsot says

    When I studied computer science in the 80s, there were four women on a course with about 80 people who weren’t women. The women were not, in general, treated with a great deal of respect.

    There were a *lot* of conversations about them among the men, including speculation about why they were on the course in the first place, what they would have to do to pass the course (hard work, skill and intelligence were rarely considered as possibilities) and exactly how certain men expected to help them do that regardless – as far as I could tell – of whether they wanted any help.

    I don’t remember the motives of the men taking the course being questioned. I do remember the women being widely criticised for pairing up with each other for group assignments. I wonder why they did that. I also remember that they tended to do their lab work in the library clusters rather than the computer science ones. Again, just about impossible to work out why.

    Most of the men on that course seemed to think they were being welcoming to computer science students who were women because they wanted them to be on the course. The fact that they wanted women to be on the course because maybe they’d be able to fuck them didn’t strike those men as being largely unwelcoming and presumably unwelcome.

    Decades later, I still work on and off for universities and things are certainly a bit better in computer science departments, at least among faculty (I don’t usually have anything to do with teaching). But when I bring this sort of thing up, the answer is always:

    “We’ve got X women in fairly high positions in the faculty, what more do you want?”

    There’s all sorts of wrong here but what curdles my piss is that it’s hardly about what *I* want. You’re asking *me* why I think it’s bad that you’re responding to criticisms of having hardly any top faculty members who are women by asking *me* what ratio I’d approve of?

    Holy cocksucking Christ.

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