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In 2017, is it really necessary to keep talking about sexism in the tech world? After all, Carnegie Mellon University recently boosted the percentage of women enrolled in their computer science program to 40%. The pay wage gap has narrowed. Organizations like Girls Who Code are creating bootcamps for high school girls to learn programming across the United States.
Turns out, the answer is still unequivocally yes. Women are still struggling to be acknowledged within the workplace.
Women currently make up a mere 17% of the total tech workforce (10% in infosec), despite the fact that several of the pioneers of computer science were women. It’s true that more women are now entering the field (albeit quite slowly), but their experiences within the male-dominated organizations of this industry continue to hold them back.
Last month, we asked professional tech ladies to tell us about their experiences and whether that experience was colored by existing within it as a woman. The following three themes of systemic discrimination emerged. Let’s look at the common barriers women face both in tech and in professional workplaces in general.
A Place at the Table, but No Voice
How many of you are familiar with the following scenario, reported by one of our survey respondents?
“When my male coworkers are discussing a problem that is work-related, I will add something new to the conversation; I get completely ignored. They don’t even look in my direction and just keep talking. Then a week later, a man will say the exact same thing I said and they’ll go, ‘Oh! Right! Good call!'” – Security Analyst
Unfortunately, I’ve heard this from a lot of other women and have lived it as well. More than half of the respondents mentioned that one of the biggest challenges they’ve faced is the feeling that they are routinely overlooked during meetings and conversations.
Specifically, they mentioned that among themselves and other women they knew, they were frequently overrun or shutdown by their male colleagues. Women face the possibility of being told they are overly emotional when voicing concerns or standing up for an opposing viewpoint.
Do Men or Women Talk Too Much?
In a PBS essay dispelling the myth that “women talk too much,” several studies were cited to support that it is in fact men who lead and dominate a vast majority of discussions. One anecdote told of a British company that appointed 4 men and 4 women to the management positions with the highest salary. Although on the surface this seems like a fully equal split of power, the men actually dominated meetings and even patronized the women.
“I had a meeting with a [female] sales manager and three of my [male] directors once…it took about two hours. She only spoke once and one of my fellow directors cut across her and said ‘What Anne is trying to say Roger is…’ and I think that about sums it up. He knew better than Anne what she was trying to say, and she never got anything said.”
It has even been shown in study after study that men tend to interrupt women in conversations far more often than the reverse, and to subsequently continue speaking over the women in question.
Could I Speak to a Man Instead?
“Your colleagues wait for you to prove yourself in order to accept you, whilst they could take for granted that a male colleague is capable until he might prove otherwise.” – Christy Wyatt, CEO at Good Technology
As a woman in the tech world, you are forced to work harder than your male colleagues in order to prove that you do indeed know what you’re talking about and are capable. Almost every respondent mentioned the frustration of being not only ignored, but outright discounted in favor of a man (without link to proficiency or level of expertise).
One respondent that she was once asked by a customer “if a male employee could help him,” completely ignoring the valid information she had just given him. Yet another gave an example of “the time a customer called in and immediately assumed I was part of the customer call center and not actually a NetSec engineer.”
“I still to this day hear other tech workers say they don’t want a female boss.” – Christina, Quality Engineer
The Women in the Workplace study found that “women are less likely to receive the first critical promotion to manager—so far fewer end up on the path to leadership—and are less likely to be hired into more senior positions.” We are 30% more likely than men to “receive feedback that [we] are ‘bossy,’ ‘too aggressive,’ or ‘intimidating'” when asking for a promotion.
Upward mobility is also obstructed by the lack of access to the right people and opportunities that would jettison our careers forward. A full 40% of women in science, engineering, or tech jobs feel stalled in their career path. And a study by the University of Toronto found that men benefit more from positions of authority than women. Even if we find ourselves in a leadership position, the structure is still set up to favor the “boys’ club” and male autonomy.
It is worth saying that all of these disparities are far more pronounced for women of color. These women face the most barriers to the advancement of their careers and the greatest drop-off with positions of authority. One respondent noted her exasperation at the many barriers in place keeping her from rising after 30 years in the industry, saying that it’s “not inclusive to Latino women at all.”
Women Are Meant to be Mothers (Just Not at Work)
Two respondents mentioned experiences of being held back or dissuaded from a career in IT because their life’s mission was seen as raising a family rather than pursuing a professional future. Thankfully, this paradigm is already shifting, but making life easier for women who choose both paths still isn’t a common business imperative. This issue is made all the more difficult if you are a single mother with no support system in place.
Women More Expected to Sacrifice
“Being a woman a lot is expected of you from society, you are held responsible for childcare and taking care of the home. If the child is sick the mother will usually have to take time from work. It is also expected that you support your husband’s career progression rather than your own.” – Information Security Manager
Despite both men and women reporting in large numbers (87% and 91% respectively) that they believe either gender could be a primary breadwinner, the “results reveal that women tend to make more compromises in terms of putting their partner’s career ahead of theirs.” Only 45% of women were confident that their partner would be willing to compromise for the sake of family compared to 77% of men.
The reason for this disparity is likely the difference in income; in most cases, the person who earns more continues working if someone in the partnership needs to make a sacrifice. Because there is a lack of women in positions of seniority, it’s generally the men keeping their jobs.
However, Alisha Dattani, founder of TangibleQL, said that she has known women with high-earning infosec careers whose senior roles were still “subtly altered to ensure they no longer had the decision-making clout that they used to” after having a child and attempting to make both lives work in tandem.
“Unless organizations find ways to help employees balance work-life priorities—and encourage both male and female employees to pursue those options—it will be impossible to achieve gender parity.” – Bain & Company report
Yes, Sexism Still Exists
“Women look at computers and see more than machines. They see the culture that has grown up around them and they ask themselves if they belong.” – Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor
As women, we internalize the stories we hear about harassment, exclusion, and that computing is an inherently male pursuit. Even when we’re interested in pursuing a STEM career, we’re unlikely to receive the same support and encouragement as our male peers. Many of us do wonder if we truly belong in this world.
Listen to me: YOU DO BELONG.
So the next time you’re talked over, speak up and demand that your point be heard. When your boss makes a condescending joke about your request for a promotion, inform him that it is not a joke and do not relent if you know that you deserve it. Reach out to your superiors (statistically, they’re not going to reach out to you); ask for advice and let your expertise float naturally into the conversation. Become an activist within your company for unfair issues with life-work balance, especially if your company claims to be a supporter of these kinds of policies.
The onus lies on organizations to see the value in making gender parity a part of their top business imperatives. This involves taking a hard look at ways in which internal company culture either supports or suppresses women, and choosing to tip that list more toward the former than the latter.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re making the experience of sexism up or exaggerating its importance. It is real, it is still happening, and it’s generally more complex than any petty slogan that could be fixed onto an internet meme.
I leave you with this quote from a woman in information security:
“The females that survive our industry are some of the smartest and toughest career women around.” – Erin Jacobs
How Sexism Stalled My Progress in the Tech Field
Mind the Gap – Women in STEM
Women in Information Security (Santa Clara University)
Let’s Hear it for the Ladies: Women in Information Security (Infosecurity Magazine)
Language as Prejudice – Language Myth #6: Women Talk Too Much (PBS)
Women in the Workplace 2016
Men benefit more than women from having authority on the job, study finds (Science Daily)
The great disappearing act: Gender parity up the corporate ladder (Bain & Company)
More Women but Not Nearly Enough (NY Times)
The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology (Harvard Business Review)
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