WIT: Making Tech Truly Diverse Calls for New Tactics and Renewed Commitment

 

 

By Brenda Darden Wilkerson

This column is part of a series called “Voices of Women in Tech,” created in collaboration with AnitaB.org, a global enterprise that supports women in technical fields, as well as the organizations that employ them and the academic institutions training the next generation.

So much time, effort, and expense go into fixing tech’s diversity problem — why have we seen so little progress?

The proof of our failure is in the data. The 2017 Top Companies for Women Technologists report, which measured more than 547,000 technologists across 63 organizations, showed a mere 1.2 percent year-over-year increase in the number of women in technical roles. Women’s representation in midlevel, senior, and executive roles saw considerably smaller increases of .2 percent, .6 percent, and 1 percent respectively. 

These numbers are likely far higher than the industry at large, since Top Companies participants are already committed to measuring their progress. For women of color, the numbers are even more disheartening. The meager increases in women’s representation have gone almost entirely to white women and women of Asian descent.

For years, tech companies have followed a similar formula to diversify their workforces. They host affinity groups, they hold sensitivity training, they tweak hiring processes. But all of these efforts have yielded scant benefits. If the tech industry continues to “improve” at the current rate, it will take decades before we reach gender parity, and even longer before our workforce accurately reflects the population at large. Clearly, something’s gotta give.

All of us have to be brave and admit that what we’ve been doing is simply not working. We need to face the real data, scrap fruitless initiatives, and take an entirely new approach. This is no time to give in to diversity fatigue!

Why do so many organizations continue to fail? For some, there’s a gap between the desire to look good and the actual effort that progress requires. But even executives with perfect motivations are finding themselves looking at stagnant diversity stats. And I know this is true, because I’m one of them.

I’m the leader of AnitaB.org, the leading organization devoted to the advancement of women in technology. We host the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s biggest gathering of women technologists. We administer Top Companies for Women Technologists, the only program that provides a consistent benchmark of the technical workforce across a wide range of industries.

We are, by all rights, true experts in fostering diversity. And yet, looking at our own internal diversity numbers, I could see no other answer: We had not only failed to move the needle, by most measures we had actually regressed. How could we continue to pressure the industry around us for greater diversity when we ourselves were not able to improve as we intended?

Clearly, we need a new approach. Here’s what we’re advocating: First, the change has to start at the very top. When our board of trustees sought a new CEO for our organization — someone to continue the incredible work that Anita Borg herself began in 1997 — they took a very rare step. Not only did they interview me, a black woman technologist, they hired me. By doing so, they were making a clear statement: It was time for this organization to take the necessary steps toward fully recognizing the intersectionality of the women we serve, and of our own team doing that work.

As part of a series of changes under my leadership, we have hired our first HR director. She’s implementing significantly stronger HR policies and procedures to foster more inclusivity and equity, and helping us adjust our hiring practices — where we advertise, how we assemble interview panels, and other tactical steps — to help us attract a more diverse candidate pool. We’re also requiring that every hiring manager assemble a truly inclusive group of prospective employees. 

When we add to our team, leaders must consider candidates with a variety of intersections, including age, gender, race and ability. We’re also focused on capturing our racial and ethnic data more accurately, especially for those team members who identify with more than one group, to better measure our progress.

 

Right now, I’m also personally vetting every hire we make to ensure we’ve drawn from a broad pool, and that we are bringing on talent that truly reflects the richness of the communities we serve. This commitment takes time away from my other projects, but we accept this trade-off because it’s important to set the tone from the top, and because we cannot continue to operate as we always have.

We’re also focusing on promoting and retaining a diverse set of talented employees — because, frankly, we’ve lost some good people who we wanted to keep. As we always tell the companies who work with us, fixing the “leaky pipeline” is not enough. We cannot hire our way out of this problem. We must fix our retention and promotion process, not simply in addition to hiring better, but first and foremost. 

At our core, we’re technologists: Solving problems is what we do best. We need to focus the same skills that have made technology companies the vanguard of economic growth — disruption and innovation — onto the issues that threaten our industry’s progress.

To win the innovation wars, to fill empty seats, to create products that delight customers, change must start with leadership. Visionary leaders need to make bold moves and acknowledge the depth of the issue. We need to throw out initiatives that haven’t made an impact, look at real data, and build a better way forward. Companies that undertake a new approach are the companies that are going to see change.
And it has to start with those of us who do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion on a daily basis. 

Already, we’ve seen some progress. Our diversity numbers so far this year look very different than they did at the end of 2017. And, as we set a new baseline and measure ourselves against it, we will be better able to identify places where we’ve improved and those where we’ve regressed, codifying our tactics for future gains. We don’t expect everything to work perfectly — there is no silver bullet — but we do expect to take honest and unflinching measurements of what does move the needle.

Fixing tech’s diversity issues is truly personal for me, and for everyone who works at AnitaB.org. As we offer ourselves as an example, we want the companies we work with to know we’re willing to do the same critical work and, as leaders, hold ourselves personally accountable in the same ways that we’re demanding of them. 

Brenda Darden Wilkerson serves as the President and CEO of
AnitaB.org, an organization working to shape public opinion about issues of critical importance to women technologists in academia, industry, and government.

WIT: Ellen Ullman’s New Book Tackles Tech’s Woman Problem

 

 

 

By J. D. BIERSDORFER of NYTimes

LIFE IN CODE
A Personal History of Technology
By Ellen Ullman

As milestone years go, 1997 was a pretty good one. The computers may have been mostly beige and balky, but certain developments were destined to pay off down the road. Steve Jobs returned to a floundering Apple after years of corporate exile, IBM’s Deep Blue computer finally nailed the world-champion chess master Garry Kasparov with a checkmate, and a couple of Stanford students registered the domain name for a new website called google.com. Nineteen ninety-seven also happened to be the year that the software engineer Ellen Ullman published “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its
Discontents,” her first book about working as a programmer in a massively male-dominated field.

That slender volume became a classic of 20th-century digital culture literature and was critically praised for its sharp look at the industry, presented in a literary voice that ignored the biz-whiz braggadocio of the early dot-com era. The book had obvious appeal to technically inclined women — desktop-support people like myself then, computer-science majors, admirers of Donna J. Haraway’s feminist cyborg manifesto, those finding work in the newish world of website building — and served as a reminder that someone had already been through it all and took notes for the future.

Then Ullman retired as a programmer, logging out to go write two intense character-driven thriller novels and the occasional nonfiction essay. The digital economy bounced back after the Epic Fail of 2000 and two decades later, those techno-seeds planted back in 1997 have bloomed. Just look at all those smartphones, constantly buzzing with news alerts and calendar notifications as we tell the virtual assistant to find us Google Maps directions to the new rice-bowl place.

What would Ullman think of all this? We can now find out, as she’s written a new book, “Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology,” which manages to feel like both a prequel and a sequel to her first book.

Don’t panic, non-nerds. In addition to writing code in multiple computer languages, Ullman has an Ivy League degree in English and knows how to decode her tech-world adventures into accessible narratives for word people: “Time went on; I graduated from Cornell and moved to San Francisco, where, one day in 1979, I walked past a Radio Shack store on Market Street and saw in the window a microcomputer called the TRS-80. Reader, I bought it.”

Her work as an active programmer spanned about 20 years, ending in the 1990s, but some experiences stay with you forever. “The role they assigned to me, translator, is perhaps the most accurate description of everything I have ever done concerning technology,” she writes of one gig. As I’ve found in my own scribbling about tech, language skills and accurate translation are essential to understanding in both human and computer systems. The most useful bit of prep I had for that came from the two years of Attic Greek I once took to fulfill a curriculum requirement for a theater degree. Converting text into plain language for the inquiring masses is vital, whether it be wrestling Xenophon’s “Anabasis” or Linux engineer notes into English.

The first three-fifths of “Life in Code” is primarily composed of essays published elsewhere between 1994 and 2004, while newer material from 2012 to early 2017 fills out the rest. The technology mentioned within those early chapters often recalls quaint discovery, like finding a chunky, clunky Nokia cellphone in the back of the junk drawer. The piece on preparing computers for the Year 2000 has a musty time-capsule feel, but the philosophical questions posed in other chapters — like those on robotics and artificial intelligence — still resonate.

While the electrified economy had yet to complete its first dramatic cycle of boom and bust when her first book came out, a 1998 essay in “Life in Code” shows Ullman, Cassandra-like and ever the pragmatic pessimist, already bracing for the coming storm. “I fear for the world the internet is creating,” she wrote. “Before the advent of the Web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses.” These days, she’s still concerned about the damage the internet is doing to culture, privacy and civility.

What hasn’t changed in the past 20 years is the dominant demographic of the technology industry and its overall lack of diversity. Ullman addresses these topics in the latter part of the book, as she observes online classes for newer programming languages like Python and feels put off by the “underlying assumption of male, white, geeky American culture” with science fiction TV shows woven into the course material. She worries that this approach may alienate people who aren’t familiar with it, and imagines a time when the general public is writing their own code for the world they need.

“What I hope is that those with the knowledge of the humanities break into the closed society where code gets written: invade it,” Ullman writes. But, she warns, be prepared for an environment of “boyish men who bristle at the idea of anyone unlike them invading their territory.”

She has many stories of her own to share on the topic of gender relations in the office and points out that not all of them were bad. In one case, she tolerates frequent comments about her hair from one addled man in order to learn more about various aspects of computing from him. “I did have pretty hair; I went on to become a software engineer.”

As then, not all men today are hostile to women and many are quite accepting, but the misogyny Ullman experienced in her programming days seems to have escalated in some places. Perhaps this is because of the antler-whacking nature of today’s hyper-driven culture, as illustrated in the situations of women like Susan J. Fowler, who set the executive dominoes cascading at Uber earlier this year with a blog post detailing overt and unchecked sexual harassment by her male manager. A recent 10-page internal memo (by a male Google engineer) that lambasted the company’s diversity efforts also shined a light on workplace culture for some. The abuse of women, the L.G.B.T. community and racial, religious and ethnic minorities on social media is also well-documented — and much more vitriolic than flare-ups like the recent bout of androcentric caterwauling over the casting of a woman in the lead role on “Doctor Who.”

As noted by Anna Wiener in an interview with Ullman for The New Republic, Twitter “would look a lot different today if it had been built by people for whom online harassment was a real-life concern.” When reading “Life in Code” later, I thought of Ullman’s musings about interface design in general: “To build such a crash-resistant system, the designer must be able to imagine — and disallow — the dumbest action.” Let’s face it, a queer female gamer of color is going to have a very different idea of “the dumbest action” than a 23-year-old white brogrammer and we need that perspective. (As for Twitter, Ullman considers the service a broadcaster of “thought farts.”)

It may take a generation, but progress to find balance and representation in the tech and tech-driven world is happening. And the invasion is underway, with women-in-tech groups like Girls Who Code, Project Include and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (the latter named for the Navy rear admiral, herself a programming pioneer) striving for diversification on multiple fronts. Because, as Ullman observes, “the world of programmers is not going to change on its own.” One hopes she’ll check back in 20 years to comment on how it’s going.

Any women in the tech field who get your vote of confidence? Tell us about them in the comments below!

Women In Tech: 10 tips to reach the top

Lyft event: Things women should know about climbing tech’s career ladder

 

 

By LISA M. KRIEGER of MercuryNews

Decades after women began entering the tech workplace, relatively few have made it into corporate management.

What’s it take to reach the top? At a Monday night panel discussion at Lyft by its UpLyft Women employee group and organized by a San Francisco-based organization of  professional international women called The Expat Woman, leaders discussed their journeys to success in the tech industry, the gender gap in senior leadership roles and advice for women in ways to forge ahead in their fields.

What they said: Women need to get better with self-promotion and personal branding. They need to build strong networks outside their company, not just inside. They should seek out many mentors, not just one. Learn new skills. Enjoy risk. Setbacks? Failure? Bounce back.

The conversations steered clear of recent revelations about Uber detailed by Susan Fowler, a software engineer who exposed a culture of sexual harassment and sexism.

Rather, the leaders offered practical suggestions to young women in tech — a new pool of candidates who tend to be ethnically diverse and have grown up in a digital world. There is competition for these women as tech companies are under growing pressure to broaden and diversify their workforce.

Specifically, they offered this advice for how to rise through the ranks of technology firms:

• Be visible, said Nolwenn Godard, director of pricing product at Paypal  “Make sure strategic people know your impact, know your influence…And you need to be known outside your company, outside your immediate circle. This requires networking. Most of the opportunities will come from your network.”

• Mentors – keep it casual, said Anisha Mocherla of market operations at Lyft.  “Guys don’t have official mentors. They don’t ask: ‘Will you be my mentor?’ ” she said. “Just approach co-workers and say: ‘I’m thinking about this — what do you think?’… Don’t just have one mentor. Different people are good at different things — find them. Find multiple mentors for different topics.”

• Take risks, said Maire Sogabe, chief of staff to the chief security officer at PG&E.  “For instance, try to take the opportunity to manage people early in your career … and hone those skills. Be persistent — you may not always get the opportunity that is put forward. Sign up for (online) courses through Udemy or Coursera. Use that knowledge to reinvest in yourself and the brand that you want to be — not just what you are right now … Keep at it. You need to work at what you want to do and who you want to be.”

• A career is a jungle gym, not a ladder, said Yvonne Chen, head of marketing/senior director of marketing at Udemy for Business. “Think in terms of the long game — build a skill set. Not always is each step a step up,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a step to the side. But you’re learning something new or different.”

• Raise your hand, said Iliana Quinonez, director, solution engineering at Salesforce. “Women tend to be on the shy side. Don’t be,” she said. “Build your brand. If your boss has a project and is super overwhelmed, say: ‘I can help with that.’ Just go for it.”

• Build a three-minute elevator pitch — about you, said PGE’s Sogabe. “Say who you are, what you want and what you expect from your career. That’s key.”

• Communicate your business impact, said Paypal’s Godard. ” Women tend to receive less constructive feedback, are less exposed to ‘stretch opportunities’ and get fewer special assignments. Feedback tends to be less factual and more focused on communication styles.” To counter that, describe your results for the business.

• Volunteer. But only do things that add value to your own career, said Godard. “Don’t volunteer to take notes. Volunteer for something that is recognized,” she said.

• Compartmentalize, said Salesforce’s Quinonez. “Maybe you didn’t get the opportunity on this project. That doesn’t mean … there aren’t other projects,” she said.

• Pick the right partner, said PGE’s Sogabe. “I would never be able to devote myself to my career if my husband did not do the laundry, dishes and help out,” she said. “Find a real partner.”

 

Do you have any advice for other women looking to shatter the glass ceiling covering the Tech Industry? Give us your tips in the comments below!

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