If you asked our female software engineers how old they were when they started coding, you might be surprised at just how early they gravitated toward programming. One would tell you around 6 or 7, another just 13 years old. When many of us were concerned with more “traditional” school subjects, their attention was captivated by the Logo programming language and making shapes with the Logo turtle. Their passion for creating would eventually lead them to pursue an education in computer science, where most of them report their first experience of being just one in a mere handful of women.
This path eventually landed them here at Bonzzu, where our technical staff is approximately 20% women. And while that’s far from perfect, we do pride ourselves on the fact that about half of them are leaders on their respective teams. Because while we may not have a percentage that hovers more closely to 50, the fact that they occupy a substantial portion of the leadership positions is more indicative of a small pool of female applicants than an inability to hire based on talent.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case in the industry as whole—because Silicon Valley, where the future is continually being dreamed up and redefined with each passing second, has been under immense criticism of late, as damning statistics and urgent calls to action are shining a light on the socially-stunted foundation upon which the future is being built.
According to the researchers that conducted the 2014 Silicon Valley Index, men who hold a graduate or professional degree earn 73% more than women with the same educational qualifications, while men with bachelor’s degrees earn 40% more than women with the same credentials.
And as ridiculous as that is by itself, the issue stretches beyond wage inequality, as current surveys also depict the Valley as being staunchly old-fashioned when it comes to gender diversity. Only 11% of Silicon Valley executives and on average around 20% of software developers are women, despite being the lead adopters of technology.
And though gender inequality in the tech industry has been an issue from the outset, it has gained trending status in recent weeks as some prominent women have thrust the issue upon some prominent stages to great effect.
The recent conversation surrounding gender inequality in the workforce first gained serious momentum a couple of weeks ago at the 87th Annual Academy Awards. Upon winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in Boyhood, Patricia Arquette urged her captive celebrity audience, as well as the 37.2 million viewers at home, to fight for wage equality for women:
“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Her speech was met with roaring applause from the audience, noteworthy approval from Meryl Streep, and received an outpouring of support on social media. And while her words didn’t target the tech industry specifically, it certainly brought the narrative to the forefront of discussion at a very strategic time.
This is because a mere two days after Arquette’s speech, Hillary Clinton—former Secretary of State and likely Presidential candidate come 2016—made an appearance as a keynote speaker at the “Lead On” Conference for Women in Technology in Santa Clara.
With the recent buzz surrounding Arquette’s plea for wage equality, Clinton took the opportunity to make sure the ball keeps rolling: “I think we all cheered at Patricia Arquette’s speech at the Oscars, because she’s right—it’s time to have wage equality.” She then went on to criticize the industry’s gross shortcomings when it comes to hiring and promoting women, which was only made more poignant by doing so within earshot of many tech giants’ headquarters.
“The numbers are sobering,” Clinton said. “Just 11% of Silicon Valley executives and 20% of software developers are women. A man with a bachelor’s degree tends to make 60% more than his female counterpart. On the Forbes list of 100 leading tech investors, just four are women.
“We can literally count on one hand the number of women who have actually been able to come here and turn their dreams into billion-dollar businesses… We’re going backward in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward.”
And the ball keeps rolling—because while Patricia Arquette planted the issue in the minds of the country at large, and Hillary Clinton urged tech industry leaders to truly “think different,” another woman is currently taking the issue to trial, where tangible consequences may be brought upon a symbolic stand-in for the Valley’s boys club at large.
Ellen Pao, Reddit’s interim CEO and former partner at prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), is suing her former employer for $16 million in back pay and future wage losses. KPCB is one of the largest investment firms in Silicon Valley, known for backing several companies that bloomed into tech giants such as Google, Genetech, Uber, Twitter, and Netscape.
Pao is certainly a high achiever. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1991 and then Harvard Law School in 1994, only to later enroll in Harvard Business School and earn her MBA. Her career path prior to KPCB is equally impressive and includes working as a corporate attorney at Cravath, Swaine, & Moore from 1994-96, and as Senior Director, Corporate Business Development at BEA Systems from 2001-2005.
Pao’s extraordinary résumé eventually landed her a job as technology chief of staff for John Doerr, a senior partner at KPCB, where her talents were put to use for six years prior her exit (the details of which vary greatly depending on which party you believe).
The trial boils down this: Pao’s camp asserts that she was a high achiever who was repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of men of a similar profile, while Kleiner Perkins’ attorney, Lynne Hermle, claims she did not have the skills for the job, “She did not even come close.”
This trial has become highly publicized, not only because gender inequality in Silicon Valley has entered the public discourse (which certainly helps), but because it’s attempting to inject a little “why” into a conversation that’s largely stood upon a statistical “what.” We know women are underpaid and underrepresented in the tech industry—but in order to balance the scales, some of the “why’s” must be addressed.
The trial brings up several complex issues that lurk beneath the statistics, such as the myth of meritocracy, the dwindling pipeline of women in computer science, the subtle undercurrent of sexism that’s been pushing women out, all the way to the overt, unwanted sexual advances by men in power.
Some of the pipeline issues in the industry are starting to be addressed. For instance, the nonprofit organization, Girls Who Code, is one of a handful of groups aiming to support and increase the number of women in computer programming. And both Apple and Facebook are attempting to lure talented female employees by offering to freeze their eggs so that they may delay childbearing, and thus focus on establishing a career first. Yet even this futuristic perk has proven to be a half-baked solution, as many have criticized the effort as being better for businesses than for women. And despite these endeavors to get more women in the door, they don’t fix the problems that exist once they get inside.
At the end of the day, the trial is expected to have wide implications for the way gender bias is treated in the industry. Because while these large companies may not have control over the number of women that pursue and apply for technical positions, their inability to provide an environment that allows both men and women to succeed in equal fashion may start costing them millions.