How to Think About Gender Inequality and Diversity in Tech

Last fall I attended the very fashionable and mildly geek-chic Anita Borg Institute’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing event, now home to “Nadella-gate.”

There, I observed a sea of 8,000 women aged eighteen to eighty who were there for one express purpose: to understand the technology landscape and future of computing and how it may affect their respective lives–career and otherwise.

My thinking around gender inequality (in this particular case, with regard to the technology industry) tends to align with GoDaddy CTO Elissa Murphy’s thinking when we sat down at the conference to discuss gender gaps, among other things: “I never got the memo that I wasn’t supposed to go to the computer lab, or play baseball, or do any other thing I wanted to do. Being a girl never had anything to do with it.”

On the flip side, as Erica Lockheimer, Director of Engineering Growth at LinkedIn, pointed out: “When you talk to younger generations, the stereotypes about being a girl in computing still exist: we’re introverted geeks who lack social skills and just want to stare at a computer screen all day. It’s in everything from the things they watch on TV to what they see on the Internet.”

What is the truth about why more girls don’t pursue engineering careers? Is it because men are holding them back? Is it because “the system” (that beast! The thing we blame when we can’t identify a culprit) is sending the wrong messages?

If we put gender aside for a moment, and focus on the benefits of diversity within industries and organizations, the thinking ever so slightly shifts into a solutions-based paradigm. The by-product of this modification is a distinct emphasis on a person’s love for a particular subject matter, area of expertise, or knowledge base that allows them to thrive. Along with continued discourse and a general awareness of “unconscious bias,” I am almost certain that if we focused on the following things, we would see seismic shifts in terms of the number of people (who happen to be female) who pursue careers in engineering and other technical roles.

EDUCATION: Thinking about computing education as art, rather than just science

It’s very easy to get stuck in our thinking that pursuing a degree in computer science means one is only adept with numbers. But the truth is that “coding” is actually very similar to learning a language; a language that happens to be numbers based. When curricula systematically approach engineering from the standpoint of science or math, they fundamentally deny those with a propensity for learning languages or a passion for art the opportunity to pursue this path. We have done a disservice by talking about STEM in terms of left-brains, rather than a creative pursuit that requires a different set of skills, often soft skills, in order to master it.

Sarah Clatterback, Senior Manager of Web Development at LinkedIn, who this year joined Lockheimer as one of Business Insider’s Top 22 Most Powerful Women Engineers in the World, illustrates this point with her own experience:

“I actually studied applied design in undergrad and then subsequently held an internship with a software company, which is where I discovered ‘User Interface.’ It changed my perspective, and for the first time I saw the great potential of combining science and art; then I ended up going back to school to pursue a degree in Information Science.”

If the perception of computer science and engineering changed to account for the extreme creativity and soft skills required, would more females be attracted to the discipline?

“Computer science absolutely needs a makeover in terms of how it is framed in our education system,” added Bobbi Dangerfield, Vice President, Global Sales Operations at Dell. “Understanding human needs and behavior is critical to developing breakthrough technologies. We need to emphasize these soft skills in addition to the technical requirements and how technology can be an agent of change to help solve the many global challenges we face.”

ENVIRONMENT: Thinking about diversity as an asset, rather than a mandate

Organizational culture is the aggregation of human behavior within an organization; but the leadership fundamentally sets it. Evolved, engaged leaders (in other words NOT the good ol’ boys club), who strive for the best business outcomes in today’s extremely diverse and oft female-driven consumer environment, recognize the importance of multi-cultural, multi-gender teams. Not just at the executive level, but throughout the organization.

“Caring about diversity has to exist innately,” remarked Kate Fiedelman, who spearheads diversity and inclusion efforts at Pinterest.

But it’s naive to believe that an organization committed to diversity does so as an act of social good.

“We are fortunate in that our leadership is committed to having the diversity conversation while continually asking for metrics to understand where the company is succeeding and where it is falling short. It’s still about what is best for the business, but the awareness and belief that diversity is important is 100% there.”

When thinking about diversity in this context, the focus shifts from viewing female talent as filling some arbitrary mandate, but rather to seeing females as an important component for reaching business goals.

Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy adds: “I’ve seen almost unilaterally that when technical teams are 50% female and 50% male, the working environment becomes much more inclusive, more respectful and more satisfying. This inevitably leads to better results across the board.”

In other words, when gender diversity is approached strictly from the standpoint of what is best for the business, it loses the propensity to seem “charitable” in nature. Diversity is not about charity. It’s about the bottom line.

gender inequalityEMPOWERMENT: Thinking about equality in terms of skill sets not gender

When I look around at my peers–a vast majority of which happen to be accomplished females who hold high positions at major tech companies or have started companies of their own and built them to extreme levels of success–from my vantage point it’s hard to see inequality when it comes to women in technology. I do believe it’s in there somewhere, on some level…and I know it exists because we wouldn’t be obsessing over it if it didn’t. Girls and women today have more organizations, more programs, and more resources dedicated to them than ever before; this certainly indicates there was and is a pain point.

But when we demand equality–which ultimately calls for gender diversity so that the female to male ratio is more equally balanced–what is it we really want?

Equal pay? Equal votes? Equal opportunity to advance our careers? Equal education? Equal respect? Equal number of bathroom stalls? Equal amount of socially constructed pressure to provide for our families? Or is it that we simply want men (or “the system”) to acknowledge that we are capable of filling the same exact role, if all things were created equal: which they are not.

It seems a moot point to argue about equality in terms of gender because gender, by nature, is not an equal thing. Men can pee standing up, which is extremely handy when it comes to camping and long hikes. Women can birth babies, which is pretty much the reason we’re all here.

Rather, we should assume gender neutrality and focus on rooting out misaligned social constructs that uphold old ways of thinking in which gender inequality appears the culprit. By doing this, women become empowered members of the process.

For example, we should take a minute to ask ourselves as women: “Am I not getting this raise because I am a woman, or am I not getting this raise because I have yet to show my value to the person who makes the decisions. What am I not seeing here, and what am I not saying?”

And men should ask questions such as: “Am I doing my best to be supportive and empathetic to the challenges women have faced in the past while making the best decisions for the business which inevitably include diverse points of view, skill sets, and passions?”

Beyond gender disparity

Change requires a commitment to ongoing conversation and public discourse. Once we acknowledge that change needs to occur, we then have to be committed to going deeper.

My distinct belief around gender inequality is that it’s more about breaking down social constructs and modes of thinking that no longer serve us. If we focus on the actual gender argument, we will miss the boat. Instead, we should shift focus to re-working old paradigms in need of modernization, which will, in essence, serve to change the messaging about what it means to be a woman in tech.

In addition, as women, we must support each other while being patient with our male counterparts who are also fighting their own challenges as they seek to understand the changing tides.

It takes two sides to tango.

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This article originally appeared on Inc.com