Why IT leaders need to admit that the tech industry is not a meritocracy

Girls Who Code founder shares two actions companies and individuals can take to make the tech industry more equitable.

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Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani is taking on the gender gap in the tech world by training girls to be brave and by asking industry leaders to get rid of stereotypes and discrimination.

Image: Girls Who Code

Tech leaders have to give up the idea of a meritocracy to change the culture and make everyone welcome in the industry, according to a nonprofit leader. 

Julie Larson-Green, chief experience officer at Qualtrics, interviewed Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, during a conversation about equity in the tech industry on Wednesday. 

Since 2012, more than 300,000 girls have participated in Girls Who Code programs including summer internships and high school clubs. Saujani said that her initial solution to the tech equity problem—to build a pipeline of women in computer science—did not target the real issue.

"CEOs said, 'I wanna hire women but I just can't find them,' and I naively believed them," she said. 

She said that the real issue is that all nerds are not welcome in SV and there is a major culture problem in the industry.

"We don't have a living breathing meritocracy in tech," she said. 

When Saujani started Girls Who Code eight years ago, the tech industry was about 18% female. That number is about 22% now which is down from 37% in 1995, according to research from Girls Who Code. Women make significantly less than men for doing similar jobs in IT, and women hold only 25% of the leadership jobs in the tech industry. 

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The solution to this lies in changing corporate culture and individual attitudes about what an IT professional looks like, Saujani said. This includes making training more accessible to a broader group of people. Girls Who Code made a similar change in response to the pandemic.

"Everywhere we reached girls was shut down in one day in March so we moved our programs to being virtual and increased the number of girls we taught," she said. "We found them in places we hadn't looked before."

Saujani said that Girls Who Code has been able to reach more girls by making all of the educational programs virtual.  Moving the programs online made the classes more accessible because students didn't need to find a ride to an in-person class. 

Larson-Green said that she experienced this lack of access in college. Her first major was computer science but she had to work nights as a waitress to pay her bills. The computer science lab was only open to undergrads at night so she had to switch her major to business.

These economic issues are still directly affecting women's careers most recently due to the pandemic. 

McKinsey analyzed the impact of job losses due to COVID-19 and found that women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. Analysts found that women's employment is dropping faster than average, even accounting for the fact that women and men work in different sectors. Further, McKinsey estimates that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if unemployment rates for men and women were the same.

A Prudential study in 2018 found that more than half of American women are the primary breadwinners in their households

"We need women to thrive economically," Saujani said. 

Along with other activists, Saujani called for President Joe Biden to develop a Marshall Plan for Moms to pay mothers for their unpaid, unseen labor and to pass policies addressing parental leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity.

In addition to solutions on a national scale, Saujani also has action items for companies, executives, and individuals to improve equity in tech.

Get serious about changing the culture

Saujani said that she sees a lot of resistance to the idea that there is a culture problem in the tech industry despite significant evidence of discrimination.

"Forty percent of our students experienced or knew of someone who had experienced sexual discrimination during the interview process," she said.

Saujani said that in addition to making such fundamental changes like erasing sexual discrimination from the process, companies need to think about internal bias and leave behind old stereotypes.

Larson-Green shared an example of how she handled the hiring process at a former company. She said the hiring team was interviewing a woman and the hiring recommendation was split along gender lines. The men on the review panel thought the candidate was not a good fit because she didn't code for fun or tinker with technology outside of work. The women found the candidate to be well-rounded and capable of succeeding with the job.

"This was a learning experience for people on the hiring team because we spent time exploring the idea of what a technologist looks like," Larson-Green said. "I was an aerobics instructor when I wrote code and that didn't compute for people either."

Saujani said that looking at data and personal assessments from the hiring process can make the process more equitable.

"They're not intending to discriminate, it's just that we're looking at talent through a gender perspective," she said. 

Men need to join the cause

Saujani said that 40% of the teachers who work with her organization are men. This is a recent development and Saujani said that more men need to take an active role in equity work.

Saujani said that when she spoke to the Women in Technology group at the Rochester Institute of Technology she noticed that there was a group of men in the audience. She talked to them after her presentation and learned that the men were there as allies to help women in technology in large and small ways.

"They told me, 'We feel like it's our job to speak up when there's a microaggression,'" Saujani said. "They said, 'When we go on an interview at Microsoft, we come back and share what the questions were.'"

Saujani said that more men should speak up when a female colleague is not getting the credit or opportunity that she should.

"When men see you lifting up other women, they will follow you and you will shift and change culture," she said. 

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