Pay gaps, harassment and a restroom three floors down.
By Katy Murphy of BayAreaNews
Women in the Bay Area’s male-dominated tech world have a strikingly dimmer view of gender equality at work than women in other sectors, according to a new poll that offers the deepest look to date at local employees’ attitudes on pay parity, workplace opportunity and sexual harassment.
In an industry whose sexist reputation is dramatized in court cases and parodied in situation comedies, women in tech say the obstacles they face are all too real: Half of those polled said they feel women have fewer opportunities for advancement at their current workplaces than men, and 43 percent said they are paid less. In contrast, fewer than one-third of Bay Area women outside of tech felt held back or underpaid because of their gender.
Months after the #MeToo movement began to topple power brokers from Hollywood to Congress, the poll found that women in tech were far more likely than women elsewhere to say they had been subjected to unwelcome sexual advances or harassment at work, with more than 4 in 10 saying they had been harassed at their current jobs. Despite those experiences, women in tech, like two-thirds of all respondents, believe the national reckoning will bring lasting change.
The findings of the poll, conducted for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and this news organization, point to the roadblocks, both glaring and subtle, that gender researchers say still await many women at work — particularly in tech, one of the most dynamic and lucrative slices of the economy.
Women remain so vastly outnumbered in this notoriously male-centric industry that writer Emily Chang called it a “Brotopia” in her new book about Silicon Valley. And the string of recent grievances relating to tech’s treatment of women runs from Susan Fowler’s viral account last year of the sexism and harassment she experienced as an engineer at Uber to the uproar over the case of fired Google engineer James Damore, who wrote a memo suggesting biological differences might partly explain the lack of women in tech.
“Women leave the tech industry not necessarily because there wasn’t good maternity leave or flexible work schedules,” said Gwen K. Young, who directs the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Wilson Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “They say it’s the culture and the way men treat them.”
Alicia Lent, a 24-year-old engineer in the semiconductor industry, will never forget the day she went to teach a class in a sprawling factory and asked where the restroom was.
“They said, ‘Oh yeah, the closest women’s bathroom is three stories down,’ because they converted the women’s bathroom to a men’s bathroom,” she said. “They said there’s not enough women to justify a women’s bathroom on every floor.”
Lent felt being a computer science major in college — where she was sometimes the only woman in the class — not only imparted technical know-how, she said, it helped her “bulk up” for the reality of the workforce, where today she is one of two women on a team of 12 people, a job she enjoys. When working in pairs in college, she said, “I felt like I had to do good or no one would trust a woman as a lab partner again.”
Researchers say such experiences are typical in male-dominated departments and industries such as tech. The share of women earning undergraduate degrees in computer science fell dramatically after the 1980s and has since held steady at around 20 percent, a worrisome figure for those pushing for gender parity in the industry.
Stanford and UC Berkeley have begun to reverse the trend on their campuses, in part by making introductory computer science courses accessible to those with no previous programming experience. John DeNero, an assistant teaching professor who helped develop the new courses at UC Berkeley, said he is encouraged by how easily the female graduates he knows are landing entry-level jobs in tech.
When they go out to look for work, he said, “They are highly sought after.”
But mid-career women often encounter stagnation, researchers say.
A national study of female scientists and engineers led by UC Hastings law school professor Joan C. Williams suggested that bias pushed women out of the STEM workforce, with two-thirds of women saying they were required to prove themselves repeatedly and the same share having their commitment and competence questioned after having children. Nearly half of the black and Latina women in the study said they had been mistaken for administrative or custodial employees.
Of Fortune 500’s 20 biggest Bay Area tech companies ranked by revenue, just one — Oracle — has a woman in charge: Safra Catz, who shares the title of CEO with Mark Hurd. Last week , the prominent venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz hired its first-ever female general partner, former federal prosecutor and cryptocurrency expert Katie Haun.
Danielle Rhinehart, 35, of San Jose, has held an array of jobs in tech, from office manager to entertainment coordinator. She says she would love to do something more creative but has sometimes felt pigeon-holed — a circumstance she isn’t sure whether to attribute to her gender or to a narrow view of the type of administrative positions through which women often start at major tech companies.
“The more I talk to other women in this industry and others, just professional working women,” she said, “that’s the theme I hear — getting stuck in an administrative role, not being able to be seen as something more.”
The new poll also highlights a disconnect between the sexes over the perception of gender inequality. Just 26 percent of men in tech polled said they thought women lacked the same opportunities for advancement as men in their current workplaces, compared to 50 percent of women in the same sector.
Overall, 35 percent of women and 24 percent of men polled believed women had fewer opportunities where they work than men, findings in line with a recent national survey.
“I don’t think there’s companies right now that are going deliberately out of their way to make sure a girl doesn’t get the job strictly because she’s a girl,” said Rohit Basu, a 21-year-old economics major from Brentwood who is doing a data analytics internship at a local company this summer. “I think it comes down to the skills you have.”
Anthony Defreitas, a 33-year-old software engineer from San Mateo whose team of 20 includes five women, said he believes women at the places he has worked have been treated fairly. He said he hadn’t heard otherwise or witnessed overt discrimination. Still, he thinks companies like his might approach problem-solving differently with more women at the table.
“It’s not uncommon for there to be only one or two women in a room of about a dozen people,” Defreitas said. “I’ve thought at times, ‘If I were the only guy in this meeting, how would I feel?’ ”
Gender equity experts say it is important for managers to listen to the experiences of women and other minority groups at work and to take a closer look at policies — such as job descriptions, performance reviews and task assignments — they might mistakenly assume to be objective.
“Sometimes they’re just shocked. They didn’t realize all of that was going on,” said Catherine Ashcraft, director of research at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which works with Google, Apple, Intel and other leading tech firms on diversity initiatives.
The poll did find an overwhelming belief — among tech workers and those in other fields — that the changes propelled by the #MeToo movement are here to stay. About two-thirds of those surveyed, including 71 percent of women under 40, predicted the recent attention to the problem of sexual harassment would bring lasting change, slightly higher than the findings of a similarly worded national poll earlier this year.
Kimberly Chun, a journalist-turned-user-experience writer in her late 40s who lives in Alameda, is hopeful. #MeToo seems to be re-shaping the public’s perceptions of harassment, she said, by shining a light on “outrageous allegations of bad behavior” and encouraging people to share their experiences and outrage on social media.
Chun described a flurry of impromptu conversations about sexual harassment and gender discrimination at work after the movement exploded last fall, with a push to create changes in the office. It was energizing, she said. But, she noted, “I don’t see more female vice presidents or leaders at my company.”
Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said the poll’s finding about the lasting impact of the #MeToo movement was heartening, but only to a point.
“We have to build on that optimism with specific goals and a plan to get there,” he said, “and whether it’s a for-profit company or a nonprofit like ours, we can’t just pretend or hope or be optimistic that it will get better.”
Do you feel any progress has been made with gender equality in the Tech Sector? Sound off in the comments below!