Silicon Revolution: Women in Tech
The disproportionately small number of women in tech is an open secret in Silicon Valley
The shortage of women in the tech industry is obviously of interest at Carolina, which has an undergraduate population that is roughly 60 percent female. The topic was top of mind with the students in the Silicon Revolution course, a Maymester class taught by history professor James Leloudis that combined classwork in the history and future of the Silicon Valley with a week of visits to Carolina alumni working in the San Francisco Bay area.
Women and men were equally represented among the Silicon Revolution students and the alumni they visited. But equality is far from the case in the American tech industry in general. Here are some statistics compiled by the National Center for Women and Information Technology:
- Women held 57 percent of professional occupations in the 2016 U.S. workforce, but only 26 percent of professional computing occupations;
- Women of color are particularly underrepresented in the tech field with only 3 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian and 2 percent Hispanic; and
- Women accounted for 18 percent of 2015 computer and information sciences bachelor’s degrees.
The female students in the class were particularly interested in the topic, bringing up the “women in tech” question at nearly every stop in their trip, with mixed results.
On the up side, they were pleased to see so many Carolina alumnae doing well in the Silicon Valley.
“Can I just say she is…goals?!” junior Mistyre Bonds said after meeting Robin Donohoe, Carolina alum and co-founder of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. “Her global approach, strategic career and social agenda all speak to me as both a global studies major and entrepreneurship minor.”
“I always found it was nothing but an advantage to being a woman in technology,” Donohoe said. She was easily remembered, she said, and seen by entrepreneurs as more empathetic to their concerns. She said she also benefitted from a boss who never penalized her for taking time off to have her four children.
Jennifer Lloyd Halsey also impressed Bonds. “I’m still catching my breath after meeting and coming in contact with her and her dynamic personality,” she said of the Carolina alum and investor in medical technology. “I will definitely take her networking tips with me as I navigate the corporate world.”
A complex issue
But the students also expressed disappointment, especially in the first few days, with the responses to their questions about what can be done to close the gender gap in tech industry jobs.
“Before arriving in Silicon Valley, I was aware of the problems they had been facing with diversity. However, after spending a couple days here, it is clear that the subject is taboo and tip-toed around. I’ve been shocked by how deep-seated these problems seem to lie,” wrote Kitty Appel, a psychology major, in her classroom reflection.
Leloudis saw the difficulty people had talking about diversity in the Silicon Valley as well. “On the one hand, people recognize the seriousness and the severity of the issue and, at the same time, it’s difficult to understand what the reasons are and what the solutions might be,” he said.
Various reasons were floated as being at the root of the lack of women and diversity in general in the tech industry. Some blamed it on the “pipeline” – that is, not enough women and underrepresented populations majoring in computer science and other STEM subjects in college.
Others blamed it on what the May 2014 issue of The Atlantic called “the confidence gap”: “In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.” For example, men are more likely to apply for jobs that they aren’t fully qualified for than women are.
The Silicon Valley also has what Leloudis called a “bro culture” that can alienate women.
This was confirmed by Chief Technology Officer Rebecca Parsons of Thoughtworks Inc., winner of the 2016 Top Company for Women Technologists award. More women drop out of high tech because of the way they are treated by men, she said in an October 2016 article in SiliconAngle. “You don’t have to look very far to hear the war stories that women go through, whether it be being trolled on Twitter, harassed at conferences or just the subtle things,” Parsons said. “People walk into a meeting, and I’m the woman there, and so they ask me, ‘Can you get me a cup of coffee?’ They would never ask our male CEO to get them a cup of coffee.”
Parsons’ company was judged female-friendly because of its recruitment and hiring of women, generous family leave policy, work flexibility and part-time opportunities. It’s easier to hire a man, Parsons said, but employers can find equally qualified women if they look in different places and talk to different people.
Increasing the number of women and other underrepresented people in tech industries is good business sense, too, because of the different perspectives and experiences they bring to work. “When there are large groups of people who are not at the table and represented, we are all in a way cheated,” Leloudis said.
The history professor has already reduced the gender gap in the three-year span of the Silicon Revolution course itself. “The first year I offered this course, of the 16 students, I think we had three women,” Leloudis said. “But those three women came back very determined, and we worked hard together in the next year on recruiting.”
Carolina alum Steve Goldby of Venrock, a venture capital firm, firmly believes that the number and importance of women in Silicon Valley will grow. “It’s important that the venture fund be able to align its people with the entrepreneurs,” he said. “So it’s inevitable that there will be an increasing role for women in the venture industry.”
One of the Venrock partners is Camille Samuels, quoted in Silicon Valley Business Journal earlier this year as saying that the company “is a great place for women, for a variety of reasons.” Instead of “acting like a male” the way female pioneers in the industry had to do, Samuels said that she and her peers “have the luxury of embracing our womanhood as venture capitalists. That includes my people skills and my empathy, for instance, and why they’re an asset to a company or a venture firm as opposed to a liability.”
By the last day of the trip, Jane Morrison, a junior majoring in business with an entrepreneurship minor, was optimistic about the prospects for women in the Silicon Valley. “I believe that women in tech are making advances constantly,” she said in a video interview on the windy beach adjacent to Golden Gate Bridge. “I’m excited to see where it goes and see how many of my colleagues will make an impact in the industry.”