Sexism in Technology
Diversity with respect to leadership of software organizations in Victoria, BC.
Years ago, I asked a co-worker whether she had experienced sexism at the company. She suggested reading the names on office doors: a hint that distribution of leadership positions is skewed. Let’s go read more doors.
For our purposes, a leadership position will include board members, directors, advisors, presidents, vice-presidents, executives, chiefs (COO, CEO, CTO, etc.), and managers. We’ll take a look at organizations that meet the following criteria:
- Location. Must have at least one office in Victoria, BC.
- Sector. Must primarily involve software products.
- Team. Must list the leadership team on the web site.
- Size. Must have at least six people in active leadership roles.
- Search. Listed when searching for “software companies victoria bc” or is on VIATEC’s web site.
In the following sortable table, the F and M columns contain counts of people who appear to be female or male, respectively, based on either their photograph or name. The percentage column is the relative number of women in leadership roles (F / (F + M) × 100), where 50% is parity:
|Agilyx North America||4||12||25|
|Cuboh Software Incorporated||1||5||17|
|NTT Data Services||3||13||19|
A value below 50% does not imply an organization is sexist, nor that no actions are being taken to address the inequality. Rather, this table highlights a systemic observation: fewer women hold leadership positions in software-oriented organizations than men, for whatever reasons.
Clearly, an undeniable imbalance pervades software companies. National surveys have shown that similar disparities cross business sectors and Provinces throughout Canada. This is a problem.
Most readers of this blog are technically-minded people who enjoy solving problems. Many, like myself, are probably privileged white men. Of those, I hope, a significant portion believe in and strongly support equality. No single, solitary action will fix leadership role bias; yet, we can ask questions that spark conversations:
- How does the company address diversity in the workplace?
- When are heuristics used to gather insights into diversity?
- Is the hiring process a collective decision (nobody has veto power)?
- Are applicant names removed from résumés and CVs?
- What policies ensure that harassment victims will not suffer retribution?
- Do policies clearly define the consequences for retributive behaviour?
There is a Catch-22: women tend to prefer—and apply to—organizations that already have a significant number of women. This means that new companies must make intentional efforts to embrace a culture of diversity from the outset. Established companies face harder challenges that will entail educating (or replacing) whomever downplays or marginalizes people based on outward appearance.
Be mindful that those who vocalize against sexism and harassment in the workplace often face retribution in various forms: physical (death threats), organizational (job loss, career ceilings), technological (DDoS, online bullying), financial (legal defense), social (ostracization), and reputation (re-employment difficulties).
These are real, tangible factors that weigh heavily on the mind of any individual who brings forward a complaint.
In 1945, the Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) required a team who could complete the machine’s calculations by hand because it had no memory to store equations or intermediate results. The job fell upon six mathematicians, the first modern programmers in history:
- Jean Jennings Bartik (a.k.a. Betty Jean Jennings)
- Frances Elizabeth Holberton (a.k.a. Betty Snyder)
- Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli
- Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer
- Frances Spence (a.k.a. Fran Bilas)
- Ruth Teitelbaum (a.k.a. Ruth Lichterman)
Together they reduced computation time of ballistic equations from over 30 hours to mere seconds. Although their work ushered in modern computer science, their contributions remained unrecognized, largely unknown, and overshadowed by the work of the white engineering men who built the machine. Fortunately, Kathryn Kleiman uncovered, visited, and interviewed the women from those early days of electric computing herstory.
In 1867, John Stuart Mill reminded his audience that inaction is tantamount to complacent agreement:
Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
In 1999, Elie Wiesel echoed Mill’s warnings with the perils of indifference:
Of course, indifference can be tempting—more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.
Today, our workforce has elements of dysfunction, perhaps in part because the majority of good white men have said nothing, risked nothing, rocked no boats, raised no voice, troubled no other. Tomorrow, pose questions to your human resources department about their hiring processes and policies.
During a sex-segregated keynote speech in Saudi Arabia, Bill Gates answered a question about whether the country could become a top ten economic force by replying:
“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”
An astute statement at the time that doubles as a warning for our future.
About the Author
My career has spanned tele- and radio communications, enterprise-level e-commerce solutions, finance, transportation, modernization projects in both health and education, and much more.
Delighted to discuss opportunities to work with revolutionary companies combatting climate change.