Silicon Valley, a Male Bastion?
Gender disparity continues to remain a reality in technology companies in the United States.
When Apple released its annual diversity and inclusion report last week, few were surprised to know that the company made little progress in adding more female employees. Women, after all, seem to be on a continuous trailing path in the cutting-edge field of technology, even in the mecca of the domain.
Stories of women being considered inferior and needing to push harder to prove themselves are not rare in Silicon Valley. That they are unable to build camaraderie in the workplace seems a gentler issue to resolve when deeper problems such as lack of pay parity remain infested in the industry. It is a vicious cycle that ultimately deters other women from entering this field.
“While you do see women in marketing or in public relations, my company deals with such hard-core technology, I don’t see many women even in non-technical departments,” says Seema Mirchandaney, who has been working at Synopsys at Mountain View in United States for around five years. She is one of the few female “techies” in her company. “Very few women apply to positions here,” she adds, coming to her company’s defense when it comes to recruitment policies.
Palo Alto resident Ashwinee Khaladkar paints a similar picture when she says that she is often the only woman in a room full of as many as 15 men. “Only once did I have a lead, who was a woman,” says the software development professional at Oracle who has been living in the United States for over a decade. “This was after 23 years of working in this industry. I’d like to think this is because of the area I work in — back-end systems engineering. There are more women in testing/QA, product management and project/release management in Oracle but fewer in engineering.”
Khaladkar is right, and the scenario gets worse at senior levels. Only 29 per cent of Apple’s leadership is female, according to the report, and the proportion increased by one percentage point since 2014. Almost none of the companies in Silicon Valley have a workforce comprising more than 50 percent female employees, a recent Observer analysis showed. While Facebook has 132 female managers, making up 27 percent of all managers, LinkedIn employs 120, or 37 percent, the report added.
No wonder then that women stand out in meetings or at conferences, and end up feeling disconcerted. “When you are the only woman in a meeting in a room of 50 men, you don’t want to contribute,” says Mirchandaney.
Silicon Valley’s Gender Parity Problem
As much as 70 per cent of the core engineering team at 3Qi Labs in San Francisco, which works out of India, is female, reveals company founder Naman Aggarwal, stressing that gender disparity is more pronounced in the Silicon Valley. A large number of qualified women applied for open positions, and as the organization relies heavily on employee referrals, female employees often refer other females, he says. “This helped us increase the number of women in our company,” Aggarwal elaborates.
The Tide is Changing
The disparity, of course, stems from less women enrolling in a tech major in college, mainly because technology isn’t marketed to girls the way it is done to boys. “There is a certain assumption that technology is a man’s job, which can be seen from the different activities promoted to boys versus girls,” says Aggarwal. “Things are changing though — STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and Robotics are being actively integrated into the curriculum at my daughter’s all-girls’ school in San Francisco, which is very promising.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has often reiterated that in order for technology to be widely used and adapted globally, a diverse environment is essential, and that includes not just global representation but also a significant representation of both sexes. Technology will render itself irrelevant if it functions in a bubble, to be used only by a few. In order to make technological advances in areas relevant to females and to build women-centric products, it is essential to have more women in the field of technology.
There is, however, still a long way to go.
As long as women are expected to take a back-seat in their careers to take care of children and have domestic responsibilities, the issues will persist. “Although there has been a lot of emphasis on training women on how to manage their careers in a corporate culture, there is almost no training imparted to men on how their behavior at work and home needs to change to accommodate and encourage working women,” feels Khaladkar. In technology organizations that do not have many women around to forge connections and build camaraderie, it can be isolating for the few women working there.
The problems are evident at the onset itself when very few women opt for engineering courses. Khaladkar recounts how her interest in the field was spurred by observing her father tinkering around with radios and small appliances. Her knowledge about all things electronic grew as she spent more time with him, prompting her to pursue engineering later. She began her career with a lot of excitement. It obviously didn’t last very long.
Many women start noticing gender disparity as soon as they begin school, and if it bothers them, they switch streams while it is early enough to do so. The fact that Mirchandaney graduated from the all-girls’ Smith College at Northampton, Massachusetts in the United States, played a huge role in keeping her motivated to pursue computer science. She may have changed her line of education if she had noticed gender disparity while she was in college.
It was only when she went on to pursue her masters degree from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, did the issue present itself. But it was too late to turn back. “There were very few women in my class — and most who graduated with me entered research,” she recalls. “Very few entered industry — easy to see why.”