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Are Efforts to Recruit Women in Technology Sexist?

The imperative to place more ladies into tech jobs has, ironically, sparked debate among women.

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There are fewer women working today in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—or STEM jobs—than there were in the 1990s, according to a September report from the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the report, female employees comprised just 26 percent of the STEM workforce in 2011. Some companies are working to combat these dismal figures. There’s no shortage of reasons to hire more women in technology jobs, including the fact that diversity in development creates products that better meet the needs of all consumers. And research has proven that teams that include women are collectively smarter.

Earlier this year, Etsy gained widespread attention for its efforts to increase gender diversity by modifying its interview process and offering grants for women to attend junior-engineer training programs. It worked: The number of female engineers at the e-commerce company spiked by 500 percent. Progress, right? Maybe not. Women in technology have been debating these affirmative-action-type initiatives from two very different perspectives.

Engineer and web designer Lea Verou for one, is not a fan. She writes that when speaking at tech conferences, “I always feel I have to try extra hard to prove [that] I’m not there because I’m a woman, but because I’m a good developer and I have something valuable to teach.” Verou argues that the “cornucopia of female-focused events” taints the perception of women in technology. “I believe they cultivate the notion that women are these weak beings who find their male colleagues too intimidating.”

While Verou doesn’t dispute encouraging women to join tech, she does take issue with the concept of quotas and gender-based rold models. “Overcoming bias against women is one thing, going to the other extreme and becoming biased against men is another, and is also sexist,” she writes, adding, “The whole notion that women need female role models springs from the notion that gender is this incredibly important characteristic that defines who you are.”

However, Julie Ann Horvath, one of the first female developers at GitHub—a code-sharing network for programmers—believes it’s important to cultivate more female role models. Horvath stumbled into her first tech job by accident. “It wasn’t until I saw a woman succeed in that environment that I thought it was also possible for me,” she said. At her current job, while helping a female colleague write code one night, Hovrath realized the advantage to having female co-workers. “I didn’t have to prove that I was as smart,” she says, “nor did I have to scream to be heard or have my opinion considered.” So she created GitHub’s new Passion Projects—a free monthly talk series open to the general public, in which female engineers, developers, and entrepreneurs share their work. She believes that Passion Projects may encourage more women to consider careers in technology—and buoy more female superstars to the limelight. And she may be on to something: Thanks to Passion Projects and GitHub’s subsequent proactivity in recruiting women, a quarter of the company’s last 60 hires have been female.

Many recruiting efforts now focus on long-term initiatives to teach young girls how to code. But education alone isn’t enough: Although 41 percent of 2011’s science and engineering graduates were women, only 15 percent of them actually chose to work in STEM jobs. Ultimately, Verou and Horvath share a similar sentiment. Says the latter, “I don’t just want to hire more badass women—I’m focused on keeping them.”

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