Economy

Women In Tech Explain Why A Tech Conference For Women Went Awry And How To Make It Better

CREDIT: AP Photo/Go Daddy

Thousands of women in tech gathered in Phoenix this week for one of the world’s biggest tech conferences, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. But this year, the conference was eviscerated on social media because of a “male allies” panel that many women found patronizing and sexist. The panel, which featured top tech executives, attracted such heavy criticism that the group did a “re-do” session the next day with much more promising results.

The “Male Allies Plenary Panel” Wednesday faced strong public backlash after featured panelists — GoDaddy’s CEO Blake Irving, Google senior vice president, Alan Eustace, Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, and Intuit CTO Tayloe Stansbury — told women the best way to deal with workplace discrimination was to work harder, speak up and lean in. Conference goers and spectators were already wary of the panel. Some women in tech even opted not to go when it was announced that the CEO of GoDaddy would participate, given the company’s controversial history of airing ad campaigns featuring scantily clad women with plunging necklines.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella added fuel to the fire when he told the conference women shouldn’t ask for a raises, and that, like karma, it would all even out in the end. Nadella later retracted his statement.

But criticism of the panel’s over-emphasis on their companies’ diversity efforts and reluctance to confront the alienating “brogrammer” culture gave way to a “do over” with all of the original panelists except Stansbury from Intuit.

Conference-goers derided the original panel session Wednesday for axing the anticipated Q&A session, which to many, felt like women’s voices were being silenced similar to how they are at work.

“By applauding their attendance, giving the CEOs a voice, and silencing the voice of women at the panel, the intelligent, dedicated leadership of GHC made a serious error in judgement,” said one GHC attendee, a veteran tech consultant and analyst who asked to remain anonymous in an interview with ThinkProgress.

“For those of us that have been in tech for over 25 years, we have been hearing about inequity or gender bias for a long time,” she said. “Work harder, ask for more, etc. are worn phrases and sound bites…Having privileged CEOs who have not listened to these women’s stories, while perhaps well intentioned, speak about what women should do was belittling, condescending, and ignorant.”

Eventually, the panelists seemed to get the message loud and clear, when Eustace jumped in on a Twitter discussion about the panel and suggested they try again. This time, instead of talking, the executives listened to women talk about their work experiences and offer suggestions on how to mend the gender disparity.

“They saw the feedback, and acted on it, and came and listened,” Cate Huston, a software engineer who used to work for a major tech company, told ThinkProgress. “The room was full, lots of women spoke, and it was pretty incredible.”

The panel’s re-do seemed to mark a change in how to handle diversity concerns. “In the work environment, these concerns typically go [to human resources],” Huston said. But the problem is “HR is not there to protect the employee, but to protect the company from legal liability.”

The lack of professional support was a major theme in the second session. Women testified that they didn’t think it was safe to report their concerns to HR for fear of retaliation, Huston said.

Professional repercussions are a real concern for women and people of color suffering from discrimination in the workplace. Programmer and researcher Ashe Dryden found that of women in tech who reported sexual harassment, 23 out of 25 said they were fired within three months of reporting the incident. Moreover, 56 percent of women in tech leave the industry within the first 10 years of their career.

Recent diversity reports from tech giants including Twitter, Yahoo, and Google have affirmed the industry’s stereotypes, highlighting that the vast majority of employees are white men — even in non-tech jobs. Women applying for tech jobs are often discouraged or simply turned away by tech companies because it’s assumed they aren’t qualified or don’t “fit” the culture. Once hired, women often face gender harassment, discrimination in the tech workplace, and significantly lower pay.

Women and African-Americans are also most likely to leave tech and science jobs. Women are also frequently passed over for leadership roles, with only half of American tech companies having women on their executive boards and women making up less than 20 percent of executives and managers at Silicon Valley’s top ten firms.

The fallout from the male allies panel only indicates a first step in fixing Silicon Valley’s growing diversity gap.

“What they did well is that they showed up to this conference full of women,” Huston said. “They all have good intentions, but good intentions aren’t a silver bullet.”

There’s still work to be done. Going forward, tech companies should follow the panel’s lead and “listen to the actual criticism” and push forward even when there’s a misstep.

“If you screw up, listen, and show that you are sorry you build a far stronger relationship,” Huston said. “Often people duck criticism and get defensive. These guys could have ignored it…but they didn’t, and I think they earned a lot of respect as a result.”

The key to progress is changing the mindset through the ranks and making mid-level managers more sensitive to, and better equipped to deal with and recognize bias in the workplace. But that may only come with time.

“I don’t think things are going to change anytime soon,” Huston said. “I think it’s going to be very gradual, the attrition numbers are going to drop very slowly — if at all — and a lot of talented and hardworking women are not going to survive the industry long enough to see that change in person. But, I’m a cynic. I’d love to be wrong.”