Lyndsay Kirkham was just trying to have lunch with her son and his father on Monday when she overheard a group of IBM executives at the next table say, “We’re not hiring any young women because they just get pregnant again and again.” Shocked and appalled, she started live-tweeting the encounter. First picked up by The Daily Dot, Kirkham’s story has since ballooned into a bigger conversation about the tech world’s gender and racial inclusion problem.
Kirkham told ThinkProgress that, based on the conversation, she believed the executives had the assumption that men aren’t good parents or that men don’t or can’t parent children as well as women. “They were looking for ‘mature’ women who, in their opinion, were less likely to have any more children,” said Kirkham, who checked for alcohol on the table because she couldn’t believe the executives’ candor.
She said she didn’t get the executives’ names or titles, but that they were likely from human resources, or at least familiar with the jargon, based on repeated talk of pensions, holidays, time off and job benefits. IBM hasn’t returned ThinkProgress’ repeated requests for comment. Kirkham also said she hadn’t been contacted by IBM, which has a large corporate office in Toronto.
Kirkham, a Toronto-based copyeditor for Demeter Press and freelance writer and developer, believes that her experience has highlight a systemic problem. “It’s rampant,” she said. “Workplace issues around equality [in technology companies such as the] gaming industry are everywhere.”
Since tweeting the incident, and pointing out that everyone at the table was a white male (a woman joined later), Kirkham has gotten some backlash from the public with people calling her racist. But her response is that “It doesn’t get more privileged than a bunch of white dudes talking about women. Race is also very much so a part of this.”
The tech industry has struggled with its white male-dominated, “brogrammer” culture that tends to exclude women and people of color. Recent diversity reports from tech giants such as Twitter and Google have affirmed the industry’s stereotypes, highlighting that the vast majority of employees are white men — even in non-tech jobs. Twitter’s diversity report, which was released Wednesday, revealed that 70 percent of it’s employees overall were men but only 10 percent of women were on the tech side.
Female applicants 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. Moreover, women and African-Americans are also most likely to leave tech and science jobs.
The homogeneous culture has also kept women from leadership or executive positions, despite more women entering science and technology jobs. Very few tech companies, including IBM, have women in top leadership positions. Twitter only added its first female board member in 2013. According to Google’s diversity report, 21 percent of leadership roles are held by women which is only slightly better than the 17 who are board members at Fortune 500 companies.
Tech companies, however, are working to improve their diversity with efforts to recruit more women and people of color. For example, Google recently announced an initiative “Made With Code” to get young girls interested in coding.
Despite being disgusted by what she heard, Kirkham believes sharing her experience has been good for opening up a conversation about sexism in tech at the lower levels rather than from the top down.
“I know of IBM’s diversity policy,” said Kirkham, who doesn’t believe the executives she overheard represent the company as a whole. “They are dedicated on paper to advancing women in technology. [But] on the ground level, there are at least two people who aren’t dedicated to making that happen, the company’s ethos.” she said. But “it’s a systemic problem. It [starts] at the job interview,” where a young woman gets passed over “because one day you might pop out a kid.”