Is Silicon Valley’s ‘Brogrammer’ Culture About to Change?

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Silicon Valley has a mounting image problem. The meritocratic principles of the startup culture face a backlash due to numbers that show that hiring and funding seems to favor the white, male and privileged.

Google put the spotlight on the issue by publicly revealing that 70% of its workforce is male, and predominately white (61%) or Asian (31%). “We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, told the PBS NewsHour. “It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts. All our diversity efforts, including going public with these numbers, are designed to ensure Google recruits and retain many more women and minorities in the future.” And in its own way, toymaker Lego entered the fray by announcing this month they would put out figurines that show female characters in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers—careers typically dominated by men.

The lack of women in tech is held up against the backdrop of declining female programmers—only about 1 in 4 programmers is female, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, down from a peak of 37% in 1991 despite the wild growth of the industry.

The dream of a more balanced gender ratio hits the hard reality of the gaping demand for skilled programmers. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum: a male tech culture promulgated by self-selection of fellow “brogrammers” and an educational pipeline that leaks women, despite the fabulous opportunities in tech.

But this will change. In fact, as the industry matures, it must change. As Ashley Gavin, curriculum director of Girls Who Code, says, this is not just a “female” problem—it’s a people problem. “Yes, there are very few women pursuing computer science, but there are also very few people pursuing computer science. There’s only like 70,000 graduates in computer science every year,” she said recently.

Here are some signs that change is afoot:

California college shows turnaround is possible

Maria Klawe, a mathematician and former dean of engineering at Princeton University, became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006 and “has had stunning success getting more women involved in computing,” as NPR notes. Within four years, the ratio of female computer science majors rose from 10% to 40%, a feat that helped Klawe become recently named one of Fortune’s “Top 100 World Leaders.”

The college’s approach was groundbreaking in its simplicity. Rather than an introductory computer class designed to separate hardcore talent from dilettantes, the class was rebooted to focus on creativity and problem solving. All female freshmen go en masse to the Grace Hopper conference, the annual Woodstock of women in computing, to immerse themselves among industry role models. Inspired by Klawe’s success, other universities have “redesigned their computer science courses to be less intimidating,” according to the New York Times.

Grassroots groundswell growing

Just ask Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, who will be part of NerdWallet’s Cocktails & Career Hacking with Best in Tech event. Any startup would be envious of the growth her group has achieved: founded in 2011, the group aims to bridge the gender gap in IT with networking and events that bring female tech professionals together. Membership is growing at a rate of 1,000 members per month in 12 countries, with launches in a new city around the world every week.

Alaina works “to provide an avenue for women to move into tech, give them the tools to move up in their careers, and provide a place that is just for them to help them stay in tech,” she recently told the Huffington Post. “There’s a real need for engineers, and this is a great time for more women to get involved in tech.”

More female executives equals more profits

NerdWallet is an outlier on the San Francisco startup scene as more than 50% of our staff are women. The reason? As co-founder Jake Gibson recently noted, it was a happy accident born from our first hire being female, and our first executive a woman. Now, 10 of 12 senior managers are women. In short, to draw female employees it matters that women are the ones doing the hiring.

Study after study shows that companies with a higher ratio of women in senior management and corporate boards reap greater profits. A recent study of the top 400 California companies by the Graduate School of Management at UC Davis adds to the list, showing the top 34 firms with the “highest percentage of women as board members and executives earned three times more revenue.”

You can’t just paint it pink

Women will generate $18 trillion globally in 2018 compared with $13 trillion in 2013—more than twice the anticipated GDP growth of China and India combined—and by 2028 will control 75% of discretionary spending worldwide, the Boston Consulting Group forecasts. Tech firms will increasingly count on the female market for their survival. Gamemaker Zynga grew from 40 employees to more than 3,000 between 2008 and 2012 on the appetite of 35-to-45-year-old Midwestern women for the breakaway hit Farmville. Yet too often in tech, firms cater to women by building a product for men and painting it pink.

“The result: USB cords painted with daisies, sparkly clutches that hide wireless speakers (and have no room for anything else), and Della.com, a site launched by Dell Computer in 2009 that sold pastel-colored laptops,” writes Jennifer Alsever for Inc. Dell took the site down after a few weeks. “We learned from that mistake,” Dell told Alsever.

Tech offers women the best pay, flexible lifestyle

While much has been made of the difficulties women face in tech, the industry offers several bright spots for women. As the New York Times notes in a piece about the dearth of female CEOs in all industries, tech companies give women the best salary parity with male employees. Not only is the pay higher, but tech companies are much more likely to allow flexible hours and working from home, which can be invaluable for working mothers.

“One of the things tech embraced early is flexibility around how you work; not how hard you work, but how you work,” Singh Cassidy, now chief executive of Joyus, a video shopping site, told the New York Times. “Silicon Valley favors the rock star, including the female rock star, and once you’re there they do everything they can to keep women in the C-suite and promote them.”


Illustration by Brian Yee.

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