Diversity is Smarter. Stop Agreeing to be on All-Male Panels

By Alez Odendaal

Technology companies have a gender diversity problem. Just look at the average technology meet-up or conference in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lusaka, Nairobi, Port Louis, or Harare. Who are the speakers? How many of the delegates are women? 

Less than 30% is the likely answer. And it's not just an African thing. 

In 2014, a call for transparency in the tech industry led to the release of diversity reports from most of the major tech companies.  

The results, which were shocking then, are not much improved now, with Apple at 31% female, Google also at 31%, and Intel at just 23.8%. Ouch.

Much the same can be said of smaller businesses. So many startups seem to be made up of Mark Zuckerberg lookalikes (white, male, hacker swoop haircuts), sexually-charged roguish power elements that have co-opted counter culture’s antagonism for big business, but have actually kept up the status quo. Forgoing things like a human resources department may mean startups become less diverse, less friendly places.

This means that whether you’re in a small company or a Fortune 500, if you’re in the tech industry, it’s likely that your offices aren’t populated by many women. The reasons for these can seem complex, as do would-be solutions. But they need not be. Take a look.

Why diversity is good

It’s at this point that you might be getting defensive, but before you sit on that too long, consider this advice from someone you may already admire; ‘Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand’, said Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and it’s true. We can’t always see where our actions are leading our greater intentions astray, but when they are questioned we should try to understand that correcting slights from a humble position will always be more noble than never addressing them. And in the case of gender diversity, correcting past mistakes might mean greater profits, as this study, and these companies have found.  

The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving. While homogenous groups feel more confident in their performance and group interactions, it is the diverse groups that are more successful in completing their tasks. - Katherine Phillips, Associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.

The Pipeline

A common defence laid by companies called to account for their lack of diversity is ‘the pipeline’; a term used to say that a business’s diversity at the level of hiring can only be as fruitful as its pool of applications. In short, these companies can only hire as many minorities as those who applied. Fair enough. 

However, this seems to assume a linear history of diversity, with tech being just another field where women have remained marginalised since the fight to enter the workforce alongside men. But something seems to have triggered this bad pipeline entry in recent years, as the number of women studying towards a computer science degree has significantly decreased since the 80s. Appealing to evidence of a small pool of applicants does little to solve this, and does even less to address a company’s role in making the tech space one that is undesirable to women. 

And undesirable it truly seems to be. Over half of the US women in science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) industries leave, not because they can’t or don’t enjoy their work, but rather because of gender prejudice. This is a serious problem. Something that makes women leave their jobs, often without a desire to work in tech again.

The real problems

The reasons keeping women from succeeding in the digital era are systematic, but may be carried out by individuals just like you. They also find women as soon as they enter the industry – or don’t.

When hiring, it’s possible that those eager to assimilate to the aforementioned cookie-cutter Silicon Valley mould that is so appealing in its connotations with runaway success, might only hire those that fit the much-celebrated profile. And with major companies emphasising a referral-based hiring process, I suspect the boy’s club is in no danger without big adjustments 

The pay gap is another worry (although it’s diminished in recent years), and women are also less likely to put their names forward for promotion. When these incentives aren’t there, it’s unlikely that tech’s ‘brogrammer’ culture will keep women around.

The sexism that exists in the ‘thousand tiny papercuts’ that are experienced by women every day in the workplace are deeply-felt and weary things, even if men aren’t always able to see them as such.

Sexism isn’t always as overt as the sexual harassment experienced by women in the workplace in the 80s. Sometimes it’s the crude joke you made to the other men in the office, while you all side-eyed your female co-worker for signs of discouragement. 

Sometimes it’s calling a woman ‘one of the guys’ because of her efforts to stay included even at the cost of self-defeatist harm. 

Then again, sometimes it’s as simple as saying a colleague does X ‘like a woman’.  Replace the word ‘woman’ with a racial slur and you might be less inclined to voice your critique so openly or at all. 

Without female colleagues to turn to, these factors exacerbate and contribute to an isolating experience that makes women turn away from jobs they enjoy. 

How to get it

  • Stop agreeing to be on all-male panels - just stop
  • Bolster your interviewing process by implementing measures that work against unconscious bias. 
  • If you find that there are not enough women applying for a particular position, ask yourself where you may be favouring men in terms of where your position is advertised and shared. Expand your network, surprise yourself, try again. 
  • You could also try hiring women qualified in less traditionally-suitable degrees, like ThoughtWorks
  • Offer flexible work hours and paid family leave in order to alleviate the pressure some women feel as primary caregivers, like Facebook has done.
  • Instil a spirit of mentorship over that of competition, offering a space where women are free to make mistakes without fear of co-workers thinking less of her, and less of women more generally. A very frequent issue. 
  • Train your managerial staff to understand the need for retention, and work to come up with positive strategies for this goal. 
  • Bring awareness to your employees on the nature of micro-aggressions like those mentioned above, and make it easy for women to come forward with evidence of sexism.
  • Fund local projects that aim to help women and people of colour in your field, ensuring that ‘pipeline’ expands.