I recently published an op-ed in Fortune magazine on the barriers I see in our progress toward improving the gender diversity in the tech industry. The full article can be read here, but I’ve also chosen to post an enhanced version below that includes some of my personal motivations on the subject as well as comparative stats:
This week, the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing will come to Arizona, GoDaddy’s home state, for the 20th anniversary of the conference designed to connect, inspire and guide women in computing. Since their first meeting with 500 attendees in 1994, the event has grown to become the world’s largest gathering of women in computing. Along the way, they’ve helped thousands of women technologists find a voice in our male dominated industry and opened the conversation about inequities, large and small, that are woven into the fabric of the technology industry.
Notwithstanding the valuable work of the Anita Borg Institute (organizers of the Grace Hopper Celebration) and many others that share our cause, the gender diversity gap in tech continues to widen. It is said that “admitting you have a problem is first step to fixing it.” In the case of gender diversity, the problem for our industry is clear: uniform blocks of thinkers by their very nature tend to think in the same ways. In an industry where innovation rules, novel ideas lead to unique solutions—and these ideas can be the difference between success and failure.
Of course, we’ve long intuited that diversity of thought leads to novel solutions, but more and more the diversity theory is being backed up by hard data. In a study released this May by the University of Castilla la Mancha, Spain, researchers analyzed the makeup and results of more than 4,000 R&D teams around the world and found a strong positive relation between gender diversity and radical innovation. The gender diversity gap is an existential threat to the technology business.
These days, it goes without question that the perspectives and insights surfaced in gender diverse groups can lead to greater creativity and better decisions. However, the tech industry has an equally important reason to court women developers and tech leaders: women are the majority consumers of tech. Despite the long-running stereotypes to the contrary, women purchase and use more technology than men. Research over the past two years from the market intelligence firm Park Associates has shown that women purchase more tablets, laptops and smartphones; download more music, movies and games; make the majority of household technology purchasing decisions; and utilize devices and services, from games to social media, more than their male counterparts. With the rise of wearable technology following the same patterns, this gap only promises to widen.
We experience this directly here at GoDaddy, where we focus on cloud services for small business. More than half of small businesses in the U.S. are owned and run by women, and those ventures have disproportionately adopted cloud services like email marketing, SEO & SEM services and online billing and bookkeeping services. As with consumer technology, it’s clear that women’s opinions matter deeply to the success of the small business cloud services industry.
Silicon Valley’s Dismal Report Card
Understanding how women adopt and utilize technology are two of the most important insights the tech industry can glean—and there’s no better way to do that than to have women build and lead product development. Yet despite that truth, our industry has turned in a dismal report card on gender diversity. Recently released gender demographic stats from Google and Facebook to Twitter and LinkedIn demonstrate the consistency of the problem, and I’d like to say that GoDaddy stood on higher ground, and that knowing our customer needs well (as we do) had more effectively balanced our workforce. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. With only 18% of technical roles filled by women at GoDaddy, we sit only 1% above the rest of the Bay Area pack. This is nothing to celebrate.
Though our industry’s gender diversity numbers are troublingly low, the worse news is that they are lower than ever. In 1991, women held 36% of all computing-related occupations—double the rate in the Bay Area today. Some would-be defenders of Silicon Valley culture have responded that since only 20 percent of computer and information science degrees were awarded to women (as of 2008, down from 37% in 1985) we are exactly where we ought to be. They are right to look at education as a root problem, but they are wrong to suggest our responsibility ends there.
STEM Education Isn’t the Whole Story
To understand why graduation rates in computer science are so low for women, we only need to answer one question: Why do 74 percent of high school girls report affinity for STEM subjects in school and yet, according to a report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, only about 20 percent pursue STEM-related undergraduate degrees? What happens between high school and college to account for such a radical drop in the pipeline?
Research from the US Department of Commerce suggests that gender stereotypes may play a central role in the choice to pursue a career in computer science or other STEM related jobs. Other studies suggest a fear of bad grades and “fear of failure” in general, may be key. Everything from teasing, lack of encouragement, lack of role models and subtle biases have recently been proposed as playing a major role in women’s decisions to look away from technical careers, but I suspect the answer is more portentous—and follows women from the classroom to the workforce.
Of all the causes that could narrow the pipeline of women in tech from 74 to 20 percent, I suspect the principal contributor is that the environment we’re created in tech is simply off-putting to most women. Juxtaposed by the steady stream of stories women have shared about their bizarre/creepy Higher Ed and Silicon Valley experiences, rationales like “lack of role models” and “subtle biases” quickly lose explanatory power. In both venues, we have built environments where men can be highly performant—and made the assumption that because men flock there, women will want the same. They clearly don’t. What’s worse, the more women who leave tech or opt never to enter, the more unwelcoming the environments potentially become. The compounding effect of this negative feedback loop is anything but subtle, and it’s keeping our industry behind the curve on this issue.
Building Environments Where Everyone Can Thrive
The new trend of demographic transparency in tech marks a possible turning point in the industry—not for the transparency itself, but because it makes clear that all of the diversity recruitment goals and “special initiatives” at most tech companies aren’t enough to reverse the negative trend we’re combatting. Transparency makes clear that the unacceptably low numbers of women in tech are a systemic issue. If we fail to address the problem systematically we’ll continue to fail overall—and innovation will suffer as a result.
Last week, UC Hastings professor Joan C. Williams penned an in-depth article for the Harvard Business Review called “Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem,” where she identifies a number of the subtle systematic elements that lead to women opting-out of tech roles. “When an organization lacks diversity,” Williams wrote, “it’s not the employees who need fixing. It’s the business systems.” In the article, Williams convincingly argues that we need to use the same tools to tune our workplaces as we use to rapidly iterate on our own products. “Collect detailed data about where gender bias plays a role in daily workplace interactions,” she writes. “Identify company-specific ways to measure its effect; create hypotheses about what “interrupters” might move those metrics; and then throw some spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Measure what happened, adjust your hypotheses, and do it all over again until you get it right.”
Williams’ prescription for systematically identifying and implementing “interrupters” into our work environments is just what the doctor ordered for the tech industry. Peter Drucker famously said that, “what gets measured gets managed.” At GoDaddy, we’ve begun to work on tangible steps to tune our work environments to be equally welcoming to both genders. My first act as CEO was to completely overhaul our brand and advertising—dropping the commercials that women clearly articulated to be objectifying and over-sexualized for a value prop that emphasizes the entrepreneurial spirit of our customers, many of whom are women. The old brand did not represent our passion for the success of our small business customers and sent a signal, wrongly, that GoDaddy was not a place that respected women.
Women shouldn’t have to be “one of the boys” to thrive in technical roles. Another way GoDaddy is working to transform our technical environment is by balancing as many Agile development teams as possible with 50% women vs. sprinkling one or two women per team across all teams. Even in small teams, I’ve seen that when men work in equal numbers to women, coarse male behavior wanes almost universally. Women on those teams describe their environment as more inclusive, more respectful and more satisfying. Though this is just one of many environmental improvements, I find it a very hopeful one.
Success is Possible
Closing the gender diversity gap is in the tech sector’s self-interest, but it will also be a critical step forward in improving the human condition. My sister Lori Irving, who was lost to complications from pregnancy in 2001, was a groundbreaking psychologist analyzing the effect of the media on women’s body image and self-esteem. She opened my eyes to powerful consequences of negative environments and bias at societal scale when left unchecked. Our most powerful biases can be unconscious and our best intentions in business can turn into institutionalized problems if left unexamined. Since Lori’s passing, I’ve made it a personal cause to carry on the spirit of her work in my own industry. That means ferreting out biases and misconceptions in myself and in the organizations I lead. It also means looking for examples of success to emulate.
At last year’s Womensphere Conference in New York, I had the opportunity to share the stage with Danae Ringelmann, Founder and Chief Development Officer at Indiegogo. That day I learned that Indiegogo has built a culture of openness and inclusiveness in their company that appears unparalleled in the tech industry. Through Danae and her co-founder’s leadership, women currently make up 33% of Indiegogo’s tech teams and 45% of their overall workforce.
When pressed for the secret of their success, Danae quotes Gandhi, stating that we must “be the change we want to see in the world.” Indiegogo is proof positive that if you create a female-friendly company, progress in gender diversity can come quickly.
American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” As the Grace Hopper Celebration approaches, it’s a good time for the small group of leaders across the tech industry to pause and evaluate if they are doing enough (and doing it systematically) to effect real change. 2014 can be the year we turn back the tide and begin to move toward gender balance as an industry. I’m inspired by the culture that Danae and her co-founders at Indiegogo have created and I’m encouraged by the wave of transparency in our industry; indicating an openness to real solutions once and for all. It’s a cause well worth the effect.
Photo: Alessandro Pautasso