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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Tech firms would be wise to tackle sexism issues

As female computer science students weigh their career options, their decisions may rest on more than just job title and salary

With demand for technology workers set to rise, firms in the sector must deal with gender bias or face a skills shortage. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
With demand for technology workers set to rise, firms in the sector must deal with gender bias or face a skills shortage. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Devshi Mehrotra couldn’t speak highly enough of her three-month internship with Google’s artificial intelligence project, Google Brain, this summer.

“Oh, it was so great,” says Ms Mehrotra, a 19-year-old computer science major at the University of Chicago. “It was this programme tailored to people with my background - women, people of color - and it was an environment that really pushed me to work as hard as I possibly could.”

But as career-affirming as her internship was, Ms Mehrotra’s time at Google coincided with several public revelations about the way women are treated at the company. According to an internal spreadsheet of base salaries reported on by The New York Times, women are paid 4 per cent to 6 per cent less than men at nearly every job level at Google. The company is also under investigation by the US labour department, which alleges widespread gender-based discrepancies in pay. (Google, which declined to comment for this article, has denied these accusations.)

Ms Mehrotra was also at Google in August when a 10-page, 3,300 word manifesto written by one of the company’s software engineers went public. The memo’s main conclusion was that women are underrepresented in tech because their biological differences from men tend to make them less suitable for the job.

“I’ve really struggled with what to make of that,” Ms Mehortra says. She says she felt nothing but encouragement and support at Alphabet’s Google, and yet, here was definitive proof that at least some employees believed her gender might play a role in her ability to do the job well. “I read the memo. I saw how the other women at the company were so upset. I overheard their conversations.”

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It’s been a particularly restive moment for women in technology. In addition to the Google memo, there’s also been the unending debacle at Uber Technologies and another brewing at Social Finance, along with sexual harassment allegations at venture capital firms including Greylock, Ignition Partners and Binary Capital. In July, the 500 Startups’ founder resigned and apologised for “being a creep”.

This adds up to more than a social or legal concern for tech companies. This autumn, many will offer jobs to their best summer interns, hoping to secure them as employees after they graduate. As female computer science students weigh their career options, their decisions may rest on more than just job title and salary.

“The good news is that I don’t know anyone who’s decided not to go into computer science or tech because of this,” says Emma Pierson, 26, a data scientist currently earning a PhD in computer science at Stanford University and who has worked at the genetics company 23andMe. “That said, the degree to which a company is known to have a gender problem will absolutely guide my career decisions.”

That’s something founders and executives may not fully understand. Silicon Valley firms claim to want more women; many of them are enthusiastically funding science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programmes for school-aged girls, hosting all-female hackathons and launching internship programmes tailored to women and minorities, including the one Ms Mehrotra participated in at Google. But only 18 per cent of computer science graduates are women (at Stanford, the number is higher, at 30 per cent) and if a significant number of them eschew a company because of its bad reputation, there won’t be many left to choose from.

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The dozen or so women interviewed for this story differentiated between the general aura of misogyny they see as prevalent in tech and more specific situations like the one at Uber where, former employees allege, multiple complaints of rampant harassment and retaliation were routinely ignored.

“I’d never accept an offer from Uber, ever,” says Courtney Thurston, a computer science major at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who’s currently interning at Microsoft. “I’d be very reluctant to work at Uber,” echoes Ms Pierson. A spokeswoman for Uber said the company is undergoing a cultural transformation - some 20 people were fired as a result of an outside audit of previously reported harassment complaints, and the HR department is growing - and the company hopes in time people will change their minds. But if enough women feel the way Ms Thurston and Ms Pierson do, it’s going be hard for Uber to make good on the new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi’s promise of a significant culture change.

Shreya Shankar, 19, a computer science major at Stanford, chose to intern at Facebook this summer, partially because she’d heard positive reviews of its workplace culture. She says she turned down a job interview with Palantir Technologies over political concerns. The Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel is one of the US president Donald Trump’s few outspoken supporters in Silicon Valley, and, Ms Shankar says, “I’m very anti-Trump in my beliefs.”

Issues like Google’s, on the other hand, have yet to become the deal-breaker that Uber’s might be. Many women say they’ve already encountered similar instances of sexism at school or in their own fledgling careers and aren’t surprised to see them flare up at major companies, too.

“I’ve encountered people who believe some of what was in [the Google memo],” says Julia Di, 21, who’s studying electrical engineering and computer science at Columbia University and has interned at both Nasa and Lockheed Martin. “Even my freshman year coding class had a lot of guys who were condescending.”

Women’s willingness to pursue careers in spite of rampant sexism shouldn’t be read as complacency. One Brigham Young University student refused a job offer from a small start-up because it didn’t have a formal sexual harassment policy. A Concordia University student says she judges a company’s fairness to women by how robust its parental leave policies are. Students compare notes about which summer internships are better than others. “I have friends who interned for other companies and had bad experiences,” says Nina Tchirkova, 19, a sophomore at Olin College of Engineering who interned at Google this summer. “We all talk.”

Several women also expressed concern that focusing too much on Silicon Valley’s sexism will do more harm to their careers than good. They’re tired of being looked at through the lens of gender. “There were parts of the Google memo that I understood,” says Ms Mehrotra. “I can see how guys would be frustrated by special mentorship programmes for just women, how it could make them feel that we were considered different.”

Alexis Lee, 17, a high school senior who’s already taking computer science courses at a community college in Cleveland, has started eschewing all-girl coding camps in favour of the co-ed ones because they’ll more closely resemble what she’ll encounter in college and beyond. “I actually think having exposure to this when I’m young is going to help me in the long run.”

Rosalind Stengle, a sophomore computer science and economics major at University of Wisconsin at Madison, has done the same thing. “Sexism in tech is a problem; we know it exists,” she says. “But I go to these women-in-tech meet-ups sometimes, and all they do is talk about this stuff. I’m like, ‘OK, but when can I build a robot?’”