Why your awesome tech workplace is probably still a bit sexist

Adele Carpenter
7 min readMar 15, 2021

I am a woman in tech. I have an engineering degree (though not a computer science degree), and have always preferred the practical over the pretty. I can actively participate in boisterous banter, and possibly use the language of a sailor far too often.

If anyone were to succeed in a male-dominated field such as engineering, it would be me. But the more I figure out who I really am, I keep asking myself, why is that so?

There is no doubt that we have come a long way in terms of inclusivity in the workplace. Modern offices (remember those?) in much of Europe, North America and the Antipodes are unrecognisable compared to the smoke-filled, ass-tapping, penis-waving workplaces of times past. (Mad Men is a documentary, right?)

It is almost universally accepted that diversity is good for business, and we have laws in place protecting the workplace rights of all. “Women-friendly” policies such as flexible and/or part time working arrangements are becoming more common and accepted. Out of the last 100 people you encountered in a work setting, probably only 1 or 2 were overtly sexist… and they are probably going to die soon anyway.

A woman holds a cushion with the words “the future is female” in front of her face. Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash
Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash, selected for this article by one of my amazing colleagues.

So what’s the problem then? I hope that, like me, you work in a supportive environment, with an amazing team that lets you bring your whole self to work. Where there are no stupid questions, and everyone has a role in moving the team forward. I am the happiest I have ever been in my career. I want to make that super clear.

Yet, I look around, and while the gender split of the company looks good overall, if you take out the non-technical staff, then the numbers look a lot bleaker. The number of female engineers is actually quite small. The leadership of the company (like many others) are all men. I feel rather safe in assuming that we are not alone. You only have to visit a conference or other tech event and do some people watching.

This is the point where the mansplainers open up the comment section and start banging away furiously at the keyboard. Let’s give them a minute…

“I am sure your company would love to hire more women, but no suitable female candidates applied”

“There are less women in tech overall, it’s just demographics”

“Are you saying we should hire a less capable woman over a man?”

“What about people of colour, don’t they deserve a break too?”

I’ll address the first two, and simply say, “No” and “Hell yeah!” to the third and fourth points (in that order!!).

No suitable female candidates applied

This is probably the most common rebuke when you bring up gender diversity in the workplace. I get it, it sounds fair and clear cut on the surface. If the women don’t apply, how can you hire them? However, there’s an added subtext there, that’s a lot more murky. I’ll spell it out for those that missed it: “without discriminating against a man”. That is really the crux of it. By sitting back and “being open” to hiring women (or gladly welcoming them to your events), you are not doing anything to push the needle closer to equality. You are simply mirroring the status quo.

Because the simple answer to “no females applied” (let’s just remove the problematic “suitable” for now), is to actively encourage them to apply. Seek them out. Target your advertising, rethink your company branding. Work on establishing an inclusive reputation. Remove masculine phrases such as “self-reliant” and “ambitious” from your job postings. Ask your current female employees for help, actively engage with female (developer) communities. Admittedly it’s simple, but it’s not easy. And if you start from the position that actively encouraging women is discriminating against men, well then of course it’s even more difficult.

What about this problematic word, “suitable”? There is a lot already written on the topics of unconscious bias, such as here and here. My take is a little different, and is based on the brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.

Human brains are flawed

In a world of constant stimuli, our brains rely on shortcuts to make it through the day without sending us crazy. Many of these shortcuts are helpful, yet many are not. These short cuts are the domain of our System 1 brain processes. The result of these processes and our prior experiences is that we tend to:

  • Feel more comfortable with people that are similar to us — Affinity bias
  • Think a person is good if we learn something impressive about them — Halo effect
  • Compare someone to the last person we met (think interviewing) — Contrast effect
  • Substitute difficult questions (should I hire this person?) with simpler ones (do I like this person?) — Substitution, compounded by affinity bias
  • Seek out information that confirms our original (usually biased) opinion — Confirmation bias

There are many more biases and mental shortcuts, but you get the idea. And again, rather annoyingly, the way to limit the impact of these cerebral shortcomings is simple…but not easy. After reading the book, I started taking the following actions when making potentially impactful decisions.

  • Accept that your brain, although amazing, is flawed.
  • Be mindful of your situation and the importance of the decision you are making.
  • Give yourself time to make your decision. This allows your rational, System 2 processes to fire up.
  • Consider as many angles as possible, and question yourself rigorously. For example, if you have “a feeling” or “gut instinct” that one option is the right way to go, ask yourself why you feel that way. How do you think that feeling arose?

It’s just demographics

I don’t know why, but this one annoys me the most. I think it’s because it sounds remarkably similar to the excuses we heard in the 1960s…

“it’s just the way things are!”

The way things were…

Indeed, it is much more difficult to have a roughly even gender balance, when there are far less females in the software engineering profession than males. In Europe, just 17% of all ICT professionals are women. Worldwide, the proportion of female software engineers is just 8%. And logically, given these numbers, it is simply impossible for every company to achieve balanced representation.

I don’t intend to make an argument for the impossible, merely to consider the reasons why female representation in ICT and other technical fields is so low. It would be tempting, although naive, to make the claim that:

“Women just prefer other professions…”

While in many parts of the world the barriers to education are largely removed for women, there still exists a divide in the perceived capabilities and preferences of boys and girls.

We are, for the most part, the product of our experiences. I posit that girls’ interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is a case of death by a thousand paper cuts.

For example, one study found that female teachers’ discomfort with teaching maths in primary school can impact girls’ interest in mathematics. Girls are also more likely to have their maths assessments marked more harshly, and thus become understandably discouraged. They also have a lack of non stereotypical role models in STEM professions to look up to. They are less likely to be encouraged from a young age to work with their hands, and thus build up spatial skills crucial in engineering professions. They are often told that they are pretty, and rewarded for perfection, rather than encouraged to be brave.

Uhhh… thanks?

Take all these things together — noting that this is just a fraction of the extra hurdles girls face — and it is not difficult to understand why female participation in STEM is lower. Fewer girls in STEM, fewer women in tech.

Of course, pursuing STEM at tertiary level is not the only path to a career in tech. I am simply making the connection that if you reduce the number of people following a well worn path, the number of people you get at the destination will be lower.

The “it’s just demographics” argument is weak and infuriating because it accepts human constructs of societal norms and perceptions as unchangeable. A law of nature that we must obey. This simply isn’t true. We are active participants in our environment, not spectators on the sidelines. Just because change doesn’t happen overnight, with a neat line from the result back to something you did, doesn’t mean you can’t help make things better.

You can start immediately by acknowledging the problem.

As for the next steps after that, choose your own adventure.

Do you want to host events with better female representation? Make it an early priority and make it happen (it’s amazing what you can achieve if you focus on it).

Want to hire more women? Do it! I already listed some ways you can go about that.

Women in leadership positions?

  • Short game: Hire a consultant specialised in recruiting senior-level women.
  • Long game: Nurture young female talent.
  • Longer game: Encourage a little girl that you know to be brave, and get her excited about science and technology.

Get started. Take small steps. Ask. Learn. Repeat. Just like building great software.

You never know, maybe you contribute to a revolution.

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