Monday is Ada Lovelace's 197th birthday. You can thank her for the idea of reprogrammable computers and for publishing the first algorithm. Two centuries later, there are massive, world-changing companies whose beating hearts are algorithms like the ones Lovelace described.
The computer algorithm as we know it was invented by a woman. But due to a confluence of political, economic, social and religious forces, today's algorithm companies are staffed disproportionately by men. So are the media outlets that cover them. That inevitably leads to a skewed history.
"Diversity in the workforce is important for building a product that caters to the needs of everyone," says Tamar Yehoshua, director of product management for search at Google. "That's really important for building a product that everybody can use." Suffice it to say, tech is not there yet. "When I was in college, I was one of two math majors in the whole school who are female, and I was very cognizant of it," Yehoshua says. "But it didn't deter me in any way because I loved what I was doing."
That's the rub with institutionalized discrimination, though: It's an extra cognitive load on people.
As part of pondering this problem, I visited Google, arguably today's most influential algorithm company, to ask three women, all engineers and managers, about their careers. I learned that Googlers are very lucky. Not everyone who works in technology has a support systems as robust as Google offers.
Here are some lessons they shared about how to preserve social power for any outnumbered group in a tech company.
Formal Support Systems
Google's biggest asset is its ability to understand huge amounts of data. This is as important to Google's human technologies as it is to its computer technologies.
When Google looked at the data this year and realized that it could retain 50% more women employees by extending the length of maternity leave to five months, it did so. It wasn't just a human decision that this was the right thing to do. Google looked objectively at the situation and decided it was good for the company. As I joked with the Googlers, it's as though reality has a pro-motherhood bias.
That doesn't mean Google always knows how to apply its big data skills intelligently. When Susan Wojcicki, in whose garage Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google itself, returned from maternity leave, the founders built a day care center on campus in order to help Googler parents. But later, Google ran the numbers on its day care program and its (male-dominated) leadership decided it had to raise rates by 75%. By treating this human resource as an economic experiment, Google freaked out many of its parent-employees.
So data-driven programs are important, but they're no substitute for human-driven ones. Fortunately for Googlers, Google pays attention to both sides of the equation.
Groups Are Key
For Payal Patel, a product manager at Google, organized groups for support and problem-solving are the key. Underrepresented people in a big-company culture need backup.
"I grew up in small-town Iowa," says Patel, who saw few options for getting out beyond studying math and physics. When she got to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to get her bachelor's degree in computer engineering, she noticed the gender imbalance for the first time. "Less than 20% of the students were female."
She counteracted that force by joining mentorship groups and larger organizations like the Society of Women Engineers. "It is true that people tend to connect easier to people who are similar," she says. "Creating a strong peer network through [college] with upperclassmen, as well as out in the industry, helped me a lot," Patel says.
After school, Patel went to work as an engineer at John Deere and Northrop Grumman "That was very different from Google," she says today. "I was a software engineer for a little over four years. I did have the strong technical background, but I wanted to get into product management, more of the business side." So she went to MIT's Sloan School of Management in 2011, then started at Google as a product manager.
Her friends in the business and finance world "know for a fact that they won't last two or three years because of the lifestyle, but yet they want to have that challenge. What really attracted me to Google was, I love the technology, I love a challenge, I want to have an impact, yada yada yada. But when I'm a mother, I can dial in from my meeting, and it's very normal."
Google offers and supports employee resource groups (ERGs) for women, Gayglers, Greyglers, different ability levels, and geographic, cultural and ethnic groups of all kinds. Patel has participated in the ERG for women, and she's on an internal Google Group for expectant moms, a status she has recently attained for the first time. "My experience as an expectant mom is amazing at work," she says. "I think this support network helps Google retain women a lot better. Both my husband and I love Google for that."
But what about people who don't work at a place as supportive as Google? The strategy for finding support is similar, but it can take more effort to build informal groups yourself.
Informal Support Systems
"From a numbers perspective, I don't think there's any question" that men dominate tech, says Pavni Diwanji, an engineering director at Google running spam-fighting efforts as well as Profiles and Pages on Google+. "It's just there. I don't think it's very interesting to keep thinking about the problem. I think what's more interesting is to think about what I can do about it."
"I'm not part of a formal mentor program, though one does exist at Google," Diwanji says. "I do what I call informal, need-be mentoring. I try to have at least a few women to help when they need help."
Diwanji was the only woman in computer science at her university in Western India, "which didn't really surprise me," she says. She didn't have any preconceived notions about tech, so she attributed the imbalance to issues in Indian society.
Then she went to Stanford for her master's degree, "and now we're talking about a few women." It wasn't much different. She started her career as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, which was "slightly better again." How did she climb through all that to get to such a great position at Google? Beyond her own talents and ambitions, she adds, "I've always been very lucky. I've had good mentors."
Her father was her first tech mentor, taking her to work with him at IBM twice a week and letting her play with the punch cards. While she was at Sun, she volunteered outside of work for legendary computer scientist Anita Borg, a huge role model. Groups can be a great help, says Diwanji, but "I think the large impact is one-on-one."
By sharing experiences with trusted figures, women (like any other minority group in tech) can compare notes on the way they handle challenging experiences day to day. "The place where women sometimes fall through is they're not proactive about their problems," Diwanji says. Having the support of a mentor helped her through crises, so now she helps others in turn.
"You have to find someone who's going to put a little bit of time into you," she says. "If you can't, then go outside of your workplace."
Yehoshua agrees. "Sometimes you need someone who is objective." She participates in a mentorship program for younger project managers, and she also provides mentorship informally. "I've always, at every step of the way, had a mentor. They're going to give you feedback, and they're going to help you pursue your career goals."
Is Google A Utopia? Hardly
Even Google has not been known as a friendly environment for women at its highest levels. In the CEO transition from Eric Schmidt to Larry Page, Google took heat for pushing women out of the inner circle, most famously employee number 20, Marissa Mayer, who left this year to become CEO of Yahoo.
Google spokespeople explained that change as a coincidence. Schmidt's operating committee was organized around functions: legal, HR, engineering, marketing and so forth. Page's is organized around products. Mayer and others got caught outside of the product columns.
There are other powerful female Googlers who don't buy the simple gender explanation. "I think all tech companies are a meritocracy," says Yehoshua, who is a product management director on Search, arguably Google's most important product. Speaking specifically about Google, "I have never seen an issue bringing up in any way the fact that I'm a female, or that I'm a mother, or anything like that."
Patel thinks there are some cultural factors that make Google special in this regard. "It has to do with the company and their recruiting standards," she says. "I feel like Google has a high standard from the beginning. I definitely think there's less bias" among Google-caliber people. She believes a place with high standards will attract more women compared to "more traditional" companies.
Diwanji says "Sun had a very different culture to it. It was a very aggressive culture. I wouldn't call it a male-dominated culture, but you had to eat or be eaten, so to speak. Google doesn't have that."
Cultures preserve and enforce biases. In a more hostile company culture, it's critical for disempowered people to create informal networks to support each other. Even in the Googles of the world, formal structures are necessary to make sure that an idyllic perception of the place doesn't give way to complacency.
We'll need these support systems until our whole society can get to the root of the problem: a formal and informal educational system that teaches children that their gender (or sexual orientation, or race, or religion) determines in any way the kinds of careers they can have.
Lead image - of Madeleine Albright with women at Google - courtesy of Google.