If you ask a woman what it’s like working in tech, she’ll likely tell you a story about a time she felt harassed, frustrated, or simply on the verge of quitting the industry.
At a panel discussion at Twitter on Tuesday night, these stories were told by successful women from a range of backgrounds—from a teenager who frequents hackathons and founded a startup, to industry veterans with decades of experience fighting for leadership roles in technology companies.
On Wednesday, Twitter will host its first-ever Flight mobile developer conference, and to kick off the event, Twitter hosted #WomenInFlight. Over 100 people converged at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco—the audience was mostly women, though there were a number of men in attendance, including Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.
Each story was unique, but the panel of six women, along with the audience, commiserated as each was told. Sometimes there was laughter. Sometimes, audible groans.
“A lot of my friends who are women in tech or women in engineering have talked about when they’re going to quit,” Tracy Chou, a Pinterest software engineer, said on the panel. “The median experience of being a woman in tech or woman in engineering is worse than the median of being a man.”
What “Male Allies” Should Know
The panel participants were surprisingly cordial, speaking openly about their own experiences with sexism in the workplace, while sporadically interrupted by a fire alarm test in the building.
Conversation meandered from serious to silly—panelists talked about innovating blow dryers to help women get ready faster, and whether or not egg freezing is a perk akin to free lunch.
One point discussed several times was what advice these women would give to men, or “male allies,” who want to be supportive of women in the industry and help create a more open and diverse workplace.
At the Grace Hopper Celebration earlier this month, a botched “male allies,” panel attracted criticism for its myopic conversation and advice. The group of white men on stage provided women with the same advice they’ve heard and followed numerous times, and there were some misunderstandings between what the panelists discussed and what women in the audience had experienced themselves.
Chou, who attended the Grace Hopper conference, pointed out that the group of men returned the following day to listen to women describe the hardships and harassment they’ve suffered with the hope of having a better understanding of what it is women in technology go through each day.
Chou said that one of the most important things men can do is educate themselves about different behaviors and biases that prevent women from working in tech.
“I meet a lot of men who aren’t intending to be sexist, but are willfully ignorant about what goes on,” she said.
She added that many women end up doing “grunt work,” like bug triage and housekeeping, more often than their male counterparts, and decision-makers or company leaders should be cognizant of what tasks they’re assigning to the team to prevent women from doing the same ones repeatedly.
Patty McCord, leadership consultant and former chief talent officer at Netflix, suggested that taking steps to learn about the industry from a different point of view can help company leaders make better decisions regarding hiring technical talent or improving company culture.
“Wake up each day and say, ‘Today I’m going to learn something about what it’s like from someone else’s perspective,'” she said. “Ask yourself if this is behavior you would want your daughter to experience.”
Taking steps to ensure an open culture also includes giving women the opportunity to interview candidates for jobs—not just to make women feel comfortable with the interview, but also to weed out any potential employees that might contribute to a toxic or sexist environment.
“I’ve had a lot of negative experiences being an interviewer and having men treat me as not worth talking to,” Chou said. “So that’s a useful screening tactic to make sure the culture is good.”
This Is Why Women Quit
Forty one percent of women leave careers in technology after ten years, compared to just 17% of men. Chou said that this speaks to a larger problem with the industry.
“I’ve been an engineer for four and a half years, and I’ve thought about quitting tech many times,” Chou told the audience. “I’m not entirely convinced I’ll make it to the 10-year mark. Sometimes it is just very painful, there is a lot of frustration around being undervalued or not treated the same in different situations, like at tech conferences.”
While many people and organizations are focusing on the “pipeline,” or encouraging more young girls to pursue interests in programming or computer science, the attrition rate of women who stay in such roles is low. It’s nice to focus on encouraging girls to hack things, but what happens when they become adults who may not be treated equal to male counterparts?
For young girls to have successful careers in technology, Chou said, the culture must change.
Chou is a vocal advocate for improving diversity in the workplace. After the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2013, she asked the industry, “Where are the numbers?” Her call to action inspired a number of companies, both small and large, to release data that shows who tech companies hire. And frequently, those numbers illustrate a white, male workforce.
Successful code education programs create opportunities for young women and people of color, but the discriminatory “brogramming,” culture might be one that’s learned young, too.
Ming Horn, a high school senior, founder of Khode Up, and ambassador for Girls Who Code, described how the behavior of young boys at tech conferences and hackathons can be just as bad as that of their adult counterparts.
“One thing that’s happened quite often is that there are tons of random polls on [hackathon] Facebook pages,” she said. “These recently have been things like, ‘Who are the hottest girls on the hackathon scene?’ and ‘How can I go and pick up chicks?’”
These are posted by freshman or sophomore students, she said. What’s more, whenever girls point out that the polls are inappropriate, guys will tell them it’s just a joke.
Why Does Twitter Care?
Of all employee diversity statistics released in the last few months, Twitter stuck out as one of the companies with the lowest percentage of women in technical roles—just 10% of its tech workforce is female.
Perhaps that’s one reason Twitter was so keen on hosting this panel the night before its developer conference. Costolo’s attendance suggests both he and the company are taking diversity and inclusion seriously.
“This is a really great time to get a bunch of women together, and kick [Flight] off right,” Jana Messerschmidt, vice president of global business development and platform at Twitter, and moderator of the evening’s panel, said in an interview. “At Google I/O, they actually tracked the number of female attendees for the first time, that’s something that we’re looking at as well. We’re trying to ensure that we have a very diverse developer community that are able to extract value from the Twitter developer platform.”
Undoubtedly developers in attendance found value not only in being in a roomful of people who were not bashful about sharing their experiences, but feeling confident that the tech industry is taking steps to change. And hopefully that open, inclusive environment will extend to Flight itself, too.