Age Discrimination and Women in the Tech Industry
For years, one of the world’s biggest tech giants presented itself to the world in three simple words: “Don’t be evil”. As the world of technology has changed so rapidly over the last couple of decades, giving way to what appears to be advancement at all cost, it seems fitting that Google has since quietly removed that simple creed from its mandate. The change, unfortunately, encapsulates a wider trend within the tech industry. We’re no longer in the age of a few friends building computing systems in their garages, where the aim was to revolutionize and improve the way people lived. Now, we live in a world where a handful of tech monoliths are doing everything they can to either crush or buy up their competitors in the single-minded pursuit of profit. The spirit of collaboration and innovation with some form of diversity (in ideas, if not demographics) is gone. This shift has had far-reaching ripples, from a fundamental change in which customers are seen as untapped profit, not people, to a desire to insulate a largely white, male tech industry for fear of diversity upsetting shareholders and disrupting profit margins. However, without diversity, how can industries reach their fullest potential? How can the tech industry innovate or create a better, safer world through technology when their perspectives largely (or only) encompass a small, hyper-specific section of society? The first step forward is awareness; tackling the inherent gender and racial-based discrimination that has publicly overtaken the tech industry in recent years. Now, between MeToo and Black Lives Matter re-emerging into the world’s vernacular, it’s brought with it harrowing accounts of abuse that need to be confronted for there to be any change.
The tech industry is unarguably male-dominated. Women hold 54% of all occupations, but only 26% of tech positions. With a gaping gender divide, comes an ingrained, cyclical privilege for those in the majority. More men in the industry means more men are likely to be hired into tech over women, as men traditionally prefer to hire other men. This means the wider pool of male candidates have a larger chance of being promoted over their fewer female counterparts. This, in turn, means more men hold positions of power than women, who go on to hire more men – forever perpetuating the system.
Women are also overwhelmingly paid less than their male peers when measured directly for the same job. (A 2019 study by the job website, Hired, found women in tech are offered 3% less than men for the same job at the same company). They’re also paid less on average, as more men hold higher positions of power. (Only 10% of women are in executive positions in the tech industry).
These biases are cultural and ingrained; for eons, people have believed that men are biologically better at math than women (an argument that has no scientific basis), that people prefer traditionally masculine leadership (an antiquated misogynistic viewpoint that sees male leaders as “confident” while female leaders are “difficult”), and that women are a “risk” of pregnancy (discrimination which continues to happen). The possibility of a female employee taking any amount of time off to raise a family means they, alone, are less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired. They’re also more likely to be denied investor funding so crucial to the tech industry, for fear they’ll hurt the company’s profit margins in order to have children.
This systematic devaluation of women in the tech industry, fueled by a lopsided demographic, can easily devolve into an Old Boys Club, where “locker room talk”, derogatory jokes, and discrimination at anyone who isn’t straight, white, and male can run rampant. This came to the forefront in 2017, when James Damore, an engineer at Google, penned a 3,000-word company-wide manifesto about why women were biologically inferior to men in tech. The memo was up for days without action by Google, until it eventually went viral outside of the company and Damore was terminated.
Another tech giant of innovation, Tesla, has had its own public issues. Recently, a former Tesla employee, AJ Vandermeyden, blew the whistle on the toxic environment at her dream job. Corroborated by many other colleagues, she recounted how female employees at Tesla’s Fremont facility were allegedly regularly whistled at, catcalled, and had to endure derogatory comments from male workers in certain areas of the building. These areas were dubbed “the predator zone”; normalization of a depressingly open secret about the treatment women had to either accept or laugh off to survive in an industry they have every right to be part of.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop at Tesla or Google. An in-depth survey was compiled of over 200 women with at least a decade of experience working in Silicon Valley. (While the Valley doesn’t encompass all areas of the global tech industry, it’s often seen as a hyper-condensed microcosm of wider industry trends). The report, called “The Elephant in the Valley”, revealed a laundry list of gender-based discrimination the women had endured. The overwhelming majority of respondents detailed sexual harassment from superiors or peers, being denied social or work-related opportunities because of their gender, and being actively ignored by clients and peers in favour of their male colleagues. In a further staggering statistic, 1 in 3 women reported having felt fearful of their personal safety while on the job. Horrifyingly, for every one of these well-published allegations, there are a sea of others that have never come to light.
In much the same way the tech industry is an unwelcoming place for women, it’s also an unwelcoming place for People of Colour. In Silicon Valley, Black and Hispanic people make up only 3-6% of workers. Women of Colour are even worse off, making up less than 1% of the workforce. Sadly, the tech giants who call California their home aren’t much further ahead. As of 2019, Microsoft self-reported a staff of only 4.5% Black employees, 6.3% Latinx employees, and less than 3% Multiracial, First Nations, and Pacific Islander employees. Meanwhile, Apple revealed that only 9% of its employees were Black, 14% were Hispanic, 1% were First Nations, Pacific Islander, or Native Hawaiian, and 3% were Multiracial.
While employability for any POC is clearly fraught, Black tech workers have recently been rising to the forefront with their experience of overwhelming and systemic racism in the workplace. Two years ago, several Facebook employees went public with allegations of marginalization within the company. They spoke of being aggressively accosted by campus security, dissuaded from doing “black stuff” or forming internal groups with fellow Black colleagues, and were on the receiving end of racial comments from fellow employees. One former staffer, Mark Luckie, specified further, pointing out “at least two or three times a day, a Facebook employee would clutch their wallet when walking by him.”
More recently in early 2020, Mixer, the gaming live streaming service launched by Microsoft, made headlines because of a tweet by former employee Milan Lee. He called his two years at the company, in which he was the only Black person employed at the time, “the worst I’ve ever had professionally”. In one notable incident, he reported being pulled aside to be told he was only hired because he was “street smart”. In another, he had to sit through a meeting in which his manager described herself as a “slave master”, ruling over Mixer’s “slave” userbase. Lee reported the comments to higher-ups, but the issue was never escalated to HR and he resigned shortly after. Nevertheless, Lee followed through by launching a complaint with Microsoft’s legal department, urging them to investigate. Their answer highlights one of many issues with the tech industry’s view of racial discrimination: Lee’s manager would not be penalized because she had hired a Black person, and thus couldn’t be racist.
While these, and many other examples of individual discrimination and harassment tell of a deeply flawed industry on a personal level, the omission of POC voices in the tech space extends past the boardroom or the office. Since tech is overwhelmingly conceived of by white people, it’s also overwhelmingly conceived for, and tested by, white people. This is a problem that can crop up in the most innocuous of places, like a viral tweet from 2017. In the video, a dark-skinned Black man attempts to use a bathroom soap dispenser that won’t detect his hand, but instantly recognizes his white colleague’s. The cheap optic sensors installed in things like bathroom soap dispensers have issues detecting anything that isn’t very pale, or in a very brightly-lit setting, as they rely on light ricocheting back into them. The darker the skin tone, the harder it is for the light in optic sensors to bounce back. This defect could have been detected before the sensors ever made it to market if the initial (or subsequent) testing groups had been racially diverse. This mechanically-programed racial bias also extends to wearable fitness trackers that can’t detect darker skin tones, and facial recognition software that is unable to differentiate between two Chinese colleagues. The latter carries with it a terrifying reality, particularly for the Black community, as more and more Western-based government and law enforcement agencies use facial-recognition databases to identify suspected fugitives or suspects. These algorithms are far from foolproof. A study co-authored by a senior FBI technologist found that facial-recognition algorithms perform 5-10% worse on Black individuals than on white individuals. Further, one algorithm failed to identify the right African-American subject nearly twice as often as it did when the subject was Caucasian. This, very evidently, puts POC at a greatly increased risk of being wrongly targeted by law enforcement. A reality that has become increasingly and chillingly life or death.
The tech industry has helped to improve humanity in many ways, but as it continues to increasingly put profit over anything else, it is slowly crippling itself. The only way to win back its early spirit of innovation is for the industry to improve its own torrid relationship with discrimination. Prioritizing white men prioritizes the status quo, stifling the innovation, evolution, and technical prowess that can and does come from women and POC in the tech industry. A failure to welcome diversity leaves an entire industry devoid of the modernization, collaboration, and growth born from welcoming and valuing different voices with different perspectives. In order to break the cycle, those in positions of power and privilege need to step up; to consciously confront their biases, promote inclusivity at all levels, and remain open to improving when they stumble. Maybe it’s finally time for Google to once again embrace its old adage: “don’t be evil”.
- Know your value.
- Build cross-generational networks.
- Manage Up.
- Challenge your own assumptions about age.
- Know your rights.
- Document comments, interactions, and behaviour.
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