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The Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab at the University of Washington is now a member of the blogging community! We will be using Decoded as a forum for disseminating our research on women and computer science and discussing current issues related to the field of computer science including: women's involvement and how computer science is changing the way we live. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments on our posts.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What Sexual Harassment in Silicon Valley Reveals About Tech Culture

Silicon Valley usually attracts media attention for technological innovation, but recently, sexual harassment allegations against prominent male investors have exposed the darker side of America’s tech hub. First, six women reported that venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck had subjected them to inappropriate encounters, from late-night texts to groping. Then a Facebook message to a potential employee written by 500 Startups founder Dave McClure went public: “I didn’t know whether to hire you or hit on you.” In the wake of the scandals, both Caldbeck and McClure resigned, and more than two dozen women came forward to share their experiences.
At the Stereotypes, Identity, & Belonging Lab, we see the prevalence of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley as confirmation that blatant gendered behaviors still affect women in computer science. While some venture capitalists have signed a “decency pledge” drafted by LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman, our research shows that attempting to reform individuals’ behavior is not enough to fix an environment that promotes inequality. The sexual harassment scandals are a symptom of a much larger problem, and in order to solve it, Silicon Valley’s culture needs an upgrade.

Sexual harassment thrives in systems with high power differentials and a lack of external accountability. Silicon Valley, with its wealthy investors and skewed gender ratio, fits those criteria to a T: this article from The Guardian described Silicon Valley as “an industry where money rules and male investors are treated like demigods.Because entrepreneurs work in an incredibly high-stakes environment -- about 90% of startups fail -- they are often desperate for money and publicity. Investors are perfectly positioned to exploit entrepreneurs, and because the negotiations lack regulations, there’s nothing to stop them.
The prevalence of “frat boy culture” and harassment in Silicon Valley are part of a larger pattern of gender inequality in computer science and technology. Women are less likely to pursue computer science than men, and female innovators are underrepresented in leadership positions and in the media. Our research has shown that even subtly masculine cues (like stereotypically geeky office decor) can create a pervasive sense of unbelonging for women who don’t fit programmer stereotypes. From inconspicuous cues to blatant harassment, women in computer science experience disadvantage at every level of interaction.
Unfortunately, most proposed “solutions” to Silicon Valley’s sexual harassment problem only operate on one or two of those levels. For instance, Hoffman’s decency pledge encourages male investors to maintain professional relationships with entrepreneurs and avoid crossing boundaries, but it does not address the larger culture of gender inequality. Even when workplaces try to dispel inequalities by closing the gender gap, they often adopt a quick-fix approach -- putting the pressure on women to change, for example, or hosting workshops on gender bias and assuming that their job is done. While well-intentioned, these attempts often fail to produce any meaningful results.
Aileen Lee, who left the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2012 to found Cowboy Ventures, told The Mercury News that she thinks the answer is to get more high-level women into venture capital firms. “We need to figure out how to double the number of women partners at VC firms from 5 percent to 10 percent,” she said, emphasizing what the change would take: “That means a lot more women would have to enter the industry, and 50 to 100 more women have to become general partner level -- that’s sadly not a thing that can happen overnight.”
Lee is right; change isn’t easy, especially when patterns of masculine privilege are deeply entrenched. The problem with her solution is that we can’t simply recruit more women to venture capital firms. Instead, we have to address the underlying culture that discouraged women from getting involved in venture capitalism in the first place. The bottom line? Whether we’re trying to curtail investors’ inappropriate behavior or encourage more women to choose careers in currently male-dominated fields, shifting the culture is a necessary prerequisite. As long as Silicon Valley is routinely described as a fraternity-like world where “brogrammers” wield fortune and fame, the sexual harassment is unlikely to stop.
How do you think we can promote a culture shift in the tech community? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and like us on Facebook to stay up to date on research insights.

Posted by Ella J. Lombard

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What Tech Companies Are Doing to Get Girls to Code

Image courtesy of PSDgraphics (http://www.psdgraphics.com/graphics/business-graph/)

 In the booming information technology (IT) industry today, women represent only 25% of the workers in computer and mathematical jobs.  The IT industry continues to be one of the top growing industries in the world. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics back in 2009, the number of jobs in computer systems design should grow by 45% within the next decade. With such a promising future of IT, the gender disparity in IT is particularly worrisome since it contributes to larger problems.  One of these problems is discussed in our previous blog post about the gender pay gap.  Other problems include a lack of diversity in the field and perpetuation of stereotypes about people who work in the technology industry.  Since our lab is located in Seattle, one of the top technology cities in the country, we decided to investigate what local and non-local organizations were doing to address this problem.  In response to the persistent and harmful gender disparities in IT, companies and non-profits such as Microsoft, Google, and Code.org have developed programs to encourage women to enter IT.  Since both Microsoft and Google are located close to our lab, we decided to investigate into what these programs look like and how they are promoting inclusivity among women in IT. 
In 2013 Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer introduced a new Microsoft initiative of programs and partnerships between nonprofits known as YouthSpark to engage youth with computers and technology.   One of these programs tailored towards females is DigiGirlz.  DigiGirlz offers free online courses, week-long day camps, and events on DigiGirlz Day.  This initiative seeks to introduce girls to the field of computer science through the use of girl-exclusive camps.  DigiGirlz High Tech Camp is open to any girl age 13+ whether she has coding experience or not.  Some of the activities at the camp include technology tours, networking opportunities, and hands-on workshops.  Girls who attend the camp or come to DigiGirlz Day  have the opportunity to meet women in the field of technology and gain a new perspective of the people who work in IT.  It is a prime opportunity to dispel common stereotypes of the field, which our research shows to be a factor for why women do not enter computer science (Cheryan, Plaut, & Handron, 2013).

Google created programs to encourage interest within computer science with its initiative Google for Education.  Google has created an entire website dedicated to women with its Made W/ Code website.  Similarly to DigiGirlz, Made W/ Code sports a multitude of photographs on its site of women and girls coding and using computers. There is also a community page that provides more resources for females interested in coding to link up with other women in the field or other websites such as girlswhocode.com.  Another tool on the website is the events page which shows the closest coding opportunities based on the location you choose in the search bar.  Made W/ Code also has a 'Mentors' and 'Makers' pages that feature real-world examples of women contributing to computer science.  Our research shows that it is important for female role models to help retain other females within the field of computer science, but that both men and women can be successful in recruiting females.

Code.org takes a different approach by aiming to encourage all genders to participate in coding.  Code.org's mission is to provide resources and accessibility to learning programming.  The website features mostly gender neutral motifs and there are activities geared towards all age ranges starting as young as 4 years old and up.  Code.org also started an initiative which is backed by many companies and organizations called Hour of Code which encourages anyone from any background to take up coding for one hour during Computer Science Education Week. According to Code.org, over 10 million girls tried coding during Hour of Code in 2013.

One question with the way DigiGirlz and Made W/ Code are promoted is the girl-exclusivity.  Do girls need to be separated from boys in learning about technology?  As our research shows (here and here) it is important for the environment to not be seen as "just for boys."  To allow more females to enter the ranks of computer science, it is important to make an environment welcoming to all genders.  With these changes hopefully we see more women entering IT and thus changing the way technology is developed, marketed, and used.