A few days ago I got a message from Dan (not his real name), an old college friend who works for a large technology company.
Curious to your thoughts on…why only 15% of computer science grads are women. For me, interesting topic – especially one I’d want your POV on, as at [our company] we make an extra effort to drive equal opportunities for women. Personally, I see many women who are handed opportunities as undeserving, as they don’t have the capacity to operate within market conditions at the needed level. (I feel the same way about many men who are in over their head too).
I didn’t respond because my impression was that no matter how carefully crafted, how well-researched, how brilliantly written my message, it wouldn’t change Dan’s mind — and it would take a lot of my time and energy. So I ignored Dan and his deep concern about the many undeserving women who are snapping up jobs at tech companies. After all, a whopping 16% of software engineers are women — clearly the odds are stacked in our favor [sarcasm]. Cry me a river, Dan.
But this week two articles brought Dan back to mind. First, the New York Times ran a blog post about Google’s release of employee data indicating that just 17% of its employees worldwide are women. The post itself is benign, but the comments are harrowing, suggesting that sexism is as pervasive as ever. A day later NPR reported on Evan Spiegel, the 25-year-old founder of Snapchat, whose college emails referring to women as “bitches” and “sororisluts”, and suggesting them as objects to be peed on, have come back to haunt him.
And I was reminded that there are thousands of Dans [see: Pax Dickinson] out there spewing garbage about how so many underqualified women are getting good jobs at tech companies, while virtually ignoring the fact that many, many more underqualified men get jobs at tech companies (and are paid more). Dan does mention that some “men are in over their head”, but he calls women in the same position “undeserving”.
Dan and the NYTimes commenters are what happens when Evan Spiegel grows up and becomes a brogrammer. Evan knows that it’s no longer acceptable to talk about peeing on sororisluts, and that he has to pay some lip service to caring about diversity and gender discrimination. But in his heart he knows that he and his frat buddies got where they are because they are the smart ones, and he is annoyed by the “preferential” treatment women and minorities get. Because of that perceived preferential treatment, Evan thinks that most women can’t really get the job done — they’re just there as tokens to political correctness.
Consider this scenario: one of Evan’s male colleagues makes an error on a spreadsheet — an almost inevitable part of spreadsheets, as Ken Rogoff and Thomas Piketty now know — and Evan chalks it up to an oversight. If a female colleague makes the same mistake she “isn’t up to the task” or “isn’t too bright”. Sororisluts don’t grow up to be techies.
If Dan is reading this, he’s probably thinking that he isn’t like Evan. He would see the two errors equally. Dan — like most people — thinks that his assessments of candidates are based on “the facts”, ie. whether a candidate legitimately has the skills to do the job or not. But research shows that Dan is wrong. In fact, regardless of their actual skills, most people — men and women — consider men “better” at math. This bias persists even when managers are given hard information indicating that a female candidate is more skilled. A group of researchers from Columbia, Northwestern, and University of Chicago Business Schools found that many managers knowingly chose a lower performing male candidate over a higher performing female.
For someone who likely prides himself on valuing science and statistics, Dan should realize that his assertion that women are “handed” opportunities in tech is, at best, observational bias. With such a small number of female technologists, it’s not likely that Dan has come to know more than a few women in his field over his career. He would have to know at least 30 to even approach a statistically significant sample. Not likely. Equally important, Dan suggests that there are both unqualified men and women at his company — perhaps a sign that the company isn’t doing a good job hiring either sex. But in the case of women, they’re being “handed” opportunities; in the case of men they are “in over their heads”.
Now maybe Dan, like Larry Summers, has in the back of his mind the idea that men are innately better in math. He doesn’t say it out loud, because, of course, you can’t say it out loud. He just knows. For the record, research suggests that there are marginally more men than women at the very, very top of the math cognition pyramid. But, on average around the world, men and women come out equal on math measures. Mathematician Terri Oda has created a terrific presentation on this so simple that even the bros should get it.
Maybe Dan is asking if women are so damn smart, why aren’t more of them founding their own start-ups? Here’s why: men are 40% more likely to be funded by venture capital than women. And that’s after an academic career where — regardless of their qualifications – women are less likely to be mentored by professors. Following school, women are less likely to be hired in math and science jobs that would allow them the networks and experience to launch a start-up. And women shouldn’t even think of revealing that they are mothers: you’re 79% less likely to be hired and 100% less likely to be promoted if you do.
To Dan’s question: why are only 15% of CS grads women? It’s sexism, stupid. And just like you and Pax and the other bros aren’t afraid to to “tell it like it is“, I’m not afraid either. You’re empirically wrong that women have an advantage in tech (or any other US industry for that matter), you’re wrong that good women in tech are “unicorns”, and you’re wrong that math is too hard for Barbie.