As Google wrestles with how it compensates men and women amid a Labor Department investigation and a potential class action lawsuit alleging it has underpaid women, a New York Times report reveals the company has apparently tipped the scales the other way and started underpaying low-level male engineers. But in reaction to this news, industry observers point out that remedying the glaring underrepresentation of women and people of color in tech transcends pay alone. The barriers that prevent diverse workers from advancing inside Google and other Silicon Valley giants are complex and ingrained in the culture of the tech and engineering world. In other words, it’s complicated.
Further underscoring the challenges of addressing the diversity gap is the recent criticism leveled at the venerable TV news magazine 60 Minutes. The show drew fire from Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani when it aired “Cracking The Code,” a story about the challenge of bringing more women into the technology field yet did not highlight any female-led efforts. And in doing so, like Google’s recent attempt to mitigate inequities through pay, the report oversimplified why the industry has struggled to move the needle. After spending five years interviewing more than 300 female engineers, entrepreneurs, academics, college students, and venture investors for Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech, the book I and co-author Samantha Walravens published in 2017, I can say with conviction that there is much more to the story.
The broadcast focused on the “pipeline problem,” and efforts to inspire more girls to learn to code and enter the field. Yes, there is a dire need to get more kids from all kinds of backgrounds to develop 21st century skills to fill the jobs of tomorrow. But there are also important issues that need to be fixed within the companies powering the digital economy itself. As Saujani argues, real change requires thoughtful action across the entire education continuum and tech ecosystem – from kindergarten classrooms through college and grad school lecture halls and into the workforce. Yet, the 60 story overlooked the challenges of retaining women and people of color and the reasons for what some have termed the “leaky pipeline.” It glossed over how bias and sexism inside tech companies is directly related to the lack of women and diverse people in management and on corporate boards; the wage gap; the dearth of venture capital invested in startups founded by women and people of color; the way AP computer science used to be taught in high schools until the College Board revamped it in recent years; the few women in tech portrayed on TV and on the big screen; and the lack of meaningful recruitment at HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and in cities outside America’s coastal tech hubs.
As a former network TV news correspondent, I am quite familiar with the editing process and how difficult it is to boil down a complicated television story into a succinct piece. I will admit I do not know what was left on the “cutting room floor.” I did put in a request for comment on Saujani’s concerns and CBS has not yet replied. A segment on CBS News This Morning the day after the 60 Minutes piece aired took a much more thorough look at the issue by examining employee-led movements combatting gender discrimination that have bubbled up inside Google and other tech companies in recent years.
But as I sat with my family to watch Sunday night’s broadcast (including my middle school-aged daughter and son, who have both participated in Code.org‘s programs), I was struck by the lack of depth and the missed opportunity to elevate the voices of the underrepresented people leading the grassroots movement for cultural change and the impact they are having. A deeper dive and airtime for activists like Saujani, Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code and CSforAll‘s Ruthe Farmer and organizations including NCWIT; BUILTBYGIRLS; GirlsMakeGames; Project Include; she++; the Girls Scouts; digitalundivided; Backstage Capital; Pipeline Angels and countless others helmed by women and people of color could have added valuable insights to this nuanced story.
If 60 Minutes had dispatched a camera to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest gathering of technical women in the world, the producers could have discovered more voices and perspectives. They would have met tens of thousands of bright-eyed female computer science and electrical engineering college students, academics, tech executives and entrepreneurs coming together to network, support each other and create opportunities for the next generation of women in tech. Last fall, more than 20,000 women attended the conference in Houston, the biggest GHC in its history. These are the women who are working to carve out a space for themselves in tech and to lift up each other so that they can overcome the sexism and biases that have prevented so many of their sisters from staying the course. Perhaps, Google, too could take a cue from these fearless women who have much to say about the complexities of closing tech’s diversity gap and what it will take to make meaningful change.