Can data help to fight Big Tech's sexism?

Sixty percent of women working in the tech field say they have been sexually harassed, according to a survey of workers in Silicon Valley. Will increased transparency help to fight the industry's double standards?

Jeff Chiu/ AP/ File
Ellen Pao, center right, walks with her attorney Therese Lawless before a courthouse news conference in San Francisco in this March 2015 file photo. Ms. Pao's lawsuit for gender discrimination at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, which was decided in favor of her employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, brought attention to sexism in tech-related industries.

Sixty percent of women in Silicon Valley say they have been sexually harassed, and 90 percent have witnessed sexism at off-site events. Eighty-seven percent say they have listened to demeaning comments from male colleagues, and one in three say they have at times feared for their personal safety.

Those are some of the stark figures from "Elephant in the Valley," a survey of more than 200 women in the Bay Area-centered tech industry. Most of the women surveyed are high-powered professionals, and mothers; one in four are executives, and one in ten founded her own company. 

Their credentials weren't enough to shield them from harassment in a field that has actually lost women over time: today, about a quarter of computer and math professionals are female, compared to one third in 1990. At elite companies, that number is often even smaller: just 13 percent of Twitter's tech positions are held by women, and even at Apple, a relative leader, only about a quarter of officers, managers, and professionals are female

So why do some say it will get better?

"The biggest positive difference over the past 20 years is how women and minorities are sharing others' bad behavior, data, and their own experiences publicly," Ellen Pao wrote in Lenny this fall. 

Ms. Pao's story is just one example – although, in some ways, still a cautionary tale for women who choose to speak up about the double standards they witness on the job. In March, a judge ruled in favor of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which Pao, a junior investing partner, had sued for gender discrimination. 

But the case inspired a "Pao effect": many women felt more emboldened to speak up about their own experiences of discrimination. The seven women behind "Elephant in the Valley" wanted to document them, so individuals would realize their own experiences were part of a bigger pattern.

Employees continue to anonymously upload their stories to the "Elephant" site. One remembers colleague lunches at Hooters; another says a CEO asked to "watch me walk." Big nights out drinking or trips to the golf course without female colleagues are common, as are sexual comments. Of women who report such experiences, 60 percent say they're dissatisfied with the results. 

"I suspect ... that if 25-year-old me read what I've written here, she wouldn't have believed it," Pao wrote about what she'd witnessed in the Valley's venture capital and tech industries. 

Those stories are powerful. But some of tech's favorite buzzwords can also help take down the notion that discrimination is rare, or usually punished: "transparency," for one. As more companies and workers post their stories and stats online, fewer can claim it's not a problem.

It's only in the last few years, for instance, that major companies are publicly posting their diversity figures. Often, that goes hand in hand with promises to increase diversity-conscious hiring, and attempts to fix the so-called pipeline problem: the theory that not enough women or minorities are studying the fields that prepare them for tech jobs.

But keeping female employees may be a bigger problem than finding them, thanks to male-dominated work cultures.

There again, transparency may be able to help. Efforts to publish salary information, for instance, can indicate when women are underpaid compared to similarly-performing colleagues. 

Other initiatives can help prospective employees "find their match" before accepting a job. Thousands of women have rated their workplaces on a 14-metric survey at In Her Sight, a free website created by former Motley Fool VP Ursula Mead. "We let the data speak for itself," its homepage says. "We believe that the best way to improve the workplace is by measuring it."

"Companies are just as interested in knowing this information," Ms. Mead told The Wall Street Journal, saying that several have asked her how to make their workplaces more female-friendly.

For women, the flood of info is leverage. For companies, it's accountability.

"Tech and VC leaders argue that they aren't doing it on purpose – it's 'unconscious' bias," Pao wrote in her piece for Lenny, where she encouraged young women to be "resilient" and speak up, despite the risks. "Well, now that you are talking about it, it's not unconscious."

At Facebook, which has recently expanded parental leave and instituted training to "manage your biases," "Lean In" author and COO Sheryl Sandberg has a favorite poster: "Nothing at Facebook is Someone Else’s Problem."

"The inequities that persist are everyone’s problem – gender inequality harms men and women, racism hurts whites and minorities, and equal opportunity benefits us all," she wrote for Forbes last month. "We need to help everyone understand that equality is necessary for our industry and economy."

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