Saying High-Tech Is a Meritocracy Doesn't Make it So

Research shows that women face persistent barriers to retention and advancement in the high tech industry. Is it "all men's fault?" No.
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The issue of women in technology was at the forefront of the social media universe in the last 2 weeks, when Michael Arrington wrote about the topic in TechCrunch, asking that blame not be put on men.

His post generated a lot of comments and a lot of responses from a variety of voices on all sides of the debate. Like many social problems, the issue of women in tech is a complex and nuanced one, and the "blog wars," while they generate a lot of comments (in this case, with widespread accusations of both misogyny and blaming "whiny femimists"), fail to paint the picture for the color it actually is: full of shades of grey.

Only 3% of high-tech firms are owned by women, and women hold only 25% of computer occupations in the US. (Department of Labor) Arrington's point that women technologists and tech entrepreneurs are difficult to find is well taken.

His assertion that Silicon Valley is a pure meritocracy and that anyone with a good idea can get VC funding or advance in the workplace and "get rich" is more difficult to substantiate. High-technology in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, prides itself on being a meritocracy -- and while we all work hard to live up to this ideal, saying it is doesn't make it so. Research shows that women face persistent barriers to retention and advancement in the high tech industry -- to name a few: isolation, a lack of access to influential social networks and mentors, lack of role models, stereotyping, unwelcoming cultures, and organizational practices that are not adapted to a diverse workforce. The lack of access to relevant social networks was also found to be a factor in women's limited access to venture capital, and research found that VC firms with women partners were more likely to fund women entrepreneurs. For a comprehensive view of the issues in the workplace, and the statistics, one can read our Anita Borg Institute 2008 report in collaboration with the Clayman Institute at Stanford University, as well as a report recently published by NCWIT which aggregates several sources of research on the issue. In a 2008 study, MIT Professor Emilio Castilla found that even in environments that are designed to be meritocratic, women and minorities receive less compensation for equal performance. Such bias is more likely to occur when there is more discretion for individual managers.

Is this bias deliberate, and is it purposefully done by men to bring down women? In most cases, no and no. In fact, women are just as likely to hold gender stereotypes about science and technology as are men.

Are the barriers impossible to overcome? No. Is it "all men's fault" that women are facing barriers to entry, retention and advancement in tech? No. It's part of a bigger societal problem -- while women have made strides in all spheres of society, they are still underrepresented in the highest positions of power, and even more so in professions that have traditionally been male dominated (for a great overview of women's representation in several professions in the US besides technology, see the White House Project benchmarking report). Both women and men carry the responsibility of breaking down gender barriers and of striving to find solutions to the issue. Men face gender bias in many spheres of life too -- just ask my husband how he has felt time and time again when faced by societal assumptions about his parenting skills or his ability to organize a playdate.

At our upcoming Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, over 2000 women in technology from all around the world will gather to network, advance their careers, mentor each other, and present their technical work. An elite group of over 60 high-technology executives, many of whom are men, will be present to exchange knowledge on solutions for change at all levels of the pipeline. It is time to move the dialogue beyond blame and into action.

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