Solving Tech’s Diversity Problem
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I recently attended Dell Technology World in Las Vegas, which shone a light on one of Michael Dell’s passions: addressing the lack of gender diversity in the tech industry. Some time back he asked the most powerful woman at Dell, Chief Customer Officer Karen Quintos, to spearhead an effort to fix the problem.
I was one of a small group of analysts who were invited to hear a talk by a leading expert on the problem, Howard Ross of Cook Ross. In a nutshell, he said that fixing gender inequality was impossible, and all of the metrics indicated it was getting worse — not better.
Given that taking Dell private and merging successfully with EMC also was thought to be impossible, it would seem that Michael has a love for doing the impossible.
I have a passion for fixing this problem as well, and while I agree that implementing a global solution may be impossible in my lifetime, I know there are practices that would spare individual women from many of the consequences of sexist behaviors.
I’ll offer some suggestions on improving gender diversity and salary equality in tech — actually, in any industry — and how to make discrimination a non-issue for women engaged in strategically planning their careers. By the way, I get that this is yet another case of an old white guy talking about a women’s issue, and that is part of the problem.
I’ll close with my product of the week: a new VR ride from Disney that comes surprisingly close to the Ready Player One VR experience, which will be the end game for consumer VR.
Why Fixing the Problem Is Impossible
We are walking, breathing computers. As such, we can be programmed, and we are being programmed all the time. We recently were reminded of this when we found that Russia had been using Facebook to influence our voting behavior in the most recent presidential election. In effect, thanks to Facebook, Russia chose our president.
Howard Ross, Dell’s guest speaker, showcased how TV and media portray women as homemakers. He used Leave It to Beaver as an example, showcasing how people in my age group were programmed.
Even if you look at current shows, though — say Lethal Weapon — the men typically are the action stars, and the women generally are helpers. In the TV show Mom, they are alcoholics, nurses, ex-wives and waitresses. In Silicon Valley, they are background characters, because tech startups have to be all men, right?
The original star of the popular Two and a Half Men was one small step away from being a Harvey Weinberg — and he was the hero. (I should point out that the character portrayed by Ashton Kutcher, who replaced Charlie Sheen on that show, was far more woman-friendly. Kutcher was on stage at the Dell event talking about THORN, an effort he funded to end the trafficking of young girls for sex. That guy is making a difference.)
The constant media barrage, according to Ross, programs us to see men and women in traditional roles over and over, so it becomes difficult to see them any other way. It appears that women are more aware of this than men, according to Ross, although surveys indicate we are equally programed to gravitate to stereotypes. That means women trying to break out of these out-of-date stereotypes are fighting misconceptions not only among men, but among women as well.
Social media appears to reinforce stereotypes, as showcased by events likeGamergate. Women who attempt to break free often are referred to in a derogatory fashion — humiliated, doxed and abused at scale. The abuse may come not only from men but from other women as well.
The fix is for us to act collectively against the programming. This means not supporting shows that further stereotypes, regardless of how entertaining they are. It means speaking up when we see abuse, and treating those who are abused as if they were our daughters, sisters and mothers — because they are. Women need to take the lead — men can’t. However, if we want to fix this, we do have to work together.
Until we stop the programming, we can’t fix this. Thanks to social media, the stereotyping seems to be getting worse, based on the survey results. If we can’t change the impression that women belong in homemaker and helper roles, we can’t make real progress toward fixing the inequality with salaries and titles at work.
One thought that really has stuck with me on this is that #MeToo is a systemic problem. You can’t fix it just by shooting folks like Harvey Weinstein. The existing system is turning men into monsters at a massive scale.
As for the tech world, the book Brotopia — seriously, read the book if you haven’t — showcases how tech companies have been training managers to be abusers at a massive scale, with no repercussions. Collectively, we could make this practice obsolete. Individually, no one has that kind of power.
A Personal Solution
In companies, change typically is driven from the top. While we have been seeing a bit of a millennial revolution in some companies, it seems directed toward tools and working environments. Millennials appear to be just as vulnerable to programming as older generations. If anything, social media seems to have programmed them more effectively than TV programmed Boomers.
So, when looking at companies to partner with, work for, and buy from, look for firms where the CEO has taken gender equality as a personal mission. You’ll want to see more than lip service, and you can’t assume that a woman CEO will be any better than a man in this respect, because the surveys clearly indicate both sexes have been corrupted equally. (Note that currently I’m tracking more male CEOs on this than women CEOs, which is part of the problem.) Assess the diversity and balance of the executive staff, and look for a passion for fairness and change.
As you enter the interview process, ask about mentoring programs and explore attitudes about the appropriateness of managers taking women to lunch. You might discover an overreaction that could have an adverse impact your development and the firm’s progress.
Ask if there are systems in place to protect women who speak up. Are the committees that investigate claims of abuse and harassment diverse themselves? What impact have they had on the organization? If I were in this situation, I’d investigate getting on one.
You have to be careful. Make sure you don’t come across like someone looking for a fight. There is a lot of fear out there, and in the end you want to be able to choose the job and not have that choice taken from you. Still, the right company will understand your valid concerns.
In the end, even the best company will need to undergo change. If you want that change, you must be willing to choose firms that are driving it over salary, and be willing to help drive it.
I have a ton of empathy for the salary question but a very different perspective. You see, when I first entered the tech field, I was paid about half what was offered to other MBAs because I came from an industry that was cheap and I wasn’t just out of school.
The irony for me was that even though I had far more experience, the system set salaries based on prior pay — not on what others like you were paid. So someone with an MBA out of college with no experience had a huge financial advantage, even though I could outperform them.
I never let that hurt my performance, though. My peers almost never saw much in the way of raises, because they were mid-salary range. However, I almost always had the largest salary increase in my division because I was below range. What I learned was that big raises were a ton better than a high salary with no raises. That is because you learn to live on a budget and tend to spend what you earn.
Consequently, I had a lot more free cash than my higher-paid peers and often felt well rewarded when they were upset at the lack of recognition. Eventually I went from being one of the lowest-salaried employees to becoming one of the highest. Because my consumption always lagged, I find that I’m in much better shape now, toward the end of my career, than I likely would have been.
You have to be willing to change jobs and companies — even move — if you want to maximize this process. This is true for men and women. If you are willing to accept change, choose firms that pay well, and focus more on improving your productivity than on the unfairness of it all, you actually can do better than your better-paid but more static peers.
In the end, focusing on money takes the pleasure out of a job. One of the jobs I most enjoyed was working at Disneyland when I was a kid. I loved the job so much I would sneak back into the park and work a second shift for free (which eventually did get me into trouble). Ironically, if you don’t focus on the money, it’s likely you’ll not only have a better life, but also make more of it.
I’ve been a troubleshooter for much of my life, and I’m rather good at it. Lack of diversity and pay inequality are serious problems in our industry. It has been extremely hard to make progress toward solutions — in fact, the problems appear to be getting worse instead of better. This is largely because the programming that forces men and women into stereotypical roles is increasing in effectiveness.
We can counter this collectively by taking aggressive action to implement a policy of boycotting shows and companies that make this problem worse, and by calling out firms and groups that stand out as bad actors. We also need to support and take actions to help the firms and executives — men and women — who are on the right side of this fight.
Individually, women can mitigate much of the problem by taking more care in choosing the firms and managers they work for, and in actively standing up for their peers who are abused. And men — we need to stand with the women. Together we can make meaningful change and, at the very least, that means going on social media and actively standing up for those who are abused, regardless of their position.
Change won’t come quickly, but if we all work together, it will come. You just have to make the determination that helping our mothers, sisters and daughters is important enough for you to make the effort. I think it is. Let’s make a difference together.
And thanks to Dell for stepping up.
I spend a lot of time whining that much of the virtual reality stuff in the market is crap, often really expensive crap, and that we need a bar that sets what would be a minimum acceptable VR experience.
Back when video games came to market, we had arcades that set that bar. Eventually Atari developed a gaming system that brought that arcade experience into the home. With VR I’ve been looking for that foundational arcade experience, and I think I found it at Dell Technology World.
It is by Disney, and it is amazing. It turned out that my brother was visiting Las Vegas and was staying at the same hotel I was for Dell Technology World, and he is a gamer. So I figured we’d try out this new Disney VR experience called “The Void,” and we had a ball. The implementation is a fully wireless high-quality VR rig with force feedback vest (so you could feel when you were shot).
The VR blended real and virtual elements into something we’ve been calling “mixed reality” of late. Unlike augmented reality, everything is rendered — even the real elements. However, this means you can feel and touch some of the elements, and they correspond with what you are seeing.
If you saw the movie Ready Player One, and you should, this feels like an early version of its OASIS. The Void gives you an incredibly realistic Star Wars adventure with battles and space travel, and it includes physical elements like heat, water and wind.
While short of the end game of full immersion, it is the closest to it in a standing experience I’ve ever experienced. It costs US$40 for about 30 minutes in The Void, but it was a ton of fun and we both had a ball. As I’m writing this, I expect my brother is likely giving the thing another go.
If you want to see how VR could and should be, try out “The Void.” The one I tried was in the Venetian, but they are slowly rolling out nationwide. Because this was the closest thing to Ready Player One I’ve yet seen, it is my product of the week. Oh, and may the FORCE be with you!