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Deconstructing Silicon Valley's masculine code

Pinterest’s Tracy Chou is a successful female software engineer in California’s thriving tech scene. Here she talks about taking action over the industry’s shameful “open secret” on gender.

As a star Silicon Valley software engineer, Tracy Chou is used to solving problems. So when she looked around her office at social media start-up Pinterest and saw the very obvious gender disparity, she knew exactly what she had to do.

It was the simple step of uploading a spreadsheet to code-sharing platform GitHub to crowdsource data on the problem, as much as her professional success, that has made her a voice for women in the industry.

“What you don’t measure you can’t manage,” Chou says. “And I felt like if we could start to get some measurement, even if the numbers were a little bit depressing, which they are, it’s better to have these numbers available than not have them.”

At the time of her experiment in 2013, women held just 12 per cent of engineering roles at Pinterest, where Chou now works as a lead engineer.

In the rigorous, data-driven tech world, her call to action was something coders could understand and relate to. After highlighting the issue in a blog post and asking for companies to disclose how many female engineers they employed, the figures started pouring in.

  

More than 200 companies have contributed to the project and some of the bigger names have since made public disclosures about diversity.

Chou says at most of the well-known tech start-ups, women hold between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of engineering roles, something that has been an “open secret for a very long time” in Silicon Valley.

Feeling like you don’t belong

When the young coder was studying at Stanford University, one of her computer science classes of about 50 students had just three women. She also remembers interning at Facebook and Google where often the only other woman in the room would be another intern.

Apart from social justice, Chou says achieving more diversity in the workplace is crucial in avoiding “blind spots” when developing mainstream global products.

She cites safety testing of seat belts in the auto industry as an early example: “When the first woman got in they felt very uncomfortable because the strap crossed in an uncomfortable position. Nobody had thought about this because all the test engineers were male.”

One of a small number of leading female tech engineers, Chou was inspired to gather the data after hearing Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg talk at a forum on women in tech about the same issue.

While the situation is improving there is still the problem of attracting, training and keeping women in the industry.

“It’s lonely being one of the few,” she says. “And it’s difficult to find peers and role models that I can identify with and relate to.”

“Women feel like they don’t belong or there’s a lot of these very minor slights that happen all the time.”

“Nothing is meant to be that negative but there will be a lot of off-colour jokes or things where people say: ‘Did you switch from back-end engineering because it was too hard for you?’ or ‘Why don’t you consider being a recruiter?’. In aggregate, all these things add up.”

Another problem is that many of the “more uncomfortable situations” come up one-on-one and so can be invisible to other male colleagues. Chou suggests the best way to combat this is to bring these stories into the open.

“What has been most effective for me has been telling my story and sharing little anecdotes. Telling stories of how it is for you, is the most authentic. It’s much harder to generalise – I think sometimes that becomes off-putting or a point of contention.”

Skip the career slowdown

She notes it can be difficult for women to get assignments within the male-dominated tech networks and many had reported a career slowdown a decade or so after starting, just as men were reporting an acceleration.

“When a new position opens up, or an important project needs to be staffed, it can be easy to overlook female candidates for these opportunities,” Chou says. “Especially since men tend to self-nominate more, even in the absence of qualifications, and to be judged based on potential rather than past experience.”

“It’s the opposite for women, but taking on these opportunities is how people progress in their careers, and if women aren’t getting them, they’re not going to progress.”

Google is also starting to do some experiments on unconscious-bias training for staff and using its expertise to crunch the data. Chou hopes this will help the problem in recruiting and staff development and retention of women.

She also says women should be advocates for one another. She says she has been fortunate to find a generous support network across teams and company boundaries.

For those who want to learn how to navigate corporate politics she recommends the book Corporate Confidential, an insider’s guide to career preservation by former human resources executive Cynthia Shapiro.

There is also the Geek Feminism blog which contains research, analysis and writing by women, minorities and allies of workplace equality.

“The thing that keeps me going is I really love being in engineering and building things,” Chou says. “Making products that didn’t exist before and leveraging technology to achieve really cool outcomes.”