Recently, I was talking with one of my developers and we came around to the subject of gender equity. He said that when he first started working in a tech company a few years ago, they joked that there were “more Daves than women” in the company — literally twice as many. Their company was 12% Daves (4 of them) and 6% Women.
“Ridiculous, right?” he said.
“I mean, you’re the female CEO of a tech company, after all,” he said.
“It’s getting better, isn’t it,” he said.
Thinking about this exchange, two things occurred to me. I appreciated that my colleague was aware of and sensitive to the state of the gender gap — and it inspired me to write this post — but I wondered why he was asking me if the gender gap still existed. Shouldn’t he be just as responsible for tracking and addressing this issue?
When we relayed this anecdote to a new colleague of ours, he said: “Oh yeah, that’s a thing.” So I found reporting from March 2018 about the women-to-Daves ratio: “Just seven of the FTSE 100 companies’ CEOs are women, equal to the number of men named Dave or David who lead firms on the index, according to a report released Wednesday by the CIPD and the High Pay Centre. CEOs named Steve and Stephen also match up, with seven represented.”
Let’s take a look at the company I lead, Riff Learning. We have four women and one Dave (also a Steve) in our core team, including the Board and Advisors. Phew. So far so good. (We are, I’m ashamed to admit, not doing well in terms of ethnic/racial diversity. As a small tech startup where we have primarily drawn on ex-colleagues in the existing ecosystem, we have not made a concerted effort to diversify — we’re white across the board, but that’s another article.)
Widening the view to companies in AI software (using this list, but pick your favorite top 10, top 30, emerging, up and coming, etc.), there are only two women CEOs: Sara Bell at Tempus and Aicha Evans at Zoox… but no Daves, as it happens.
Taking an even broader perspective, the number of women in the top leadership position at S&P 500 companies has been declining in recent years, shrinking to 25 (here they are). There are, however, only 4 Daves in this list.
Probably almost any list of large or tech companies you pick will exhibit some form of this phenomenon — a shrinking number of women, a steady number of Daves and Steves.
So, are things getting better?
Multiple studies focusing on the academic community summarized nicely by Kathleen E. Grogan in her recent Nature article and broader studies conducted by Pew and The World Economic Forum (as explored by Verniers and Vala, 2018) show that gender discrimination in the workplace remains astonishingly persistent. According to the WEF, the global opportunity gap for women shrunk by 4% and the economic gap by 3% over the last 10 years. “Extrapolating this trajectory... it will take the world another 118 years — or until 2133 — to close the economic gap entirely.” (BTW, other estimates make this as high at 215 years…)
Wow. That won’t happen during my grandchildren’s working lives.
According to Grogan, “evidence overwhelmingly shows structural barriers to women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” in particular, and, she notes that “unconscious gender bias is pervasive and not limited to a particular gender.” So, there are both structural issues limiting the advancement of women — not just child rearing — and unconscious bias against women exhibited by both men and women.
There appear to be many industry apologists. Hartmann, Hegewisch, Gault, Chirillo, and Clark in their Institute for Women’s Policy Research article address the many ways in which people mislead, mythologize, and lie about how the wage gap doesn’t really exist, and explore the specific variables that lead to continuing inequities in pay and opportunity.
Some wage gap effects can be explained by factors such as educational attainment and career interruptions due to having children, but “other factors that are difficult to measure, including gender discrimination, may contribute to the ongoing wage discrepancy,” with 42% of women in the workforce reporting that they have experienced such workplace discrimination (according to Pew). If only there were software to help you measure communication dynamics… like Riff.
Now what? Every time I go through the exercise of satisfying myself that gender discrimination still exists — especially in STEM and leadership positions — I feel a little better, and then a lot worse. I feel just a little self-righteous that my local observations about gender discrimination are substantiated by broad studies and multiples of them; but I remain deeply dismayed that this problem continues not just as a national phenomenon, but an international one.
The hows, whats, and whys of gender discrimination don’t seem to change and the proffered advice — for women to keep fighting for what they want — often delivered with a shrug, also doesn’t change. It still falls to women to catalyze the new future through abundant overachievement (for every 100 men earning a college degree, there will be 140 women, according to the Department of Education), increased participation in the workforce (from an average of 30% at the turn of the last century to 55% now, according to Our World in Data), and majority participation in informal employment (snapshot here), especially in the developing world. But stats about the pay gap and women in leadership positions don’t really budge.
As someone experiencing the rare privilege — yes, that’s what I’m calling it — of being a woman leader in a company that, in part, aims to address bias by raising interpersonal awareness, I feel uniquely responsible to help organizations build the muscle that will lead to more opportunities and pay for women and all other underrepresented groups. But, I can’t be alone in that fight — and after all these years I’m still learning to get comfortable with being the only woman in a client meeting, in a department, on a panel, and taking my opportunity to speak up rather than blend in.
Recently, I participated in a panel discussion and was the only woman participant. The moderator asked me what I’ll affectionately call “the woman question.” I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially, she asked me how the AI industry should start to address the problem of gender inequity. I answered by saying something about how people should stop looking to the bro culture of Silicon Valley for answers and widen their interests and view to include everyone else. BUT, what I should have said was, “Why don’t you ask the other people on the panel???” It was a missed opportunity, for sure.
The onus of fighting for gender equality cannot fall entirely on women. Progress requires male allyship; more men in positions of power using their privilege to recruit, hire, support, promote, and value women in the workplaces that they control. Even small actions help. In your next meeting, take an observer’s role. How many times does a man interrupt a woman and vice versa? How long do men typically talk versus women? Do people — men or women — generally make the effort to ensure all voices are heard? Does that effort feel natural or stilted and forced?
It takes action at all levels, from broad structural changes to conversations between coworkers to combat inequalities. At Riff, we focus on that conversational level. We strongly believe that you can’t fix what you don’t observe or measure, and that people don’t change by being subject to blunt force action. Small corrections, minor adjustments, subtle gestures can accumulate to create an interaction butterfly effect, nudging organizations toward more equitable behaviors and outcomes.