Blog Post / Jan. 13, 2020


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David Sacks, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor extraordinaire (PayPalYammerZenefitsGeni) has taken a powerful stance on the value of women in STEM.  The New York Times article analyzing Stanford’s class of 1994 quotes Sacks, a class of ’94 member, addressing the crowd at the reunion, saying, “Everybody here has a huge incentive to get all the talented people we can, and that includes 50 percent of the population.”  Stanford alum Joe Lonsdale, Palantir co-founder, also envisioned that excluding half of the population would impede STEM-related innovation.  

As the tech sector recovered from the dot-com bust, it grew exponentially.  Now that the global economy and health of the tech sector are co-dependent, with the success of each riding on innovation, it is fiscally unwise to exclude women in STEM from contributing, especially in the areas of innovation, leadership, role-modeling to grow the pipeline and optimizing ROI.  So why the lack of women in STEM leadership roles?

Women in Stem: Historic Leadership

Question:  Who won the first-ever Computer Science Man-of-the-Year award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969?

Answer:  Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper, an inspirational leader whose programming contributions strengthened the Navy’s and the private sector’s tech programs and processes.

The myth that women were not capable of high-level technical achievement had no basis in fact.  Looking for more recent evidence?  Look no further than NASA mathematician, Katherine Johnson, winner of the 2015 National Medal of Freedom and whose exceptional skills proved to be vital to the success of NASA’s moon landing program.  When we shine a light on the obvious gains to national defense, the marketplace and society as a whole stemming only from the contributions of these two women, then the cost of excluding half of the population becomes clear and measurable.

The Value Beyond Programming

Shanley Kane, founder of Model View Culture, noted in an MIT Technology Review interview that while programmers are key:

When you don’t value other skills, your engineering team becomes very entitled and even abusive of other parts of the company.  Really important functions, like marketing, sales, business development, finance, and legal become underfunded and under-resourced.  We often end up with companies with great technology that are nonetheless dying because they could not execute from a nontechnical standpoint.

Ignore women’s contributions in STEM companies at the peril of the enterprise.  Why?  The complex, professional business skills needed to ensure an enterprise is sustainable are just as critical for success as programming skills.

What About the Pipeline?

Dr. Hopper believed her greatest contribution was the pipeline she generated and trained.  According to The New York Times, “The share of women working in technology dropped after the [dot-com] collapse in 2000.  Although the sector recovered, participation by women is lower than in 1998.”

Shanley Kane notes that, while tech venture capitalists talk the talk about expanding the pipeline to include more women, they don’t control the pipeline.  Yet where they do have control, “there is attrition in every stage of the career path of women once they get into the industry . . . We are not getting hired, and we are not getting promoted, and we are being systematically driven out of the industry.”

Laura Weidman Powers, co-founder and CEO of CODE2040, published a LinkedIn Pulse article addressing the assumption that diverse hires, including women and people of color, equates to lowering the standards of excellence – the meritocracy myth.  Women continue to fall behind in STEM-related careers, because they run into old myths over and over again.  Even women who start out with self-confidence begin to work harder and for longer hours in the face of these myths until they burn out or exit their career path or have an epiphany similar to Alexis Hancock (check out her article, How the Rhetoric of the Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech).  Hancock explains that the biggest obstacle to success is treated as a personal problem rather than a “realistic reflection of the hostility, discrimination and stereotyping that pervades tech culture.”

The Role of the C-Suite

OK.  Hiring new employees is expensive.  But let’s look at the hidden costs associated with losing talent: high opportunity costs in the form of lost ideas, lost innovation, lost productivity and lost ability to connect strongly with half (at least) of your customers.  Stem the losses.  Hire diverse talent and recognize hard work, new ideas, improved customer service and any of the other contributions that impact your bottom line.  Encourage and expect your team of company leaders to follow in your footsteps.  Most importantly, make outcomes the message, not old myths.  

There’s Hope

Let’s end on something positive.  Wired reported that Pinterest code Tracy Chou has developed a spreadsheet on Github to enable companies to track and go public with their number of female engineers.  A quick scan of recent news from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) offers these lines of hope, among others, for the future of women in STEM-related careers:

  • NASA is seeking to attract more women to its space app challenge;
  • Maria Klawe, computer scientist and President of Harvey Mudd College, believes more women will migrate to computer science with the right encouragement;
  • NCWIT programs, such as Aspirations in Computing, are designed to increase the pipeline; and 
  • TECHNOLOchicas is a campaign to expand the pipeline of Latinas “to pursue opportunities and careers in technology.

Now that’s good stuff.