Silicon Valley executives love to pin the tech industry’s gender disparity on a single phrase. It’s a “pipeline problem,” they say. In other words, there are simply not enough female techies for hire.
A new study from LinkedIn makes that argument look pretty weak.
Digging through the company’s membership data, LinkedIn found that software engineering teams in industries outside of technology tended to have many more women.
In healthcare, for example, a typical engineering team was about 32 percent women, compared to just 20 percent in technology industries. Likewise, among government, education and nonprofit workers about a third of software engineers were women.
Even in banking, another industry long-criticized for its attitudes towards women, female software engineers accounted for about a fourth of the total.
What all this points to is something that should probably be obvious: Silicon Valley’s diversity problem is not just a “pipeline problem.” Even though industries like healthcare employ fewer total software engineers than the tech sector, more of them are women. The tech industry has a pipeline problem, but it also suffers from the mass delusion that the ideal computer programmer should look at least a little like Mark Zuckerberg.
"This study should be a wakeup call for anyone in Silicon Valley who thinks this is just a pipeline problem," said Karen Catlin, a former vice president of Adobe Systems who now is an advocate for women in the tech industry. "It’s much more complicated. Either there’s a very leaky pipeline and women are leaving jobs in tech or they are seeing they cannot have the careers they want in this industry and looking elsewhere for jobs instead."
Those ideas have been baked into the culture of technology since long before Silicon Valley was the economic powerhouse it is today.
"We tend to think about technology in terms of industrial machinery and cars," the sociologist Judy Wajcman wrote in 1991, "ignoring other technologies that affect most aspects of everyday life."
In other words, tools used by men have been considered technology while tools used primarily by women, like the sewing machine or kitchen gadgets, have not.
Among different sectors of the tech industry, LinkedIn found that IT and e-learning engineering jobs had the most women while network security and gaming had the least. LinkedIn also found significant gaps in the number of women in leadership roles compared to men across the board in tech.
LinkedIn’s study was limited, of course, to those who are users of the site. And because LinkedIn profiles have no field for gender, the company made guesses based on names, throwing out those that weren’t obviously male or female.
But the study highlights a harsh reality the tech industry will eventually have to face — the biggest obstacle keeping women from Silicon Valley, is Silicon Valley.
In a bid to diversify, many companies have poured money and resources into programs like Girls Who Code, hoping to inspire future generations of women to take an interest in tech. Only a few companies, like Google, have also focused on addressing industry culture. This month, after releasing internal employment numbers that showed the company's demographic data remained static after a year of focus on increasing the number of women and under-represented minorities, Google announced it would allow its employees to devote 20 percent of their time to diversity.
"You have to figure out: Where's the tipping point to changing the culture?" Nancy Lee, Google's vice president of people operations, said when Google announced the program.
For Silicon Valley, it seems, that tipping point may still be a long ways off.