SciTech

Pugwash: Gender inequality in technology industry must be remedied

Credit: Emily Giedzinski/ Credit: Emily Giedzinski/

After keeping them secret for many years, a number of prominent tech companies have recently released diversity statistics for their workforces. Even the companies in question agree that they are disappointing. Only 18 percent of Facebook’s software engineers are female. For Google, 17 percent of tech workers are female. Microsoft, Amazon, and many others report similar numbers.

As some Pugwash members pointed out, the problem isn’t restricted to computer science either; the statistics are similar in engineering and perhaps even worse in physics and math. Hence, this week Pugwash aimed to determine to what extent this gender ratio is a problem and what, if anything, should be done about it. Since diversity is a complex subject, we focused only on gender in the tech workplace. While we acknowledge that minority races and other groups have also been the subject of unequal treatment, and that the workplace is not the only place where prejudice can be a problem (the Internet and massively multiplayer video games were mentioned as other places), a single hour was not enough to discuss them all.

Before proposing ways to promote diversity in the workplace, it’s important to first understand the impact that society can have on professions chosen by different genders. This question turns out to be remarkably difficult to answer, since it’s unethical to run controled experiments which might profoundly alter a person’s job choices.

First, if it’s not social factors, then what could it be? Biology likely plays some role in professional development. The brains of men and women have measurably different architectures. For example, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that women have more connections between the two hemispheres of their brains. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology suggests that the different societal roles played by our ancestors based on gender may have influenced innate skills and proclivities.

But does biology explain the differences we’re seeing? Almost certainly not. According to research recently summarized by NPR, up until about 1984, women’s participation in law, physical sciences, medicine, and computer science were all increasing rapidly, and at about the same pace. However, after 1984, women’s participation in computer science started dropping, in stark contrast to the other skilled professions. Biology, which remains roughly constant over time, can hardly explain this shift. Research by UCLA professor Jane Margolis provides a different explanation. In the mid ’80s, computers were marketed toward boys, likely because marketers connected them with toy tools like Tonka trucks. Overall, Pugwash agreed that society’s biases — giving toy tools to boys and dolls to girls — can have profound effects on children. Worse, these effects compound with age, as women feel more isolated in traditionally male-dominated fields like computer science.

There are two reasons that this is a problem. First, inequality is fundamentally unethical. If a woman would be happiest as a computer scientist, then it’s harmful to deny her that opportunity or to somehow degrade her experience in the position relative to a man’s. Second, it’s inefficient. The world is at its most productive when everyone with computer science talent can make use of it.

Pugwash agreed that this is a problem rooted in society and culture. What can be done about it? The idea of affirmative action — in the sense of promoting women even when they are not the most qualified — was endorsed by some and criticized by others. While affirmative action will increase women’s participation in tech in the short term, it may inadvertently decrease women’s confidence in their skills, causing them to leave the field later. Less drastic measures were more popular. For instance, employers should be aware of their own biases and combat them during the hiring process. Parents should also avoid propagating biases through their children’s play activities and ensure that girls have as many opportunities as boys to engineer and solve problems.