woman thinking

The gender diversity in technology movement experienced a very odd 2015.

The year started out, it seemed, with the best of intentions. In 2014 and 2013 companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple began reporting diversity statistics within their workforce, first of race and then gender. Diversity pages had become de rigueur at industry leading companies such as Apple and Google and Microsoft.

The industry appeared to be not only committed to the idea of a diverse and open workplace in the tech community but was also actively embracing the fact that diversity — both gender and race — was smart for the bottom line.

A source no more esteemed than MicKinsey had found that "companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians."

People were talking earnestly of such things as "implicit hiring bias" and "imposter syndrome" and Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In" hadn’t even been out for quite a year.

It's twelve months later and very debatable whether women in this industry made much progress at all. For starters, it's become clear that maybe the focus shouldn't have been completely on equal compensation and opportunity.

Are You Serious?

This was the year IBM launched — and quickly ended — its ill-conceived "Hack a Hair Dryer" concept — a marketing campaign that used gender stereotypes to encourage girls to "dissolve the stigma" that STEM jobs are just for men.

It was the year a steady stream of seemingly well-intentioned men irritated women with specious arguments about the merits of equal pay for women. The arguments typically included references to the fact that the author had daughters of his own (which does not make him a de facto feminist) or the "perception of a boys club" (rather than simply stating that there is a boys club.) 

It was the year a leading Republican Presidential candidate described Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic presidential debate as "too disgusting" to even talk about. Wait. What?

A Very Very Hostile Environment

At the beginning of 2015 Ellen Pao, the former interim chief executive officer of Reddit and former junior investing partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers finally got her day in court for a gender discrimination suit she filed against Kleiner in 2012.

She went on to lose the suit as we all know now — a fact that eventually became a footnote compared to the avalanche of online hate aimed at her in the run up to the case and then its aftermath.

By this point, of course, we knew the limits to which the "Internet" could go — and still does — in its damnation and hatred of an individual, male and female — but there is usually a "reason" for it, justified or not.

In the case of Pao, though, it was hard to pinpoint what that "reason" was. Really, all she had done was sue a former employer. It was hard not to link the online hate to her seeming temerity in asking for fair treatment.

But then Pao closed three subreddits or forums on Reddit for violating the site's anti-harassment policies. That resulted in what became the mother of all trolling attacks.

As Pao herself noted in the Washington Post shortly after she resigned from Reddit, "Fully 40 percent of online users have experienced bullying, harassment and intimidation, according to Pew Research. Some 70 percent of users between age 18 and 24 say they’ve been the target of harassers. Not surprisingly, women and minorities have it worst."

And, oh yeah, CEO Steve Hoffman who took over from Pao, continued these policies but somehow, for some reason, didn’t seem to attract all the hate.

The issue of online harassment aimed at women was not a new development, of course in 2015. In previous years there was Gamer Gate  which women outside the gaming community duly took note of -- and then went about life.

With Pao there was no hiding from it:  the hate was everywhere -- and worse, it appeared to have worked.

About That Earning Gap

The issue of the gender pay gap arose again later in the year when two separate organizations, the Washington DC-based Economic Policy Institute and the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, released separate reports with rather dismal findings.

EPI reported that "Gender wage disparities are present at all wage levels and within education categories, occupations, and sectors — sometimes to a grave degree."

The Word Economic Forum's 2015 Global Gender Gap Report found that women are only earning what men did in 2009 and that "extrapolating this trajectory suggests that it will take the world another 118 years -- or until 2133 -- to close the economic gap entirely."

But surely this was not the case for technology, what with all the gender diversity initiatives and the 24-7 nonstop hunt for talent?

As it turned out it was the case — despite even the best intentions otherwise, as Salesforce.com went on to show. To recap that episode, CEO Marc Benioff announced earlier in the year that the company was going to evaluate the compensation levels of its 16,000 employees to see if there was a gender pay gap between men and women in comparable positions.  There was, it turned out -- women were being underpaid by an aggregate $3 million.

No Perfect Answers

It would be tempting to wind up this 2015 gender diversity retrospective with admonitions for the world at large to play nice and be fair.

But in truth all of these issues are nuanced and that should be acknowledged if we are ever to have any kind of civilized discussion.

For instance, Denise Cummins, a research psychologist, does a great tear down on some of the reasons for gender differences in compensation and lack of diversity in STEM sectors in this article.

And the idea that it is always and only women on the receiving end of online harassment? There is a long-running criminal case in Canada in which a man, Gregory Alan Elliott, is facing charges of criminally harassing, a woman, Stephanie Guthrie via Twitter.

A deeper read into what occurred, though, suggests that online harassment can be an equal opportunity weapon.

Cheering Even If You Don’t Like The Politics

Back in the US, close to the time the Guthrie vs. Elliott case was being argued, the US presidential election -- or rather the nomination for the Republican party was having a moment about Donald Trump’s comments to Rolling Stones magazine about fellow Republican contender and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

"Look at that face!" Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!"

Okay.

You can make the case that Fiorina was a bad CEO who hurt HP more than she helped. Quite easily, in fact, you could make this case.

Also, reasonable minds can agree to disagree about her prescribed policies.

But even women who are hard-core liberal Democrats gritted their teeth in collective sympathy with Fiorina over the comment.

Here. We. Go. Again.

Here we go again with the subtle put downs, the patronizing, the snark, the non-stop scrutiny and judgment of our looks. By a presidential candidate no less!

Fiorina got him back good, though, at the following debate.

And even women who dislike her policies and think her tenure at HP was a disaster hooted and cheered along with the audience. Okay, fine, that person was me.   

Like I said, it's been a very odd year for women in tech.

Title image by Matthew Wiebe