To improve diversity in tech, managers should start by reading 'Lean Out'

The tech industry's complicated and sorry treatment of women has become a big topic.

Lawsuits have helped blow up the issue. Most notably, former Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao filed a discrimination suit against the venture capital giant last year, lost the suit this year, and recently dropped her planned appeal.

Also in the spotlight are public speaking appearances by some of the industry's most powerful women, where they are inexplicably asked to talk about motherhood before they are asked about the billion-dollar businesses they run.

And of course, women continue to be underrepresented in tech, particularly in engineering, executive and investor roles.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other big Silicon Valley companies have all gotten into the habit of releasing their diversity statistics, which are remarkably consistent: In almost every case, less than 30% of their workforces are female. (Amazon is the lone standout, with a 37% female workforce.) The transparency is laudable, but the ratio is not changing. When releasing the numbers, these companies all provided pretty much the same predictable spackling of public relations on top of their data: We know these numbers aren't great, but we're doing the best we can.

Those poor diversity numbers don't only reflect the plight of women in tech; they show that African American and Latino techies are underrepresented in these companies, too.

This is an issue that should concern everyone in tech, male or female, particularly when there is so much demand for talent. The arguments that men are somehow better than women at coding carry no water, especially when you look at the history of computer science, where there were accomplished female programmers in abundance until the last few decades. The industry collectively turning its back on almost 50% of the available talent pool is not optimal. It's also just not right.

That's why I think everyone who hires or manages anyone in tech ought to read the remarkable book "Lean Out," edited by Elissa Shevinsky. Shevinsky is an entrepreneur and coder, and, as it turns out, an excellent aggregator of passionate, useful, insightful and infuriating essays about all aspects of gender and tech.

We've written about Shevinsky before, when she got the nickname "Ladyboss" while working with Pax Dickinson, a man who got into trouble for being outspoken (and indeed quite offensive) in social media while working as the technology chief of Business Insider. She's hung onto that moniker, even though she has since moved on from the start-up she and Dickinson co-founded. It suits her: She seems like someone who is comfortable owning her differences and is able to command the respect of brogrammers even as she pushes to make tech more welcoming to all kinds of women.

"Lean Out" is clearly a response to Sheryl Sandberg's wildly successful book "Lean In," which convinced a small army of women to step up, "lean in" to their workplaces, and demand more responsibility and more respect. Shevinsky and the authors of the essays in this book take a different angle: If tech companies are unwelcoming places, to hell with them. Start your own company and run it better.

It's fitting that "Lean Out" begins and ends with exhortations from FakeGrimlock, a Twitter personality who, as a robot dinosaur, shouts at people to get them to follow their passion and start companies themselves.

But the book is not just directed at women who might want to opt out of the rat race and start their own thing. This book is packed with stories — and statistics — that should give anyone in tech management pause. Katy Levinson's stories of frequent harassment, and even rape, in corporate work contexts are starker and scarier than most of the anecdotes that make it into public discussion about gender equality. Essays from transgender writers such as Anna Anthropy and Squinky show that it is possible to A/B test gender in tech, with some unsurprising, but moving, conclusions.

Katherine Cross offers a somewhat academic, but ultimately sensitive and understanding, portrait of male nerd culture, and how (and why) it only reluctantly accommodates women. Her essay makes it clear why the current nerd culture we have is so gendered — and why it leads to ridiculous outbursts of anti-female sentiment, of which "gamergate" is the most egregious example.

And Shevinsky herself, in an essay critiquing the "pipeline problem," points out that she and many of her female friends have not been able to land jobs at companies like Google — or even get called by their recruiters — despite having over 10,000 hours of programming experience and having held leadership roles at sites with millions of users. She recounts that in her college classes, not that long ago, the students were about equally split between male and female. But at some point those women were unable to find work in tech, or found themselves unwilling to put up with the static that went along with the job.

In other words, tech has a pipeline issue, but not the one companies usually blame: the supposedly empty "pipeline" of girls taking an interest in science in grade school, leading to fewer female engineering majors, leading to a dearth of qualified women.

No, the problem is the pipeline coming from the other direction: The venture capitalists and executives funding and running most Silicon Valley companies are overwhelmingly male, and largely white, and they have been trained through years of "pattern recognition" to place bets where they seem the safest: on companies and new hires that reflect their often unconscious assessments of what quality looks like.

That means they tend to hire white, male executives, who in turn hire white, male middle managers and engineering leads, who tend to hire white, male engineers.

Meanwhile there is a persistent, male-oriented nerd culture that actively drives women out of the field.

Katy Levinson offers a three-point program to address this in her essay:

The first thing is pretty simple: In all organizations, demand that there exists a code of conduct and clear method to report misconduct.

Second, while there will always be truly malicious people, most people just don't realize the harm of their actions. There needs to be correction without punishment for people who are not malicious.

Third, and most important, is making a serious personal commitment to solving this.

The overwhelming sense from this book is of women and transgender people who are just fed up with all the crap. As Shevinsky wrote in an earlier essay, also reprinted in this book, "I didn't want to think about gender issues but the alternative is tit and dick jokes at our industry's most respected events."

It's time to change that. And it's not just women who need to do something about this. Whether by "leaning out," or by doing what you can to make the company you're at work better for women, you need to help fix this. We all do.

Dylan Tweney is a content strategist and journalist. His weekly column, Dylan's Desk, appears on Venture Beat.

dylan@venturebeat.com

Twitter: @dylan 20

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on September 29, 2015, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A different take on tech's diversity woes `Lean Out' urges workers fed up with gender inequality to start their own firms. THE DOWNLOAD" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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