For women in technology, life can be terrible. The male dominated field has recently come to light for being discriminatory, unfair, and often times completely hostile to females, but these problems have existed practically forever. After Susan Fowler’s piece about the harassment she faced at Uber, the manifesto published by a Google employee, and the sheer number of executives and leaders resigning from tech companies, it’s clear there is a huge problem in the industry, even though it was pretty obvious before too. But quitting isn’t always the answer.
It’s not just women of course, anyone who doesn’t fit the mold for the typical programmer can be excluded. Age, race, religion, and more are all treated with discrimination. Even those who fall inside the prototype can feel like outsiders for the smallest of reasons.
I see countless posts about women leaving the tech industry after incidents or just reading about the problems in the field. I get it. My first inclination would probably be to quit as well. The problems are endemic, widespread, and don’t seem to be improving much, so I don’t blame anyone who wants out. These posts are powerful and illuminating, and have helped surface so many issues and the courage they take to publish is incredible. Leaving a company and the industry is probably the most visible way to surface these problems. It takes incredible courage and must be terribly painful to leave a job, essentially being forced out of it without one’s volition.
Quitting isn’t necessarily going to help the problem though. Quitting sends a signal that things aren’t acceptable and they won’t be tolerated. However, effecting change from within is often a more powerful method. No one should stay in a hostile environment, especially if incidents occur. But leaving the industry entirely allows terrible behavior to continue unabated. Instead, provide an incentive for tech companies to do things right by moving to companies that treat all of their employees right.
Tech companies aren’t often incentivized to treat employees fairly. Public companies are motivated by profit. For social networks, this encourages developing features that demand user attention and time. For transportation companies, the goal is to become sticky to users so they continue to use the same app rather than trying out a competitor. None of these directly correlate to treating employees equally. In fact, maximizing profits can actually result in treating different types of employees differently.
However, tech companies care deeply about one incentive around employee satisfaction, and that is being able to hire and retain talent. Companies go to great lengths to recruit talent and keep their high performers around since a large investment has been made into training them. If companies start having difficulty recruiting talent because of discrimination, they will be forced to change or fail. Staying in the workforce, especially going to a competitor, will create an economic incentive for companies to treat their employees right. Unfortunately, most companies don’t act out of benefit for the common good, so economic incentives are the best motivator. This is slowly working to change companies like Uber. The immediate response from Google after the manifesto leaked was strong and decisive. They knew they couldn’t afford to lose current and prospective employees due to this reputation.
The tales of discrimination and harassment are harrowing and dreadful, and it’s completely acceptable for these employees to want to distance themselves from such an industry. But just leaving isn’t as effective as working on improvements from the inside. Many companies do in fact want to improve things and need help. Champions who can surface these kinds of problems and the scale of them are needed to rally others around and keep up pressure to improve. Everyone needs to help, not just those affected.
It’s obvious that these incidents aren’t unique to a single company. It’s impossible to think they can’t happen anywhere any longer. These problems are widespread across the industry and must be fixed. The call to action already passed and it’s time for action. But that action needs as many champions and advocates as possible, so those who have experienced it first hand are key. Please don’t abandon the rest of us now, we need your help!