What still needs to change to attract and retain more women in tech.
By Samantha Parent Walravens (Author)
Editor’s note: We know this keynote panel at Dreamforce created a bit of Internet uproar. Some attendees were irked with the questions asked and felt the panel should have been moderated differently. Please understand this piece represents one attendee’s experience.
Having two kids and a full-time job is a lot for most parents to handle. So when I listened to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki discuss how she manages raising five kids (ages 8 months to 15 years old) and running a multi-billion dollar company, I wanted to bow down and kiss the ground on which she walks.
Wojcicki shared the stage with actress and founder of The Honest Company Jessica Alba and CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King at the Women in Leadership Keynote at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco this week
CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King, who moderated the discussion, quipped, “Five kids by same husband? I love hearing that.”
The inaugural Women’s Leadership Summit was Salesforce’s innovative approach to continuing the conversation on how to advance women in the workplace and close the gender gap in technology. In addition to Wojcicki and Alba, other influential women took the stage throughout the conference, including Academy Award winner and activist Patricia Arquette, CoderDojo CEO Mary Moloney, and Re/code’s Kara Swisher.
Rather than bemoan “why women still can’t have it all,” the women gave advice on how to balance work and family and what still needs to change to attract and retain more women in tech.
“Computer science has a reputation that isn’t accurate and has scared away a lot of women,” said Wojcicki. “When you think of computers, Silicon Valley and startups, you think of a bunch of guys sitting at computers.”
Indeed, television shows like Silicon Valley and The Big Bang Theory have helped perpetuate the stereotype of the nerdy “boy genius” programmer, or “brogrammer,” coding alone in a dark room into the wee hours of the night.
The truth is very different, said Wojcicki. “Tech is a field that is very creative. You get to build products and change the world. You work with other people in teams.”
This was something that Wojcicki had to convince her oldest daughter, however, who came to her and told her that she didn’t like computers.
“Here I am trying to get girls into tech, and now I have this problem at home,” Wojcicki laughed. “I told her that she didn’t have to go into computer science, but she has to be proficient in tech.”
After attending an ID Tech camp for girls, Wojcicki’s daughter designed a prototype of a smart watch that had a speaker phone and her friends’ contact information on it — even before Apple and Samsung had come out with their smart watches.
“She had started thinking about creating things that were digital,” said Wojcicki. “Now she likes computers.”
Alba had a similar experience when she ran an immersion program in conjunction with Girls Who Code. Twenty girls came to The Honest Company offices in Los Angeles and created apps about things they cared about.
“The girls, ages 15 to 17, experienced a new world and learned a new language. Most of them said, ‘I didn’t know technology could be this creative.’”
In the short term, the “fix” for the problem has to come from the top, explained Wojcicki.. “Leaders and managers have to say ‘we believe in diversity,’ then go to the recruiters and say ‘we need to do better.’”
In the long term, both Wojcicki and Alba agreed that computer science needs to become a requirement in schools so that it’s available to everyone. Last year, the U.K. made “computing” a part of the national curriculum for students starting at age five. This month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that within ten years all of the city’s public schools will be required to offer computer science to all students.
“I think it should be a required course,” said Wojcicki. “Just like you take biology and chemistry and physics, you should take computer science. Suddenly everybody is digitally literate.”
While the pipeline issue is one that is widely discussed in tech circles, retention is another issue that the YouTube chief says needs to be addressed.
A 2014 report by Babson College found that 56 percent of women who work in technology drop out mid-career. The reasons cited include poor maternity leave, long work hours, and the difficulty of being a minority — a woman in a sea of men.
When Wojcicki was pregnant with her fifth child, she did some research on how other companies handle maternity leave. What she found was astonishing.
“Most women in the U.S. don’t have paid maternity leave,” she pointed out. “About 25 percent of women go back to work after ten days of having a baby. If I had to go back to work after ten days, I would quit. But some women can’t do that.”
“More enlightened companies get it,” she continued. “They focus on human capital. Google (the parent company of YouTube) offers 18 weeks of paid maternity leave and 12 weeks of paternity leave. Longer leave helps us retain women.”
The Honest Company currently offers 10 weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave, but Alba announced that in January 2016, they will up their policy and offer 16 weeks of paid leave for both mother and father.
Rather than put the onus on women themselves to “lean in” and fight for change, Wojcicki called on business leaders to do their part.
“Because most companies’ leaders are men, we need the men to look at their teams and find out who are the women leaders they can support and help get to the next level,” she said. “Most of my mentors were men. I worked hard, but it is partly due to them that I am in the role I’m in today.”
About the guest blogger: Samantha Parent Walravens is the author/editor of the New York Times-accclaimed book, TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and is writing her next book, GEEK GIRL RISING: Unleashing the Power of Women in Tech. Follow her on Twitter at @geekgirlrising.