What are the consequences of Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance?

09 : 08 : 2017 Female Futures : Entrepreneurs
#BreakStereotypes by Secret Code, US
#BreakStereotypes by Secret Code, US

If the teams that create these platforms are not diverse, they serve to perpetuate bias, which then filters into society.

Victoria Buchanan, strategic researcher, The Future Laboratory

The latest Silicon Valley scandal began on Saturday after the media obtained a 10-page anti-diversity manifesto written by an engineer at Google, which was widely shared within the company.

In the piece, the author argued that women do not perform as well as men in the technology industry due to biological differences, and that Google should stop using hiring practices designed to foster diversity. A leaked pie chart from an internal study suggests that a significant number of Googlers strongly or partially agree with the author. The piece has since garnered widespread media attention, prompting Google CEO Sundar Pichai to release a statement condemning the comments as ‘advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace’.

The scandal reflects a growing trend in Silicon Valley where companies are increasingly taken to task by the US government. The Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs, a division of the US Department of Labor, claimed to observe ‘systemic compensation disparities against women’ at the company during a 2015 audit, and has pressed Google for further compensation data to verify its observations.

This is obviously concerning, given that Silicon Valley companies are responsible for creating many of the platforms we use to organise our lives, read the news and speak to our friends. If the teams that create these platforms are not diverse, they serve to perpetuate bias, which then filters into society. In July 2015, computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University found that women were less likely than men to be shown ads for highly paid jobs on Google. At present, Google’s technology team comprises 80% men and 20% women, and the figures are worse when ethnicity is taken into account. Just 1% of Google’s technology team is black.

The issue goes beyond pay gaps and racial diversity. JWT recently reported that 40% of women in the UK feel that most technology is made by men for men. When Apple launched its Apple Watch back in 2015, its health-tracking feature did not incorporate a period tracker. ‘When you lose out on women’s voices, you lose out on the issues that they have to deal with,’ says futurist Madeline Ashby.

This becomes more complicated when we start thinking about future technologies that brands such as Google and Apple are creating. Are we subtly and insidiously coding the bias that exists in our analogue world into the services we create?

For some, quotas create a feeling of preferential rather than equal treatment.

New research shows that data sets used to teach language skills to artificial intelligence (AI) programs feature gender and racial bias. A paper published in the journal Science found that implicit biases seen in human psychology experiments are readily acquired by algorithms. The words ‘female’ and ‘woman’ were more closely associated with arts and humanities occupations and the home, while ‘male’ and ‘man’ were closer to mathematics- and engineering-related professions.

The manifesto does raise an interesting question: How can we get everyone to engage with diversity? For some, quotas create a feeling of preferential rather than equal treatment.

In light of this, some companies are changing their approach. Deloitte recently announced its plans to phase out diversity groups focused on gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity in a bid to bring men into the diversity dialogue. The groups will be replaced by ‘inclusion councils’ to promote a more inclusive mindset within the business.

It’s time to move beyond questioning a person’s abilities because of their gender. A more diverse workforce makes a company more adept at problem-solving, acquiring exceptional talent and achieving long-term economic growth.

Diversity should be seen as a solution rather than a problem to be solved.

For more on how to be a champion of female entrepreneurship, read our Female Futures report.