Tech sexism: should the US learn from India, or India from the US?
Gender discrimination and sexual assault have been two of 2017’s big topics, with leading lights across a range of industries having been outed as guilty of one or the other.
The US tech industry came in for swift and deserved criticism off the back of a blog written by a female ex-Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, which let the sexist genie out of the tech lamp. Thence followed a range of commentary from a range of outlets: are things better in the Indian tech industry or worse? It’s a troubling comparison full of either pious or condescending undertones, but a potentially useful one if same can be avoided.
The starting point for the comparison is that around 20% of engineers in the US are female, compared to around 30% in India, as Wired points out. Which first leads one to consider what it must be about Indian tech that’s being done better. But from this point the plot – as they so captivatingly say – thickens. First of all, while sexism does seem to abound in the tech industry, and in the interest of rectifying the whole situation, the assertion that tech is somehow inherently sexist would be both unhelpful and unfounded.
The stats for US tech companies overall (rather than just the engineering departments) aren’t exactly ideal, but for the most part they’re a good foot better than 20%. Other than Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia female employees account for 30% to 48%, which is a 10% to 18% improvement on US congress, suggesting it’s not Silicon Valley or the tech sector in general that’s the problem.
The second stat worth attending to is that of gender diversity in engineering graduates: around 20% of engineering graduates in the US are female, compared to around 30% in India. While the tech industry should not be allowed to absolve itself of responsibility due to “the pipeline problem” – that is, that there aren’t enough women coming through the education system to their recruitment door – its existence can’t be denied.
It is both convenient and instructive that the proportion of female engineers is a carbon copy of the proportion of female engineering graduates. In any case, the statements “it’s not tech, it’s education” and “it’s not education, it’s tech” are equally and unduly simplistic.
But, on this simple comparison, why does India perform better? “In India, women feel at home in engineering”, says Matt Dorman in Wired, which is a relief to hear and a sentiment echoed elsewhere. But if that’s the case why isn’t the number of female engineers in India higher still, why not 50%? The Indian stats, far from being better, point to a bigger and more sinister problem.
Ola is the Indian Uber in more ways than it being a ride-hailing app, having also been hamstrung by sexism. Last year the company released an advert in which a male character says “my girlfriend costs Rs 525 per km but Ola Micro costs just Rs 6 per km” which, predictably and rightly, provoked a backlash from activists. During a subsequent Ola town hall meeting, executives asked employees whether they thought the ad was sexist and, upon seeing a number of raised hands, one exec responded “My wife didn’t find the ad offensive, so I am not sure what you’re talking about”.
While sexism is clearly a problem in the US tech industry, a set of events like the aforementioned – which speak not only to sexism but a normality in appearing sexist – would probably be unthinkable in the US. It’s difficult to imagine the ad ever making it to concept stage, and whichever exec might offer such a retort as the above would have to be fired in the most unceremonial way possible.
The reason, it seems, why Indian women are comfortable in tech and still only account for 30% is because sexism is more generally a problem. 43% of men own smartphones compared to 28% of women, and only 65% of women are literate compared to 80% of men. And it’s not getting better, India recently slipped 87th to 108th in the WEF global gender gap index. So, India may not have to focus on its tech industry, but it does seem to have to focus on society as a whole – a far more substantial task.
The US, if you were wondering, came in 45th on the WEF global gender gap index, which is a good shot better than India but still nought to boast about from one of the world’s wealthiest countries. And at a rate of 20% of female engineers it looks like a substantial chunk of progress can be made in engineering alone.
There are calls from the engineering community that there need to be more female engineers, and some progress has been made – Dartmouth College announced last year it had graduated more female engineers than male. Tech CEOs have not only pointed to the problem but also extended their resources to try and improve the pipeline, but that isn’t quite enough. While the pipeline problem may be true and significant, it is still the tech companies that have let this situation develop on their watch; it can’t be the case that they’ve only just found out about gender diversity.
The problems that Silicon Valley’s Finest now face may not be their fault alone. But, given they’re so keen to play the US’ social conscience on other issues, they should do so on this one too. If the situation is not the result of design it is still so socially insidious that Google employees have started writing sexist manifestos, and, predictably, it has cause female engineering graduates to leave the profession. Even from a strict ‘business’ perspective – as if the argument needs further ballast – companies with gender diverse leadership get 34% more investment.
Such problems come before even mentioning the bad PR and the fact we’re talking about an industry which will lead society into the future, no moral high-ground on AI – for example – will be accepted from such socially regressive entities. The tech industry from the country which claims the mantle of “leader of the free world” has become an example and a metaphor for why a balanced work environment is so important.