Women in the technology, One afternoon in late March, San Francisco’s tech market epicenter shifted from companies like Apple or Google to a downtown courthouse. There, American executive Ellen Pao was suing Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the most traditional funds in Silicon Valley, with contributions from Amazon and Twitter. Owner of a brilliant career and graduated from the universities of Princeton and Harvard, Ellen was a partner at Kleiner.
In court, she claimed to have been harmed in the seven years she worked at the fund. For a singular reason: to be a woman. Presenting documents, she claimed that only men who worked at the fund were invited on business trips. She asked, in court, a compensation of US$ 16 million. The fund denied the allegations and claimed that Ellen had been fired from her post, whose annual salary was $560,000, for not having the “interpersonal and leadership skills needed to succeed.”
The tech market held its breath as jurors reached a verdict. The fund was acquitted. But Ellen’s defeat did not settle the matter. Instead. The debate won the world. The action touched the raw nerve of the global technology market. Busy with creating ever more spectacular self-driving cars, drones, and smartphones, the industry seems incapable of solving an issue as old as it is urgent – low female participation. In the classrooms of the engineering faculty or in the more technical divisions of the giants of the sector, they are always in the minority. Those who enter the job market are paid less and face difficulties that their male counterparts do not, such as distrust.
When the subject comes up, Facebook‘s COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer are always reminded to minimize the problem. They are exceptions. The truth is that the technology market is even more restrictive to women than companies in other sectors. Among the companies in the S&P 100, the ranking of the largest companies in the world compiled by the rating agency Standard & Poor’s, 20% of them has at least one director. In Silicon Valley, the same is true for only 10% of companies.
When descending in the hierarchical chain, the problem persists. At Google, 30% of employees are women. If we take into account the most important division, engineering, the ratio is lower: 17%. In Brazil, it shrinks even more. Only 10% of engineers at Belo Horizonte’s engineering center are women. It is not an isolated problem. The same unequal relationship between men and women occurs on Facebook (31% are women), Apple (30%), and Twitter (30%). To make matters worse, only 10% of financial contributions are made to startups led by women, according to a study by the Harvard Business School.
Would the technical difference between men and women explain this hole? “Definitely not,” says Berthier Ribeiro-Neto, leader of Google’s engineering lab in Latin America, one of the few allowed to change Google algorithm. The quality is the same. The problem, experts note, in unison, is cultural. It starts in childhood. The computer has become a boy’s toy. No wonder, half of the American families put the home PC in their child’s room, according to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, by researcher Jane Margolis.
Such logic advances faculties and the job market. She helped shape what Jane defines as “a society and culture that links interest and success with computers to boys and men.” It is this certainty that governs the work environment for women in the technology sector. Distributed in a timeline, their career resembles a funnel: the further you go, the narrower the path gets. And the path is still full of traps. The Kleiner fund tried to disqualify Ellen Pao, for the romance she had with another partner in the company, married and father of two children. Ellen ended the relationship and accused him of sexual harassment. Soon after, she stopped being invited to attend some of the firm’s meetings.
In Brazil, female isolation begins in college. Camila Achutti has lived with this reality since the first day of the computer science course, at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics (IME), at the University of São Paulo (USP). Not only was she the only woman in a room of 49 men, but she was also the only one who didn’t know how an algorithm worked. All of them had attended technical education there. Camila opted for a regular high school, which would force her to study extra hours to keep up with the pace of the class. The girl still heard from her classmates, who hardly studied for tests and got good grades: “But are you studying? You’re not very good at it, are you?” “I was the ugly duckling,” she says. Frustrated and with no one to talk to (two other students joined her class, but both dropped out of the course), she created the blog women in Computing to narrate details of her experience with a huge band of colleagues. She described there, for example, how the boys, in group work, always put her to write a project report, while they did the programming. Or even, when entering a teacher’s room to ask for a grade to be reconsidered, the eventual change in the evaluation was associated with gossip about sexual favors.
The blog has become a phenomenon among technology students in Brazil. They went on to send similar stories to Camila. A reader, a computer student at a university in the Northeast, complained that she didn’t have a women’s bathroom at the college. Another reported that, when trying to impose herself to do technical tasks in group work, she was accused of being unbalanced or for “having PMS”. A third sent Camila the graduation invitation, with the words: “If it weren’t for her blog, I wouldn’t have been able to finish college”.
The relevance of the blog is a consequence of the extent of the problem. It goes far beyond the IME. If we consider engineering and computer science courses for the 2015 academic year at other top universities in Brazil, the ratio between men and women remains low. At the State University of Campinas, only 10.7% of the students who passed the entrance exam were women. At the Federal University of Minas Gerais, 11%. At the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 11.8%. The Federal University of Pernambuco stands out, with 15.9%.
The curious thing is that it wasn’t always like that. On the contrary: women represented 70% of the first class of the bachelor’s degree in computer science at IME, in 1974. At that time, computing was an offshoot of the mathematics course, traditionally with more women, says the coordinator of the IME, Carlos Ferreira. There are other explanations: early computing had close ties to secretarial work and data processing. The team that programmed the Eniac, the first computer in history, was made up of women. They spent afternoons connecting cables to a room-sized structure for the machine to calculate ballistic trajectories. Starting in the 1980s, however, when computers became a billion-dollar business, with mainframes in all companies and the proliferation of PCs, the scenario changed and men began to dominate this market.
At the end of the four years of the course at IME, among 50 students, only Camila and two more graduated. She was the speaker and, on the recommendation of a professor, won the chance to intern at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. At the end of the internship, the search engine made him an offer. She refused and returned to Brazil to work on the inclusion of women in the technology market. Today, she represents Technovation, a group that encourages girls in high school to become interested in programming and engineering.
Those who, unlike Camila, choose to enter the corporate world, encounter similar sexist issues, enhanced by additional cruelty: the difference in wages. Although they are, on average, more educated than men, technology professionals in Brazil earn 30% less than men, according to data from the IBGE’s National Household Sample Survey (Pad), compiled by researcher Bárbara Castro for his doctorate at Unicamp.
The study also identified that the structure of the Brazilian technology market harms women. Instead of dot-coms with global products such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, Brazil has a dispersed market. Of the 81 thousand companies in the sector, 93% are small and medium-sized, which sell projects with software and hardware to banks and retailers. To beat the competition, professionals from these companies work long hours, without weekends or holidays. This dynamic, according to Bárbara, tends to benefit men, especially single and younger ones, and exclude women, especially those with children. The woman who is a mother is not always available to the employer. This makes many, says Barbara, accept a position in sales, precisely to work from home. Income falls as the home office pays a third less.
Despite being promoted, women tend to be removed from technical positions and occupy managerial positions. This is a pattern among the 30 executives that Bárbara interviewed for her research, related, according to her, to the distrust of the skills of these professionals. “They try to run away. They quit, join another company as programmers, and about a year later, the cycle repeats itself,” she says. No wonder, only 17% of programmers in the Brazilian IT market are women. Many adopt strategies to maintain themselves in this environment, sometimes unconsciously. It is common to hear cases of women who gave up their vanity to be accepted. In one case documented by Barbara, an executive only felt comfortable wearing long hair, makeup, and jewelry when she already had a managerial position. In her badge photo, taken in her first year on the job,
Attracted to a position at a software giant in Brazil, an executive, who asked not to be identified, imposed a condition to take the post: that her salary is equal to that of the men in the division. Finding out months later that she was earning less, she confronted her boss and demanded a raise. Over the next few days, other employees, some she had never spoken to, stopped by her table to congratulate her. None, however, did so publicly.
It’s a constant trait: it’s hard to find women in the IT industry who speak openly about the issues of sexism at work. For the production of this report, messages were sent to 12 executives in the technology market in Brazil. These are sources that respond with a difference of days when it comes to the market in general. To talk about machismo, less than half responded, most under the condition of confidentiality of the name. The most recurrent justification to explain the silence is the fear of reprisals: when standing up against inequality, the employee fears being seen as unbalanced or that an eventual promotion is related to her complaint.
Women who work in the IT market in Brazil, surrounded by distrust, jokes, and lower salaries, create a kind of shield. This is the case with Vanda Scartezini. At age 27, she was nominated to take on a position in the newly created Sistema Telebras. The President of the entity, General José Antonio de Alencastro was reluctant to accept her nomination. The reason? It was a woman. Only with much insistence from her former boss, who had indicated her, did Alencastro allow it. “Once you show knowledge, the man changes his way of thinking”, he says.
For the following decades, Vanda became one of the most successful executives in the history of telecommunications in Brazil. He has held positions at the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPqD), and at Philips. Today, she is a consultant and advisor to ICANN, the international body responsible for Internet domains. But the unequal treatment left its mark. In his career, wages were lower than those of men, often associated with a demand for better performance. “I had male colleagues who did great blunders and the bosses didn’t say anything. I would do a little silly thing and get the biggest scolding,” she says.
Vanda’s speech has the pragmatism of someone who seems to have grown tired of waiting for equality that never comes. When guiding younger entrepreneurs, she argues that success will depend on how they behave in the face of the scenario. “If you are more fragile, you give up, you think you won’t make it”, she says. Vanda did not survive in a sexist sector (and still with the military) for nothing: those who worked with her professionally describe her “like a tractor”. But she can’t expect every 17-year-old girl interested in technology to have to protect herself behind a shell to be part of a market where she will work harder to earn less and have her competence questioned.
Justice can enforce equal rights and create a more inclusive environment for women. So much so that, days before the verdict in Ellen Pao’s lawsuit, female employees filed similar lawsuits against Facebook and Twitter. But the court does not magically resolve women’s low demand for computer courses. HP and IBM create policies to ensure that 30% of new hires in technical areas are women. But it is difficult to fill vacancies. “Then, the company hires left and right and gives the engineers the impression that the woman is not competent”, says Camila, from Technovation. This is why affirmative action seems to have limited effectiveness. Infosys, for example, wants, by 2020, 25% of its board of directors to be women. The problem is: where will they come from?
In Brazil, independent groups are trying to create a long-term solution, focused on the age group where the market agrees that inequality between girls and boys is born: youth. There are initiatives, such as the aforementioned Technovation, in which groups of high school girls develop apps for global competition. Last year, three students from the interior of Pará won the national competition. This year, more than 1,800 girls are expected, half of them from São Paulo. There are still initiatives outside the large centers.
This is the case of Code Girl, a group formed in Natal by teacher Claudia Ribeiro and two former students, Suzanne Oliveira and Nayara Rocha. The group set up a class with 12 girls, between 15 and 18 years old, from public schools. They received programming and design classes. But classes alone weren’t enough, and not just because of the limited number of students. A survey of 114 students in the region showed that, in addition to male predominance, family discouragement was one of the biggest obstacles. “The family tells the girl to give up computing and study medicine or law,” says Suzanne. She knew the problem up close: when she decided to study computer science, her parents thought she was crazy. Computing was a man thing, they guaranteed. It was clear at three: the family needed to participate in the conversation.
The trio created biannual meetings in which students attend lectures by programmers and executives on the area, accompanied by their fathers and mothers. It seeks to demystify the idea that computing is an area for men. In the first edition of the event, in May 2014, 250 people attended. In November, 500 were expected, but more than 800 turned up, with the right to caravans from cities in the interior of Rio Grande do Norte, such as São Paulo do Potengi and Mossoró. At the end of the meetings, the organization asks the parents to leave the auditorium. Without them, some girls cry, saying that they are interested in IT but are forced to face resistance at home. Most give up. It’s a story Suzanne has seen repeated countless times. In the face of such discrimination.
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