The tokenism of women in technology and 7 things companies can do about it

Wikipedia says:

Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality within a workforce.[1][2][3] The effort of including a token employee to a workforce is usually intended to create the impression of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.) in order to deflect accusations of social discrimination.[4]

For the last 10 years, as part of a feminist wave, some tech companies have made a genuine effort to be diverse. Think of companies like Thoughtworks, Buffer, ClefFacebookGoogle,… and people like Cindy Gallop, Sheryl Sandberg.

That got them and women in tech recognition and a lot of milestones were achieved. More women in C level positions, more visibility, more balanced teams. Some great products came out of that move to include more women in software teams.

I have worked with companies that did great at inclusion. While living in Berlin , a hot point for diversity in tech, but also in Cordoba, a smaller city away from the hype, I have seen male mentors donate their weekends for free to empower new women in tech. There is good and hope in the industry.

Unfortunately as with most successes the copycats entered the scene and blew it off. Some companies started recruiting women for the sake of recruiting women. Not all of them did it right, and it has resulted in a growing tokenisation of women in the industry.

I have personally experienced tokenism in the form of public speaking offers. Some of them were attractive and I felt lucky for being a woman in tech in this world and age. A few of my early interventions were precisely about how to onboard more women in the world of technology. I was volunteering for Rails Girls at the time organising programming workshops for women so it all made sense.

Some other times the invites had nothing to do with my field of work. In these cases the proposal usually included a reference to my gender, and took from granted that I was a developer because nobody had taken the time to find me on LinkedIn.

Gender can weight more than skills if you work in the digital world.

But tokenism was not reserved to public speaking offers – that’s an obvious. When I started my project bots4health most of my conversations with bot developers and small angels were with men, because this is a men’s world like it or not. Most of them were productive. A few of them were not. A handful of angel investors and accelerators reached out without having checked my site or my bot. Looking at it in retrospect and I believe my startup bots4health got a lot more attention that it should have. The combo emerging tech+ good name + female founder does work.

It happens consulting with The Neon Project too. Once a 100% male team was looking for a female figure who could represent them in conferences and events, as their objective public was female. Another time a consultant called me looking for a female team and asked about the skills and resources we could offer only after checking that behind our chatbots was indeed a team of women. In this case the target users weren’t even women. I guess female faces sell.

Why do I complain? Because I fear this tokenisation puts women in technology in risk. If every company hires a percentage of women just in order to comply with a quota because it looks good for PR then we will begin to assume that some women without talent have been hired to achieve it. Which ones? How many? Who cares?

The problem is much deeper than some see and it won’t be fixed just hiring more women It’s about making sure the children who have access to and understand about technology are of all genders and places and backgrounds. About safe learning environments and education that’s preparation for the real world. The kids of today are the candidates of tomorrow. The C-Levels and policy makers of the day after tomorrow. And if only boys talk computer then we’ll be pushing the same rock up the mountain in 25 years.

Lucky us there are things we can do today to improve our diversity numbers today without sacrificing tomorrow.

  1. Inclusive Language
    Use inclusive language. Use non-gendered pronouns and avoid words that have a high testosterone load, such as ninja or beer.
  2. Genuine Interest
    When you speak with a female candidate prove you have checked her background and know about her skills and past professional accomplishments. It makes you sound very superficial when you say “so, what was it you do, again?” and even more when you say “wait, so you are not actually a programmer?”.
  3. Diverse Hiring pool
    Hire outside of your confort zone. Don’t hire just inside of your monthly JS user group. A lot of women in tech don’t go to mainstream tech events, but there are other events they go to. Look for your local Rails Girls, PyLadies…
  4. Women-friendly products and services
    Make products women love to use, and hire amongst your users. Contrary to what a lot of men believe, we don’t all love pink and purple, and it usually makes things look like a period tracker. If you have women in your team they will tell you. It’s about good design, sizes that work for smaller hands and bodies…
  5. Flexible and remote work
    Offer flexible or remote work to accommodate for women’s bodies weirdness. I am not talking only maternity leaves. I am talking every day flexibility that allows for a healthy work-life integration. Yes, we are affected by our periods, pregnancies and kids. Last year women in the UK took 17 million days off due to PMS.
  6. Female visibility
    Have female leaders and involve female middle-managers and recruiters in the interviewing process. Not only does it showcase your commitment to diversity, it may also help female candidates get comfortable with speaking about certain topics.
  7. Code of Conduct
    Write and distribute a code of conduct that makes your company a safe and comfortable place for women and everyone else. How does your company intervene when things get nasty? Set and defend limits.
  8. Coherence
    The moment you make a comment like “you know how women are with impulse” or speak about another entrepreneur as an “ugly woman” you lose your credibility. Don’t do it. If you feel the impulse, however, ask yourself why 5 times.

If you want to learn more and get better at hiring women in tech check
#donottokenise #womenintech.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s