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Silicon Valley Can't Hold On To Its Women

By Alyce Lomax - Jan 17, 2015 at 9:18AM

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Tech can only benefit by strengthening the diversity of its workforce.

Is Silicon Valley a really unpleasant place? For some people, it might be. Not only do few women work in the tech industry, but it also looks like they've ripped it off their top career-destinations list -- the number of women planning to go into the computer sciences field has plunged.

That's bad for American women, but it's also bad for Silicon Valley. Homogenous workforces build one-dimensional corporate foundations that won't live up to their ultimate promise.

This is a lost opportunity in building an important asset: intellectual capital. Cognitive diversity creates better teams and better managements.

That's sad in an industry that should always be looking forward with creativity, and a lot of growth and innovation is being left on the table.

Brain drain
U.S. Census Bureau information reveals that in 1990, women were busting into the workforce in general, and women held 34% of computer-related positions. In 2011, only 27% of such workers were female.

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2012, less than 18% of computer science majors were women. For those of us who would assume that's progress over the past couple decades, it's not. In 1985, 37% of computer science majors were women.

Surprisingly, this may not even be about pay, one of the usual controversies surrounding women in the workforce. According to data compiled by the American Association of University Women, tech jobs rank among the best paying for women, both immediately after college and further on in their careers.

Drilling down further, the tech industry should be highly targeted by women seeking financial security -- there is no gender pay gap for women working as engineers and programmers compared with their male counterparts. So it's even more shocking that women -- who make up 47% of the American workforce -- are currently looking elsewhere for careers.

It's important to get the word out that the field represents equitable paychecks for females. However, maybe some turn-offs can't be fixed with money.

Sallie Krawchek knows all about another male-dominated industry: Wall Street. She once held Citigroup's (C -0.57%) chief financial officer position. Today, she is a strong voice rallying to boost females in the work force.

She's pointed out that a lot of the problem isn't sexism; it's the groupthink that occurs in homogenous groups to begin with. For example, she recently told Fast Company to look beyond chauvinism to how males view business and merit. "I was invited to leave because I had a fundamentally different business perspective than the powers that be."

Duking it out with people who don't understand your skills -- or superficially come to the conclusion you don't have any skills at all -- can be a soul-destroying endeavor. The problem may be the same in both industries: Who wants to fight for recognition of their skills all the time?

What's in a name?
Tech companies are by nature innovative, of course, so there's hope from some of the most enlightened leaderships that are the savviest about their workforces. And to their credit for being honest, some tech giants recently shared some data that's not so pretty. The Atlantic recently covered some of those numbers:

Tech Company

Percentage of Female Employees

Google (GOOG 0.19%)


LinkedIn (LNKD.DL)




Facebook (META 0.22%)


Twitter (TWTR 0.54%)


eBay (EBAY -1.54%)


Bear in mind that these figures don't quite tell the whole story -- the number of female employees working in actual tech positions at these companies can be far lower. For example, while 30% of Google's employees are women, only 17% of its technical employees are.

Fortunately, Google happens to be one of the companies taking a deep look at the phenomenon.

Last fall, The New York Times revealed some of Google's efforts, one of which has been to raise awareness of unconscious bias -- which studies show is alive and well in the modern world.

Here's why this concept bears serious thought, for Google and every prospective employer. A Yale study, also covered by The New York Times, showed that science professors viewed males applying for laboratory assistant jobs as more qualified than female applicants and, when considering compensation levels, chose higher pay for the male candidates.

Many who believe in American meritocracy may argue that the male candidates were better. They weren't. The resumes were exactly the same; the only difference was use of the name "John" or "Jennifer," and both male and female professors exhibited the bias.

Google's smart to hone in on that issue and try to raise awareness of it in its diversity efforts. Even persuading people to take that first step to think twice and ask themselves if they're being fair and rational in their opinions of others could make a huge difference in improving how it attracts a far more diverse, talented, and robust workforce.

Building a better brain trust
Our society is all about meritocracy, as well it should be. However, if the definition is distorted by overt discrimination -- or, even more difficult, more subtle bias we aren't even aware of -- there is no real merit.

Young women need to know that they can do well in industries like tech. It looks like right now we need to remind them not to be afraid to go into such industries, and to be strong, keep trying, and, most of all, believe in themselves.

Although others may not appreciate or even understand their efforts, young women need to remember that in some cases, because of factors such as unconscious bias, some people may very well be wrong in how they measure achievements.

They need to hang in there and keep trying, though, because some smart people will appreciate and understand their talents, but only if they stay. And for things to change for the better in their own lives and for others in these industries, they need to show up in the first place.

Uncovering brain power that would otherwise go undiscovered can only lead to better things in the future, including higher-functioning businesses and more robust economic engines. The real merit is in identifying the causes of this problem -- and solving it.

Check back at for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google (A and C shares), Twitter, and Yahoo! and owns shares of Citigroup, eBay, Facebook, Google (A and C shares), Twitter, and Yahoo! Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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