A Google engineer recently found himself out of work after sharing a ten-page memo outlining why the tech giant should quit its diversity programs.
His firing from Google has caused outrage from those advocating freedom of speech and more scope for employees to have their say. Penned anonymously, the tirade was later revealed to have come from James Damore, a software engineer. He’s become a poster boy for the ‘alt right’, but he’s told CNN he doesn’t personally support the movement.
But his writing of this manifesto in the first place came from a long list of engrained sexist attitudes regarding women in tech – especially in suggesting his female colleagues were inferior because, “The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
They’re attitudes that not only affect women already in the sector and particularly at Google, but contribute to the stereotype that tech is an industry for men.
In Australia, just 28% of the ICT workforce is female, according to the Australian Computer Society. That figure drops significantly lower when it comes to technical positions. At Google, less than one in five of its technical workforce are female.
The lack of women in tech is a good part of the reason why Ally Watson founded Code Like A Girl, dedicated to providing girls and women with the tools, knowledge and support they need to excel in coding.
I recently spoke to Ally, prior to the news of the Google manifesto came out but still following weeks of revelations regarding sexual harassment in the tech sector, particularly in startups.
While we did touch on sexual harassment in the industry – Ally says it’s not something she has personally experienced – most of our conversation came back to the fact there are still too few women involved in tech, especially in coding.
She says she got into coding by accident. Rejected from art school twice and not wanting to waste her grades from school, she applied for one of the only university degrees that had vacancies available – software engineering. “I applied thinking it would be interesting. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t realised I’d be one of five girls and 80 guys.”
After graduating, Ally started in a role where she was the only woman in a roomful of 40 men. There were other women in the company, they just happened to be in the next building, away from the technical roles. Ally left after nine months. But she took the skills she learnt to apply for a creative agency role, where she became the “tech person who could speak to everyone”. One of her proudest moments was being told that she had “reinvented the developer” for some of her colleagues.
“I know the technical skills are super important. But if you can’t talk to people or communicate solutions well, what’s the point of the amazing technical skills?”
Ally saw this as a significant advantage. And moved past feeling like she would never “fit in” in the tech sector.
But arriving in Melbourne from Glasgow, she then found herself with no connections, no contacts and no friends in the sector. She’d attend events and meet ups only to find them male-dominated, while the odd events for women that did occur were too infrequent to create a strong community.
That led to her founding Code Like A Girl, and recently starting full-time in the business after spending a couple of years managing its events and workshops on the weekends while working for another firm.
“It’s massive and scary, but amazing to finally be full time on it. It’s taken two years to get to this point,” she says. “The more I know about this industry and the lack of diversity and the more I find out about gender stereotyping… So much to do, I feel like I’m the right person to tackle it.”
She believes that in Australia, things need to be stepped up in order to shift the stereotype that coding’s for men. She’s personally saddened that sexual harassment and other bad behaviour can do so much damage to the work organisations like Code Like A Girl achieve. “I spend every day trying to inspire girls and make them feel comfortable and safe, and so it breaks my heart to see those stories. But then we don’t hear the good stories – about the good teams and the good guys in tech, that doesn’t make the headlines because it’s not news”
Ally one of the toughest things about being in a male dominated environment for her personally has been more subtle that outright sexual harassment. It’s the colleague who don’t feel comfortable going for coffee. The manager who doesn’t look you in the eye. “It’s not their fault, it doesn’t come from a malicious place. And that’s not a tech problem, it’s a problem across the board.”
Coding is a skill that crosses almost every industry, and one that will be in even more demand in the future. There is absolutely no reason why women and girls are any less capable and hold any less talent when it comes to coding and working in tech.
But we are significantly underrepresented in tech. Initiatives like Code Like a Girl will help.