Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference had a surprise guest this week. Former First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage Tuesday to send a strong message to Silicon Valley: if you want her money, get more women involved in the development of tech.
"Who are you marketing to? Who do you think is going to use these apps? If women aren't at the table, you're going to miss my dollar. Because you don't really know me," Obama said, according to clips of the talk posted on social media.
Only thirty-two percent of Apple's employees worldwide are women. Despite recent high-profile efforts by tech firms to increase the percentage of women in their workforces, the overall female representation at the professional level and above in technology companies is expected to decline to 31 percent from 34 percent. At current rates, it will take us 170 years to achieve gender parity in tech—52 years longer than estimated in 2015.
Research suggest that the problem necessitates a multi-pronged approach, where hiring efforts from tech companies are complemented by initiatives to increase female participation in tech at the high school and college levels, a view Obama seems to share.
"Girls walk away from tech and science. ... There's something about how this subject is being taught," she said. "You guys are smarter than that. You're better than that, let's figure it out."
An examination of college enrollment trends for women over the last several decades shows significant increases of female participation in many fields of study such as medicine, law and physical science. Computer sciences, too, showed a steadily rising number of women choosing it as their major until 1984, when the trend reversed and the numbers began to plummet. In 1984, women comprised 37 percent of computer-sciences majors in the U.S. Today, that number rests at just 18 percent.
Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, authors of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, say it can all be traced back to when personal computers began to enter American homes at a rapid rate in the early 1980s. Early on, most computer manufacturers—including Apple—geared their PC marketing efforts toward boys. By 1984, most colleges were requiring experience with computers for applicants who wished to major in computer science. Since the majority of applicants who filled that pre-requisite were male, the resulting number of computer science majors quickly became mostly male.
Regardless of where the vicious cycle that created the gender imbalance in tech originated, it’s proving extremely difficult to stop. The explosion of technological advances in the years since 1984 have created a field of computer sciences that barely resembles the one females first started to shy away from nearly forty years ago. What’s more, it’s becoming increasingly easy to argue that the core of American society is the tech on which we all run. So if women are excluded as children and teens, what kind of environment are we creating for grown women who try to build a career in tech?
In the last several years, the industry has been rocked by a series of revelations of sexually discriminatory practices coming from within the vaunted halls of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories. When Ellen Pao charged the Silicon Valley VC firm for which she worked with sexual harassment in 2012, it reverberated throughout the tech world, encouraging other women to speak out about similar experiences.
Since the Pao case, sexual harassment accusations have been leveled by employees at GitHub, Squarespace, Uber, Tesla, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Google—just to name a few. We should expect the accusations to keep on coming. The infamous 2016 Elephant in the Valley study rocked the industry with statistics that, while shocking to some, came at no surprise to many women in tech.
According to the study, 90 percent of women in the industry have witnessed sexist behavior at company offsites and/or industry conferences. Sixty percent reported being the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior. And a full one-third said they felt afraid for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances.
With numbers like these, it’s no wonder we have difficulty getting women to enter the tech workforce, and difficulty retaining them once they’re here. Only 26 percent of professional computing jobs in the 2016 U.S. workforce were held by women, and the numbers get more dismal the further up the food chain you look. Across Silicon Valley, the average tech company's board of directors is just 11 percent female.
Some of the difficulty in reversing these trends comes from their ambiguous nature. Where instances of sexual harassment can often be pinpointed to a specific incident or series of incidents, much more often the discriminatory behavior is more difficult to pinpoint. It’s an attitude, not necessarily one specific action, that marginalizes women in technology.
Nancy Sabino, along with her husband Angel, runs an IT services firm outside of Houston, Texas. A graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10k Small Businesses program, Sabino says much of the time she is seen as “a figurehead,” just a leader in name only.
“I’m the decision-maker in the business. I run the business, and my husband helps to run the business, as well,” she says. “It’s crazy how often it turns into ‘you’re just the wife of the owner.’”
Obama says “we have to want to” get more women in tech. The numbers clearly show that wanting it isn’t enough. Concerted and coordinated efforts have to be made at every stage of involvement if we have a hope of reversing this trend.
If every company is a tech company, as everyone has been saying this year, and we don’t make room for women in tech, then we’re essentially pushing women to the margins in every aspect of modern American business.
Obama called on the men in attendance at WWDC to push for change. "That's where I look to the fellas in the room and say, 'Are you ready? Are you really ready to have women at the table? Then make room.'"