Gender Equal

Achieving Diversity in Tech Is Mission Critical

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Emily Taylor Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Speaking at a session I moderated last month at CyberUK, the British government’s flagship annual cybersecurity event, Anne Neuberger spoke about her extraordinary path, which led her from attending gender-segregated night classes to becoming U.S. President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology.

“I grew up in a community where women are discouraged from going to college, as part of a focus and a belief that women’s roles are in the home,” said Neuberger, who was raised speaking Yiddish in a traditional Hasidic community in New York. “So to be true to the community and the values I was raised with and also to take first steps toward my own dreams, I attended a women-only night school [and] worked during the day.”

Neuberger rarely speaks about her background publicly. But she told me that “each of us that come from different backgrounds and travel our different journeys … can show, by power of example, what is possible,” while pointing to the need “to be understanding of the fact that sometimes those journeys are challenging and to encourage people to take them step by step.”

Neuberger’s story has another unusual twist. She is one of those rare women who started out her career in tech as a computer programmer. Other leading women in tech tend to have broken through on the fuzzier side of the fuzzy-techie industry divide, whether as managers, social scientists or lawyers.

It wasn’t always this way. The first person to develop the concept of a computer program was a woman, Ada Lovelace. And where would we be without Hedy Lamarr? The Hollywood star, dubbed the “most beautiful woman in the world” in the 1930s and 1940s, made scientific breakthroughs that led to GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

In the mid-20th century, as information technology emerged as a discipline, women were key participants in the earliest attempts at computing, like the American effort that developed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer capable of programmable mathematical calculations during World War II. Kathy Kleiman began researching women’s role in that project when she was told that several women she noticed in a photo of the ENIAC team were secretaries. Kleiman tracked them down, interviewed them and learned that they were in fact mathematicians and code-breakers; she told their story in a documentary. Like their British counterparts—for example, mathematician Joan Clarke, who worked alongside Alan Turing to break the Enigma code—many had never spoken about their secret wartime work, and their contributions were omitted in the histories of early computing. Those omissions helped to create and perpetuate “misconceptions of women as uninterested or incapable in the field.”

Women’s engagement in computing has dropped off sharply since the 1980s, when at its highest point more than 35 percent of computer science majors were women. This is also reflected in the business side of the industry, where only 2.8 percent of venture capital funding went to female-led startups in 2019—a dismal proportion that was nevertheless an all-time high. The disparity in funding may be a consequence of gender imbalance in the VC environment, where only 12 percent of decision-makers are women, rather than a characteristic of the tech industry. But it creates an obstacle to women’s participation in shaping the tech agenda regardless.

The 2020 Stack Overflow developer survey, which collates responses from 65,000 coders around the world, provides further depressing insights on the professional developer industry’s lack of diversity. Across the entire survey, 91.5 percent of respondents identified as male, 8 percent as female and 1.2 percent as nonbinary or trans. And the lack of diversity does not just apply to gender. On every other metric—race, sexual orientation, physical and mental disabilities, and age—the results are woeful.

Women’s engagement in computing has dropped off sharply since the 1980s, when at its highest point more than 35 percent of computer science majors were women.

Digging down into the gender imbalance by specialization reveals further inequalities. Women are more likely to be in lower-paying jobs, such as front-end developers, educators and academic researchers, and very unlikely to be in the highest-paying roles, such as engineering managers or developers of embedded applications or devices. Women also leave the developer workforce at higher rates than men, which points to problems in retaining women. Women and nonbinary people also report significantly lower levels of happiness in their jobs than their male counterparts.

We should care about low levels of diversity in the professional developer workforce because technology is creeping insidiously into every aspect of our lives and is even increasingly making decisions for us. Stories of algorithmic bias abound, as described in Safiya Noble’s “Algorithms of Oppression” and Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction.” Other examples include Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence hiring tool that screened out women; the Apple and Goldman Sachs credit card algorithm that gave men up to 20 times more credit than women; and the injustices against people of color that occur when facial recognition technology trained on white faces is used to “match” grainy CCTV footage to real people.

As technology is increasingly used in highly sensitive national security operations, the American and British intelligence communities recognize that they must up their game on both gender and ethnic diversity. Lindy Cameron, head of the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre, or NCSC, told me at the same CyberUK panel that inclusion is necessary “so that we represent the society we come from.” The NCSC invests heavily in initiatives to encourage women and girls to consider a career in technology, such as CyberFirst Girls, and its sister organization GCHQ has won awards for its diversity and inclusion efforts.

In my personal perspective, the technology sector has been a more flexible and inclusive environment for me as a woman and mother than my original career as a city lawyer. It can offer a lot of opportunity and flexibility for people of all backgrounds, and there are quite a few women leaders in the internet governance environment. But there is an urgent need to improve diversity in technical developer workforces, as well as in national and cybersecurity sectors.

Improving diversity and inclusion in these problematic areas, however, will not just happen by itself. It will require taking proactive measures.

“We have to go where communities are, to where individuals of different backgrounds are,” Neuberger told me at CyberUK, “to help them to begin their journeys in a way that’s consistent with the values and cultures that they live with.”

Neuberger cited the Chinese aphorism: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. “Sometimes,” she said, “after we have walked many steps, we can look back and say, ‘That was a worthwhile journey, and it was a doable journey.’”

But, she added, at its outset, such a long journey can be intimidating. “So holding somebody’s hand along the way and showing them it’s possible,” Neuberger concluded, “and helping them when they confront barriers that may seem too large at a moment in time, can be some of the most meaningful moments of our careers—particularly as women.”

Emily Taylor is the CEO of Oxford Information Labs and an associate fellow with the International Security Program at Chatham House. She is also the editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy, a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an affiliate professor at the Dirpolis Institute at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. She has written for The Guardian, Wired, Ars Technica, the New Statesman and Slate. Follow her on Twitter at @etaylaw. Her column appears each Tuesday.

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