Women, the web industry and the importance of diversity

03 Sep 2013 by Gordon
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Male and female gender icons joined with the infinite symbol

Primate is 100% male. Sure, we’re only a small team but when you put it in percentage terms, it does seem rather extreme. We’re also all white, between the ages of 20 and 35, heterosexual (I believe) and have no disclosed disabilities. Aside from being an Aryan’s dream boy band, I do wonder if we are conforming to a potentially damaging stereotype. It makes me worry.

When I first mentioned to the others that I was planning to write an article about women – and lack thereof – in the web industry, there was a noticeable intake of sharp breath. Followed by a prolonged, eerie silence with crickets chirping in the background. Undeterred, I still recognised their concerns as discussing the topic is a bit like trying to put out a forest fire single-handedly… without a hose… and rubbed down in cooking oil – no matter how careful you are, you’re going to get burned. Or come across as being either utterly condescending or a complete bigot. So let it be known that I approach this article with caution.

Regardless of the volatility surrounding such a sensitive topic, however, the disproportion (and sometimes treatment) of women in the tech industry has certainly been a popular talking point recently, particularly when it comes to video games and the web. Whilst the latter has the fortune of not having to deal with hyper-active teenage misogynists playing Call of Duty, it’s still had it’s fair share of controversies. Conferences have been cancelled after rows over diversity amongst the speakers, Ruby gems have been called up for having sexist names and, perhaps most shockingly of all, well-respected industry speakers have been subjected to some horrendous and inexcusable sexual harassment. With industry heavyweights like Happy Cog, Paul Boag, Andy Rutledge and Uncle Bob also chipping in on it all lately (sometimes quite controversially as well) and the number of women in computing now making up a lower percentage than ever, it does seem like an apt time to discuss the subject head on.

Gender diversity is important

I’ll need to be honest and say that the disproportionate number of men vs women in the web industry is something I never used to give a lot of thought. I suppose it stemmed from simple naivety more than anything else and my unquestioning acceptance of the common cliché that techy orientated jobs are always going to attract more males than females. Even now, looking back, I’m actually quite startled to realise that I never worked in a company – or even came across another web agency – in which the number of women in it came close to equalling the number of men. Indeed, it wasn’t until this year when Primate started to expand more noticeably that I be began giving the topic the serious thought it deserves. I guess walking into your own company office one day and realising “wow, there sure are a lot of dudes in here” will have that affect on you.

But to those reading this article and wondering why it even matters, let me tell you that it does. It really does. And not just from the obvious humanity/gender equality point of view either but from a business perspective as well.

See, it turns out there’s a thing called groupthink, a physiological phenomenon in which members of a group start to homogenise their thought processes in an effort to conform with each other, disregarding all challenging outside influences. Whilst it might sound harmless, groupthink has been blamed for some incredible catastrophes over the years, everything form the failed expansion of British Airways in the late 90′s to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in World War II, and it’s been suggested that gender diversity can help mitigate this damaging decision making. Of course, the whole concept of diversity isn’t just limited to being male or female but it’s certainly a significant part of it and very apt when applied to the gender issues faced by the web industry today.

I started the talk by saying: “If we want more women to come to these events, and to participate in our industry, we need to be careful about dropping F-bombs.” Several of the men in the room applauded. But one young woman stood up and yelled: “I totally fucking disagree!”

- Uncle Bob

The importance of diversity has also been discussed in the programming world for some time now, with many arguing that it’s important to try and increase the number of women programmers out there in order to help improve development creativity and decision making. Following pretty much the same principles as described above, by pooling together thinking from different backgrounds and outlooks, we’re able to create more robust, more scalable, more well-thought out and well-rounded code. By encouraging more contrasted thinking and cutting down on unquestioning homogeneity, it turns out you can actually build better software and improve decision making.

(I feel compelled to mention at this point that although we’re all male, only 33% of our company is British [and only two of us were even born in the UK] which gives me some vague reassurances that we’re not about to implode due to complete lack of diversity.)

Culturally, there is there also a strong benefit to having a diverse working environment, if anything to reduce the tendency for male dominated offices to turn into boy’s locker rooms (to be fair, our office is extremely mild-mannered; I’ve also come across some horrendous dogs who work in very gender equal companies, telling stories that would put the writers of Mad Men to shame). Likewise, it’s been documented that having a good mix of men and women in teams can help improve creativity, innovation, and productivity.

So – if anyone actually doubted it – having a gender diverse workforce is incredibly beneficial to a business, not just culturally but also creatively, technically and professionally. Encouraging more women in the web industry isn’t just about political correctness and the need to create a better, fairer world for everyone but also about businesses capitalising on the real benefits that having a diverse workforce can bring.

What do to?

I can honestly say that I wished we lived in a world were the topics of equality, opportunity and diversity weren’t even a question. Unfortunately though, as much I may have been naive to belief it in the past, it seems like we’re not quite there yet. Likewise as an employer, particularly in a small, development heavy company like our own, it challenges us with the conundrum of how to ensure that we not only genuinely hire the best people possible but also do so with an eye of trying to improve our gender ratio.

The question though, is how do we achieve that when we’ve regularly found ourselves in the situation of putting out a job ad for a developer and only receive a single female applicant verses dozen of males (as has also been my experience when taking part in any development recruitment in the past)? Sure, she may be the best candidate and thus get the job as a result but, statistically, it seems less likely that if we continue to have a large percentage of developers, we’ll be to hire an equal number of men and women. That’s a pretty depressing thought.

Now, you may buy into the whole concept of certain job roles attracting one gender more than the other and rally to that as a reasonable – and absolute – explanation (no comment from me). However, given that we don’t have enough gender diversity in the web industry to begin with, I don’t think we can really tell if that thinking is true or if women are just actually put off from entering more male dominated industries. Although I’m adamantly against positive discrimination (it’s also illegal in the UK), I do think we have a duty to try and encourage more women to enter the web sphere, in every role from founders and MDs to designers and developers, in order to set a precedent that will eventually create true equal opportunity.

Although potentially somewhat controversial, by increasing the awareness of women who work in the web industry and encouraging others to take part, we can theoretically help make it easier for others to join in their wake. Communities like Rails Girls, for instance, help dissipate the cliché that all programmers are men, a powerful and damaging stigma. The risk though, is coming off as condescending and patronising and there’s a really fine, dangerous line between trying to champion gender equality and just hiring an employee or promoting a speaker for the simple sake she’s a woman. But we’re now entering forest fire territory and as I forgot my fireproof underwear at home, I’d best wrap up.

The future for Primate

Maybe as Primate grows, the gender split in it will naturally balance out. I certainly hope so. It’s a strange issue to consider though and certainly one I never imagined I would have to contend with. I can say for sure, however, that if we, for whatever reasons, continue to expand as a male only business, we will be the worst of for it. Not just culturally or politically but creatively and professionally.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be simple issue to solve, not when we’re faced with the situation of the large majority of job applicants being male. It’s a hideous self-fulfilling problem and, as we would never hire based purely on gender over merit, all I can do is hope that we find a way of encouraging more women applicants the next time we recruit. Casting a large enough net or offering an attractive enough package to maximise our search range will always be tricky with limited resources but I think we need to give it a shot.

As a final point though, I think Uncle Bob hit in the nail on the head in his article on the whole topic back in March. It’s not about singling out women for being women or any silly nonsense like it, it’s just about recognising that the web industry would benefit dramatically by having a more equal gender split. And to encourage that, we need to ensure that men treat women as the professional peers that they are and stop male heavy offices from falling into the trap of becoming stereotyped locker rooms filled with lewd comments, chauvinistic attitudes and general unappealing male banter. Ultimately, it’s about creating welcoming environments that appeal to both sexes and encourages more women to take up a mantle in the web industry as a result.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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