Sowmya Shriraghavan on discrimination in tech

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Nicole Nguyen has a piece at Recode that touches on this subject.

In this graph, female enrollment in medical school, law school, and physical sciences goes up and up, while the number of women in computer science flatlines at 1984 and continues to decrease into the 2000s. There was a serious cultural change in the ’80s that pushed women out and set the precedent for the future of engineering.

What’s bizarre about this shift is that many of computer science’s foremost pioneers were women! Think Ada Lovelace, considered the world’s first computer programmer, and Grace Hopper, the first compiler of a computer programming language. The first few chapters of a new book, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs’s biographer), are dedicated to the women that tech forgot. And yet, in 2014, less than one percent of young women are majoring in computer science.

In the NPR blog, commenter Steven O. shared a good anecdote: “At the Tier I research university where I teach, we are trying everything we can think of to increase the proportion of women in engineering … but the proportions keep going down, noticeably so since the early 2000s when it peaked for us. There is something weird happening before they get to college that reduces their probability of even applying.”

And perhaps the saddest aspect of these stories is that things are clearly getting worse. Whereas 20 years ago most USA corporations were increasing ready to take a forward looking stance in creating a fair working environment, nowadays the focus is entirely on minimizing legal liability.

Sowmya Shriraghavan offers her own experience of discrimination in tech. She felt that she was being targeted. She was surprised to find herself hearing anti-immigrant rhetoric, and derogatory remarks about her culture. She had been at Apple on an H1-B visa, and her co-workers made angry remarks about the number of workers from India who were working at Apple. She also heard negative comments about forced marriages, and other aspects of Indian culture. She has written that she never before faced such “visceral hatred”.

As she wrote:

At a lunch with several other coworkers, one of these men ordered me to summon the waiter and pay the bill, in the tone of a command to someone inferior and subservient. When I refused, he got more insistent and aggressive. Every other person at the table commented about this shocking and inappropriate behavior.

…I approached my management when the situation escalated, who directed me to HR. Instead of helping me, HR embarked on a defensive and confrontational script. I felt cornered, unsafe and unsure of what to do next.

…I was already feeling overwhelmed at facing such open hostility from multiple coworkers. Supervisor involvement only made things more uncomfortable.

I went to HR and management to get help with stopping the open hostility targeted at me.

However, my encounters with them were like a precursor to a courtroom battle with me on one side and everybody else on the other. So, just like in a courtroom, there was no empathy, I was intimidated and everything I said was in doubt or twisted to benefit the company’s agenda of legal non-liability.

When I was initially hesitant about filing a formal harassment complaint, HR sent me emails recording the minutes of our meetings. The emails made it seem as though I had willfully declined the company’s assistance, even though I had only requested that my manager talk to the offenders first, since HR and Business Conduct were so intimidating. This pattern of misrepresenting facts and proceedings to craft a company advantage continued for several weeks.

I have since learned that this system is rather standard across the industry — companies wanting to protect their legal liability rather than trusting their employee or trying to help them. This approach is completely counterproductive and only intimidates you further.

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