Tech women often feel like outsiders

Mandie Holmes worked inside the PayPal offices. The firm has made changes to boost diversity, officials said. JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF
Mandie Holmes worked inside the PayPal offices. The firm has made changes to boost diversity, officials said. JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

Walk into many high-tech workspaces in Boston and you’ll notice a few things missing from the typical office layout. There are no cubicles, no assigned seats and no desks — only rows of up-for-grabs tables designed to create an open, collaborative environment.

It is, without question, the kind of hip work environment so important to the tech culture. But there are shades of man cave everywhere — the beer keg in the employee lounge, the Ping-Pong table or Xbox in the play area. Networking events, so critical to getting ahead, usually happen after hours during family time.

Viewed individually, these details may not seem like a big deal. But collectively, female tech workers say they contribute to a vibe that makes them feel unwelcome in their own field.

Women executives say they are sometimes overlooked when their corporate teams meet with outsiders, such as venture capitalists, most of whom are male. When a job opens up, managers often talk about needing to find the right “guy,” suggesting the best candidate will probably be a man.

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“I don’t think anything’s ever been said to me explicitly,” said Carolyn VanEseltine, a freelance video game developer in Boston. “No one’s ever said, ‘You’re a girl, and therefore you shouldn’t be a programmer.’ But I have gotten the message, ‘You’re not smart enough to be a programmer,’ and I think that goes hand in hand with gender.”

The tech industry has been struggling with diversity issues for years, but the challenges facing women, in particular, were magnified recently by several explosive incidents of outright misogyny. In August, a female game designer in the Boston area fled her home after receiving rape and death threats online. In October, the same thing happened to a second local woman in the video game industry.

23TechDiversityMeanwhile, a former employee of Zillow in December sued the online real estate giant for sexual harassment, comparing the company’s internal culture to that of an “adult frat house.”

Many female technology professionals say these extreme examples do not represent the way they are treated. But despite pressure on tech companies to diversify their workforces, the industry remains lopsidedly male. Nationally, just 26 percent of computer science workers are women, while 8 percent are black and 6 percent Hispanic — all markedly lower than in the workforce in general.

Some large tech firms have begun to release demographic breakdowns of their employees and pledged to make strides toward a workforce that more closely mirrors the general population.

Intel Corp. this month launched a $300 million diversity initiative aimed at educating and training women and minorities for high-tech careers.

Google last year built a website devoted to diversity that included employment data showing 17 percent of its tech workers and 21 percent of its corporate leaders are women. The site also highlighted myriad internship, scholarship, and research programs dedicated to women and minorities.

One explanation for the continued imbalance is that women with the skills to succeed in technology jobs may choose other careers because they see few role models, said Zorica Pantic, president of Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

“I think there is some influence from the stereotype that girls are not good at engineering and math and science, and they often lose confidence even in middle school,” she said. “Then they don’t pursue the appropriate courses to move forward into high-tech careers.”

Men and women alike often cite the low numbers of girls studying math and science as the number one cause.

Even accounting for limited supply, some disparities are glaring. A mere 3 percent of venture-backed startups nationwide had female chief executives, according to a recent Babson College study.

Katie Rae, managing director of the Boston venture capital firm Project 11, said in her experience female entrepreneurs wait longer to seek funding than their male counterparts, believing they have more to prove. Whether the bar is actually higher or not, perceptions can prevent women from jumping into an environment that is commonly described as a “shark tank.”

Rae said venture capitalists can reduce the intimidation factor by reaching out to women-led companies, instead of waiting to be approached.

“If you make it more open, I think you’ll have a better pipeline of entrepreneurs to invest in,” Rae said. “Sometimes that means inviting women specifically into the tent. You have to be active.”

David Chang, who heads the Boston office of PayPal, said small but intentional changes can make a company or investment portfolio more diverse. Chang used to screen the applicants for PayPal’s Start Tank, a development program for about two dozen startups in the company’s downtown office. And he picked mostly men.

About a year ago he formed a selection committee made up of men and women. The first class the committee picked had 11 companies with female founders.

“It’s not because women were choosing women,” Chang said. “But the questions we asked in the interview process exposed much more of the dynamic we hope to see in startups. It eliminated a lot of the unintentional biases.”

The PayPal office still has a Ping-Pong table, but it also has private rooms where breastfeeding mothers can pump. The company even paid attention to such details as providing women employees with a secure place to lock up their personal belongings.

Shereen Shermak, a venture capitalist whose office is at PayPal’s Start Tank, said that too often she finds male-dominated tech offices across Boston don’t have anywhere for women to lock up their purses.

“So you’re constantly carrying it around all day, which is annoying,” said Shermak, chief executive of Launch Angels, which manages small startup funds. “It’s just one of those little things.”

Some men in the business argue they should hold each other accountable for treating women as professional equals.

Sal Lupoli, cofounder of the Boston startup Phoodeez, recalled business meetings at which men directed their questions to him, while his partner, chief executive Christine Marcus, “is like invisible.”

Lupoli has a strategy when that happens: “I’ll move my chair slowly behind Christine so they stop looking at me,” he said.

Cal Borchers is a business reporter for the Boston Globe. Reach him at callum.borchers@globe.com.
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