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Report finds culture of gender discrimination at Seattle-area tech companies

The Amazon Spheres in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In the Pacific Northwest tech hub, much effort is put into encouraging women to go into STEM and attain jobs at tech companies. But what happens after they get there?

A new report titled “The Gender Divide in the Tech Sector,” produced for the Washington Labor Education and Research Center and SEIU Local 925, states that all isn’t equal in the tech world when it comes to gender.

Report author Kimberly Earles interviewed nearly 50 female and nonbinary employees at local tech companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. Nearly unanimous, she said, were accounts of a toxic office atmosphere full of daily microaggressions.

“They were constantly interrupted, their ideas were not heard, their achievements were not recognized, they were constantly having to prove their skill and expertise,” she said, calling the need to constantly prove one’s skills akin to “a second job.”

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She added that they also spoke of sexual harassment, a lack of support after childbirth, and being passed over for promotions and raises in favor of men who had a similar level of experience.

“They are not treated fairly — they are not promoted as the same level as the men … they are often leveled down even when they are first hired, they are often steered into lower-prestige and lower-paying engineering tracks,” she said. “And so there are so many things working against them — and then that, in addition to the daily micro-aggressions and having to deal with no one listening to your ideas, and taking two weeks to convince your team that this is a great idea and we should all be on board, whereas you see a male colleague announcing their idea and everyone is on board right away.”

Earles said many women told her that they dreaded going to work every day because of how uncomfortable and undervalued they felt.

“That might explain why so few women are in tech and so few women stay in tech — a lot of women are gone by mid-level,” she said.

In the report, Earles identifies dozens of solutions, but she said the biggest need is a change in culture away from the “boys’ club” — and she said this must start “from the top down.”

“CEOs are making statements, and all of the big tech companies have diversity and inclusion officers, and they offer unconscious bias training, but it seems as though they think that’s enough,” Earles said. “But if you look at the statistics, most companies have actually lost women in the last decade.”

She suggested having a bigger focus on hiring and promoting female and nonbinary employees, having diversity referral programs instead of employee referral bonuses — which she said usually involve white men recommending other white men — and implementing unconscious bias training that encourages men to become diversity champions instead of telling them what they’re doing wrong.

She also noted that equally important as getting non-males into tech is creating an environment that they’ll actually want to stay in.

“Too much of the focus in tech is on the pipeline problem about encouraging girls and then women to be interested in tech and STEM and to do engineering degrees, and we hear a lot about that, but we hear far less about what happens about them when they’re actually in tech,” she said.

Amazon told KIRO Radio that more than 40% of its workforce is made up of women, including half its board of directors, making it “one of the most diverse Boards [sic] in tech.” In addition, the company said it offers 20 weeks of paid leave for new moms and six weeks for non-birth parents.

Microsoft stated: “We remain committed to attracting, recruiting, and retaining diverse talent. We have more work to do as we continue to build on our progress in providing a diverse and inclusive environment. You can follow our efforts and updates in our Annual D&I Report.”

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