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Women in tech industry open up about male behavior

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Microsoft Xbox news conference
Attendees listen to speakers during the Microsoft Xbox news conference at the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the Galen Center on June 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If computer programmers behave badly toward women, it may be because they don't know many of them.

"Everybody has a hard time talking to people that aren't like them," said Ashe Dryden, an independent software developer who works with companies on diversity issues. "When we're looking at companies that are largely white, straight men, and asking them to introduce more diversity into their workforce, it can seem a little intimidating and many of them don't know where to start."

Dryden and two other women in the information technology industry spoke with host Kerri Miller about a problem they had all experienced: bad behavior from a workforce that is largely male, working in a business where most of the hiring depends on peers referring peers.

The result, Dryden said, is that "many companies are 80 or 90 or more percent men."

"They don't necessarily understand that some of the language they're using or some of the things they are doing might be turning people off and account for a lot of the attrition we see in the industry," she said. "Right now we have a problem, where 56 percent of the women in tech leave within 10 years. That's twice the rate of men.

"It's a really damning statistic. A lot of men don't necessarily understand the causes of that and have a hard time empathizing because they don't have many people to relate to that aren't like them." Her advice to managers of such companies, she said, is to "get to know people that aren't like you. Empathy is the key to changing this issue."

Women programmers can feel especially isolated at professional conferences, the women said.  "When you're the only person who looks like you, it can feel kind of awkward," said Adria Richards, who lost her job at a tech company after making public her complaints about the behavior of rude men at a tech conference. "No one has to actually say anything to the point of, 'You don't belong here,' but you certainly feel it." 

She advises that women planning to attend such events should take advantage of the mentoring programs that some of them offer, or "use the buddy system. If you can't line up a mentor beforehand, invite someone to go with you, because it's much less intimidating."

It would also be helpful, said another guest, if tech companies did not support a culture that resembles college life. Valerie Aurora, a programmer and co-founder of The Ada Initiative, which works to promote the role of women in the tech industry, asked, "At what point in time are computer programmers supposed to learn how to be an adult?"

"And between living in college with dorm mates, all that kind of stuff, and going to work at a startup where they deliberately foster this culture of, 'Hey, it's like we're still in college, we're still having fun, let's go make some more pizza' — there's a lot of assumptions that are being laid bare these last few years of, 'Oh wait, we actually have to make an effort to tell people not to behave in this way.'" 

Richards said she has heard the toll of poor programmer behavior described as "death by a thousand paper cuts. ... Even though each incident may seem small, together it may be quite powerful, to the point where it moves you to action."

But when it does move people to action, the result can be a welcome change.

"There's a lot of power in seeing the other women around you speak up about these issues and know that you're not alone, and that people are there to help you and support you," said Dryden. "And it's also been really great to see so many men stand up and say, 'Hey, this isn't necessarily happening to me, but this isn't something I want in my community. This isn't something that's OK.'"

She added that the behavior of a company's employees, whether at conferences or elsewhere beyond office walls, can affect its ability to attract top talent.

"When we're looking at the way people in our companies are going out and acting in the community, they're representing our companies," Dryden said. "If they're showing a negative image of our company, whether they're saying misogynistic things or they're being dismissive of people, that sends a really clear signal to people that that's not the kind of person I want to work with. You'll see that both from women and men. Many men won't stand for that kind of thing and don't want to be around that kind of behavior either."

LEARN MORE ABOUT WOMEN AND TECH WORK:

• Why are there so few women in academia working on information technology?
So why, then, is [tech] such a guy thing? "There are a thousand reasons," says Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau, a UW-Madison computer science professor ... "It happens very, very, young," she says of the disconnect between women and computer technology. "They make a decision that this is something they're not interested in. Because there are so few women, it just perpetuates itself ... If we could get more women in the field, then it would be welcoming and enjoyable for women. But when the numbers are so small, it's really difficult." (Isthmus)