Letter to the Editor

Fighting sexism in tech

February 19, 2014 

In January, Cal Poly invited four women who have bucked the odds by rising to positions of leadership in the tech industry to tell students just how they did it.

Here was a rare example for Poly: The university actually wanted female engineering and computer science students to not learn by doing — to not experience the rejection, not hear the vitriol, the ridicule and harassment, and not have to experience wages that average 49 cents on the dollar in Silicon Valley. The event was called “Preparing for the Workforce.”

I attended with a mix of sadness and hope, wondering when we would finally learn that probably the quickest, simplest and cheapest way for America to dominate in this (or any) field was to stop making it so dang hard for women to make their contributions. I thought Title IX helped in many ways, and not just in sports. But even when young women gain confidence in school, if they are systematically kept from rising to their potential in the workplace, then the economy and women suffer.

I remembered considering these issues when I was among those starting the county’s first Women’s Network in 1978. And Kristen Yetter — panelist, Poly grad, and president and general manager at SLO-based Promega Biosciences — mentioned a technique we knew back then for connecting with her mostly male coworkers: She reads the sports section of the paper every day. The book “Games Mother Never Taught You” recommended that women learn sports-speak since, it posited, we girls all played jacks and Barbies by ourselves and we’d be left in the dust — excuse me — on the sidelines — by the guys in the boardroom who knew how to play on a team.

Yetter also suggested the women in the room be ready with a comeback when they are offered a salary that averages 70 percent of what their male counterparts are offered, which had happened to her daughter, who graduated recently. She told of her daughter’s successful response, which was to say that “the average starting salary for this position is 30 percent higher than what you have offered me. Since I am a cum laude graduate from UC Davis with experience in the field, you won’t be getting average performance from me, so I would like you to offer me at least the average salary.” They did.

The other panelists, including Caroline Koss, senior director of quality assurance at Oracle; Gina Roldan, principal program manager in the Cloud and Enterprise Division at Microsoft, also a Poly grad; and Avital Arora, senior director of engineering at NetApp, all warned the attendees to get out of their own way. Each had stories about underestimating themselves and watching their male counterparts snapping up opportunities they let go by. And speak up for yourself. “Loud and proud!” I had already told those within earshot.

Some of the most poignant comments came from the 100 students in attendance, including a table from San Luis Obispo High School. The students — about half of whom were young men — were asked throughout the evening to discuss a variety of questions, and I was one of the table moderators. This was a brilliant stroke by event organizers. One question was whether anyone has encountered sexism. A SLO High student talked about an odd encounter she had experienced while wearing her Pokémon T-shirt. A guy said she didn’t look like someone who would like Pokémon. She didn’t know how to respond to this. Maybe it wasn’t a sexist thing, she said. She told the story very quietly and slowly: She was still kind of weirded out by it.

Before the event began, I asked one of the guys at my table why he thought there weren’t more women in the field, and he hypothesized about the nerd factor. He said there were just more male nerds than female nerds. After the Pokémon story, we revisited the nerd question, and his tablemates voted him down. By now we were almost through the evening, and the men at the table were convinced that the tech culture was sexist. It was more than male dominance. The event had prompted them to suggest that Poly create coursework to raise awareness to prepare the women, and that they, as of that moment, were ready to be part of the solution.

So I am cheering my table of young men, knowing they will help change the culture... by doing.

Longtime Central Coast resident and Cal Poly alum Betsey Nash is a human resources professional who lives in Shell Beach.

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