Portland's lil' bro' tech culture
Portland Women in Technology (PDXWIT)'s new survey of their members, from entry level to C-suiters, captured some interesting statistics about sexism in the Portland tech world.
"What we discovered was shocking, but not surprising," Megan Bigelow, founder and president of PDX Women in Tech (PDXWIT), told the Business Tribune recently. "Many of us felt things were getting better, but we didn't understand why. Two pieces of data stood out: 17 percent of surveyed PDXWIT members have experienced workplace harassment in the last 12 months, and of them, 63 percent did not report it. Which I personally found extremely heartbreaking," she said.
(It's worse in Silicon Valley where a similar survey said 44 percent of women in tech have reported some form of unwelcome sexual advance or sexual harassment.)
"When we're talking about things going on in the media, there's still a sense that's it's unsafe to speak up at work."
This was PDXWIT's second member survey. While last year's was more about demographic data. Bigelow says in 2018 they wanted to dig deeper into attitudes and culture.
She contrasts this with the TechTown survey which was taken around the same time, which was more administered by human resources departments. The PDXWIT State of the Community was spread via the PDXWIT newsletter and in Slack chatrooms, as well as by WIT members like Bigelow making "asks" of high-ups in companies she knew.
Megan Bigelow, founder and president of PDX Women in Tech (PDXWIT), which began as a networking group (meetings are always in office, not in bars) and is expanding into advocacy and "thought leadership." Its main goal is to "empower women and underrepresented groups to join tech, and providing the support they need to stay in the industry," something they believe is undermined by everything from boorish behavior and unconscious design to entrenched HR policies.
According to Prosper Portland, around 30 percent of the workforce of tech companies in Portland is female.
Asked about their company culture, 63 percent said it was "results-oriented" while 16 percent said it had a "bro culture." Bro culture tends to mean one dominated by young males, of the sort that caused problems for Uber in 2016 and NIKE in 2018 when women revolted against an accumulation of put-downs, patronizing comments and sexual harassment.
PDXWIT has 5,200 members, Membership is free. Sponsorships, paid for by companies, costs from $500 to $15,000 a year. 10 percent of members are men. The survey goal was to get 500 respondents. They got over 800. 17 percent of the respondents were men.
One upside of the survey is it got women asking about their rights and benefits.
"Everyone was supportive of getting the word out. People were pounding down the doors of their HR depts, asking do you have trans health care, paternity and maternity leave? They didn't know, they hadn't asked. We felt we empowering the masses to ask questions."
Pay versus harassment
Asked which is worse, or should be rectified first, harassment or pay inequity, Bigelow said the data showed that 70 percent of the tech companies did not have salary transparency (where people know what their colleagues earn). "Pay inequity thrives in areas where there is no salary transparency. 50 percent of respondents believed they were paid differently because of their gender."
She added, "People don't know, but they have a feeling. And I would say the feeling of being paid inequitably is almost as bad as being paid inequitably. Your ability to be productive is going to be affected, whether it was true or not."
Part of the issue is wide salary bands, where to supposedly equal workers can be paid very differently, often in favor of the male.
Some firms have taken this on. She mentioned Buffer, a 100 percent remote tech firm whose salaries are posted online, publicly. Or New Relic, where all Engineer Level 1s are paid a certain salary, and Level 2s another. She says if they try to hire a Level 2 at a higher rate they have to bring their colleagues' salaries up to match. Heptio, she says, keeps its salary bands narrow.
Money and sexism are linked.
"More people are expressing concern about being inequitably paid than facing harassment, but the harassment piece can escalate extremely quickly. So, it's more important to take that, because if you cannot have a safe environment for people than the amount they're making doesn't not matter."
She added, "It's a basic need, to go to work and be safe. Getting paid properly is also a need, but which one is more foundational to your rights as a human?"
In the freeform parts of the survey where people could write what they wanted, there were more comments about equity and inclusion than money. "Comments on what they were wearing and being propositioned by executives," Bigelow sums it up.
In big firms, salaries are set by salary specialists in HR. The fact that HR is dominated with women doesn't make much difference, to Bigelow.
"It's dated HR practices. The executives are probably not thinking about it, which is probably part of the issue. They're going 'Sure, looks good.' They've got other things to worry about."
Bigelow pointed out that harassment is still a subject companies don't want to address publicly, because it would be an admission of a problem.
"Nike didn't say anything about any of this until they got exposed. It almost requires some exposure before people start talking about it."
She adds, "It's easier to say 'We are about diversity and inclusion, we're going to make sure we're instilling it in our hiring practices, than we're going to have zero tolerance for harassment."
The survey said that 63 percent of those being harassed in the last 12 months at work did not report it. Thirty-three percent did, and of them, 52 percent said it was not handled well, and 42 percent experienced retaliation.
The Nike effect is still, however, that people are afraid to report harassment for fear of being ignored of retribution.
In tech companies they say, "We're just geeks, we're not an athletic company, all macho.' But the type of harassment that happens to the majority of people was gender. Meaning, I'm harassed because I'm a woman, or because I'm not a man. That could be inappropriate comments about gender, physical appearance, sexual advances, it could be what they're wearing, their weight, or some other characteristic." Skin color, age, pregnancy, political beliefs were also options to check but the commonest reason for discrimination was gender: being a woman, not being a man.
Bigelow's day job is Director of Customer Reliability Engineering at Heptio, a Seattle based firm.
Does working remotely mean staff are safe from harassment? Bigelow, who is largely remote, says yes but.
"Companies have to be intentional about how they balance their needs and address diversity and inclusion."
Portland: not so innocent
The biggest thing? Home workers can be excluded, to firms with a central office should invest in quality videoconferencing tools, make sure chairs are turned toward the camera and the remote workers get their say. And while they are spared some of the office politics, what's said in Slack chat groups can be just as offensive to some people.
From her experience, life for women in tech in Portland isn't any better or worse than Seattle or the Valley, although having more money around tends to bring up high profile scandals and controversy. She says more goes on than is made public.
"We like to think of ourselves in Portland living in an oasis where everything is perfect, and people are afraid to poke on that. There's a fear you will only be hurting yourself, there's some collective benefit to all of us if we maintain this façade of progressive perfection."
"We have ways people can act, not just looking at this data and getting sad about it. What can you do?"
Bigelow draws attention to the six-page PDF call to action, which states: "We encourage you to use this data to propel change in your companies, and we've provided you with an action checklist at the end of the data visualization to support you in talking to your CEOs, bosses, colleagues and taking action yourself."
The solution she says is education. Trainings every two years are not enough, and they often "don't resonate. They're tone deaf. Education needs to be available and repeated frequently, and people need to be listening. And for the people who don't listen and are creating an unsafe environment, and there needs to be a safe way to report it. There's no correction mechanism because people don't report it."
Also, trainings deal with the legal definition of harassment. "If you do everything leading up to that, you could still have a toxic environment. Tech companies need a code of conduct: 'This is the law and this is what we expect of you.' It needs to be part of our general consciousness. There's an equal amount of isolation and shame and damage that can happen in a 100,000-person company or a five-person company."
Comments from the survey
"It feels like I need to prove myself 100 percent just to get my foot in the door whereas men seem to be rated on their potential to learn the missing skills they don't have."
"The traditional tech 'perks' (like ping pong, foosball, IPA beer tasting) are activities that are traditionally geared towards men. I'm not interested in these activities, and I would like to see a broader list of choices. What about arts & crafts, book clubs, etc.?"
"I would like people to stop making stripper jokes and using the term 'bitch' to refer to something that's difficult."
Call to action
Read the Harassment: A Call to Action by PDXWIT at: link
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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