Fixing Tech’s Gender Problem Starts With Company Culture

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A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

On a micro level, you can do your part to fix tech's gender problem by recruiting people with diverse backgrounds and place them in a company culture that rewards those who challenge the status quo. Like all important social movements, the change begins with you.

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Software Secretaries

Did you know the first computer programmer was a woman? The algorithms created by the 19th-century English mathematician, Ada Lovelace, used to power Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer, earned her the title of "World's First Programmer."

In 1952, 100 years after Lovelace’s death, Dr. Grace Hopper developed the first compiler. While rudimentary by today’s standards, her work paved the way for modern compilers that translate higher-level source code into executable binary code.

Software coding was initially considered "woman's work," as it involved typing the commands onto punchcards, which was akin to taking dictation via a typewriter. Most men in the 1940's and 50's did not know how to use a keyboard and thus could not write code. It wasn't until the early 1960's, when men realized the power and prestige associated with software development, that women were not so subtly pushed out of the profession.

Despite men's inroads into software development, many women continued to make significant contributions in the field of software design until the early 1970's. For instance, Margaret Hamilton’s work for NASA during the 1960's resulted in Apollo’s on-board guidance software and served as the foundation for ultra-reliable software design.

Although women have made significant contributions in the tech world during the past twenty years, a gender problem still persists in Silicon Valley, with men outnumbering women three to one at tech companies. Notwithstanding this discouraging statistic, there’s hope, as an increasing number of companies are proactively pursuing diversity of thought within their workforce. One of these bright lights is Santa Barbara-based HG Data - developers of the world's largest competitive-intelligence database. <Note: I'm an investor via Rincon Venture Partners>

Impressed with HG's focus on diversity, I reached out to the company's Co-Founder and CEO, Craig Harris to gather his thoughts first hand. “Diversity on all levels, be it ideas, education, background, gender, ethnicity or otherwise, is critical to our growth. Our customers are some of the world's largest, most diverse organizations on the planet, such as IBM, HP and Dell. We have to have a multi-cultural, gender agnostic point of view in order to properly service such complex organizations.”

The Power of a Diverse Workforce

It’s easy to diagnose the gender problem by pointing fingers. The reality is that it is embedded in US's culture. At an early age, many women are subtly discouraged from participating in science and technology, by unconscious cues sent by parents, teachers and their peers. Thus, it's hardly surprising that in 2010, women earned only 18% of all computer science degrees.

More heartening is the recognition within the tech community that the wider the range of perspectives, cultural experiences, education and backgrounds, the better decisions an organization typically makes. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, mixed-gender teams produce patents that are cited up to 42% more often. McKinsey & Company studies find that top-performing companies have the greatest number of women in top management positions and serving on Boards.

A Corporate Culture That Changes the Odds

Yet because of the scarcity of women and minorities in the tech world, it remains challenging for tech companies to achieve gender and ethnic parity. Although HG Data has yet to build a workforce that reflects society's demographics (women comprise about one third of its workforce), management believes that its culture will eventually attract an outsized number of female workers.

According to CEO Harris, “We overtly seek diversity of thought in our new hires. These folks tend to thrive in our culture of respect, acceptance and opportunity. Because of our supportive approach, we’re seeing the number of women, at all levels, grow(ing) with each round of hires.”

For Harris, the race to gender parity is ongoing. “In the meantime, our core mission is a culture built on greater opportunity for and fostering self-reliance in everyone…equally.”

Fortunately, more and more startup opportunities are opening up for minorities and women, as tech companies like HG Data consciously craft cultures that value and seek a diverse and assertive workforce.

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

Photo Credit: Grace Hopper Website

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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