There’s been a lot of talk lately about the abysmal numbers of women in tech. The chatter started late last year when Pinterest engineer Tracey Chou started pushing companies to release data about the number of women in technical positions.
The data trickled out this year and it seemed each statistic was worse than the next: Google, 17 percent; Twitter, 10 percent; Yahoo, 15 percent; Linked In, 17 percent. Popular tweets like this and this shared photos of bathroom lines at tech conferences (the long men’s line and the short women’s line). Even the TV show Silicon Valley got into the act with a joke about the huge female turnout at a startup event — a whopping 15 percent.
The problem does not seem to be attracting high school students into STEM careers. Rather, it’s keeping them there. Just last week Fortune published results of its effort to collect the stories of women who left the tech industry. More than a quarter of the women surveyed said they left because of the discriminatory work environment. Others felt pushed out by lack of parental leave policies. Very few would go back.
This week, three tech companies announced at the Grace Hopper Conference that they will be reaching out to early-to-mid-career women in the Bay Area in technical roles — including engineering, product management, operations, design, and web development — to match them with senior engineering women who will act as one-to-one mentors.
The companies — Facebook (15 percent women in tech), Box (no stats available), and Pinterest (17 percent women in tech) — call their program Women Entering and Staying in Technology (WEST). A pilot will launch in 2015, and applications will be available soon at www.westmentors.org.
The mentors and mentees will meet one-and-one and in groups throughout 2015. They hope that this “Girls’ Club” will help women navigate the “Boys’ Club” that the tech world has become. (The numbers of women in tech were never great, but in recent years, at least in Silicon Valley, they seem to have gotten worse.) Their motivation, according to the WEST website, isn’t just diversity for diversity’s sake, it’s because “women make tech better.”
It’s likely that if this program works at all, other tech companies who have been in the hot seat about diversity will quickly be joining in. I wish them luck — and I’m hoping they’ll invite me to one of their parties. I think they’ll have lots to talk about in the bathroom line.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.