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Facebook's COO Sandberg addresses Facebook Gather conference in Brussels
Reuters/Yves Herman
Do it, Cheryl.

Tech companies should diversify by making their product teams look like their user base

Amanda Munday
By Amanda Munday

Some might say that I am a different kind of tech unicorn; a mother of two toddlers working for a startup. Ellen Pao questioned whether anything has changed for women in tech. We’ve established that it can be dangerous. I’ve worked in tech for more than 10 years; from customer service support for an Internet Service Provider (ISP), to open data advocacy, to software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketing.

I have a system to measure whether things are authentically safe in a job because I’ve been in the trenches before. I’ve been the only woman in a technical role on an all-male team. This focus creates an aggressive power dynamic and triggers my fight-or-flight response. Once, I was asked whether I wanted to see explicit pornographic sites as part of onboarding to the team. Another founder repeatedly asked me to check with my engineer husband to troubleshoot a technical problem. I’m aware that it could have been so much worse.

We need to stop calling out these issues and start taking action. If the tech sector truly placed a priority on hiring actual app users, diverse staff representation would naturally improve. When Alana Frome, chief technology officer at HiMama described her company to me, I was pretty staunchly skeptical that an anti-bro startup exists. Sure she’s a woman leader, but I’m not naive enough to believe that women leadership equals great working culture. I often quiz ex-employees before taking on a new role; “What are the company’s culture secrets? How bad is it for women and minorities? Is anyone managing human resources in any capacity?”

In Frome’s Toronto startup, the signals of a frat house company culture are absent. No bullying or pay inequity issues are present. She has hired early childhood educators to make decisions about which data to include in the daycare-focused app. The result? By the time I’ve arrived at my open concept desk in the morning, I’ve said hello to a team made up of 70% people who identify as women, whose familial origins span from Bangladesh, China, Philippines, Malaysia, Italy, and elsewhere. When a management meeting is called, everyone who shows up at the table (other than our CEO) is a woman. And 50% of the board of directors are women.  

Some call Toronto, Canada the next big startup sanctuary. While we are not immune from sexism, harassment and generally oppressive behavior, we can acknowledge the characteristics of those not making the problem worse. We can look to brands like Sephora, who can celebrate having 62% woman-led technology workforce, citing a strong connection to the consumer as a reason for their success.  Back in my world, when I recently entered a feature release planning meeting, our CTO started by asking everyone how their night was—then listened for the answer. She laughed at a Game of Thrones joke without adding a sexist comment intended to build her ego. She didn’t dominate the conversation or veto ideas from people who’ve spent less time on the team. I’ve witnessed all this gross behavior before, so its absence was noticed. Frome is quietly leading the “anti-bro” startup.

There aren’t enough women, people of color or LGBTQ folks working in this sector. Guess what? Women, people of color and LGBTQ people use mobile apps and software technology. Maybe obvious to some, but mobile app users are not entirely comprised of white, heterosexual men.

The new and ill-prepared #weneedboth campaign is not the action I’m referring to. Asking women to ensure more male representation on speaking panels comes across as tone-deaf, at best. This campaign too closely resembles “All Lives Matter”, which many have decried as racist. The action I’m talking about requires a commitment to listening to what our users, your customers, are saying and experiencing.

Why don’t we place a priority on hiring the users of our products? Women game, chat and bank on their smartphones. What’s baffling about the persistent “broism” trend is that bros aren’t representative of the mobile app consumer market. The Federal Reserve reported in 2016 that “53% of smartphone owners with a bank account had used mobile banking in the 12 months prior to the survey.” And 75% of adult women in the U.S use a smartphone. Yet, the tech talent I’ve seen is not even close to representative of the consumer or business market. Forbes revealed in 2015 that the average gender diversity ratio in tech was one-third women. Women in technical roles at Google make up only 20% of staff and 25% in leadership roles. At Facebook, the number is 35% women-identified staff globally. You know this: women use the products but we aren’t currently building the products.

The disconnect comes from a (conscious or unconscious) desire to maintain a frat house culture. Recently, a local feature on “cool tech companies” opening offices in Toronto listed beer and ping-pong tables as the first two identifiable perks. Will beer and ping-pong ever stop being a thing? There should be more CEOs like Karen Ross, who said, “Nobody cares about free food or free beer. They’re more interested in making a difference.” She’s the minority in more ways than one.

The search for a unicorn, the term used for a billion-dollar valuation, has created a heated race to the top where winning comes at the expense of human-centric leadership. True societal disruption and social justice are secondary to being compared to a legendary creature whose horn is presumably intended for none other than causing harm to others. Some are gunning to be the one with the biggest horn, instead of just a component in a sustainable ecosystem genuinely dedicated to easing the world’s inconveniences. The resulting culture is vicious and self-perpetuating. The bro culture also permeates product output. Many have pointed out that the size of Apple’s iPhone 7Plus (and later editions) excludes women because the handset is just too big.

I can see that some may argue that a welcoming culture is on brand for an early education app. You might (incorrectly) assume everyone who works at HiMama has children. Only 3 on the team of 28 are parents. The characteristics that make up a welcoming tech culture are annoyingly obvious. Stack your team with diverse leaders who reflect the community you sell to; honor and respect your employees’ life outside the office; maybe hire a parent or two.

Look to CEOs like Carol Leaman of Axonify, who has a leadership team made up of 50% women and a view that “millennials have been socialized to expect diversity and equality”. Bring on talented leaders like Nora Jenkins Townson at Bright and Early who understands that “it’s critical to ensure that the future is built by absolutely everyone, not just those who look or think a certain way or had the privilege of a certain type of education.”

On representative employment approaches, could we talk about parents in tech? Sarah Lacy is soon to launch Chairman Mom; a community for “working Mama Bears” to unite, problem-solve and grow together. Lacy says “being a woman is becoming a business advantage in Silicon Valley”. The launch of a Mother-focused business community signals to me that the millennial parent is becoming a thing to pay attention to. As Melissa Nightingale, Partner at Raw Signal Group says, “parents are exceptionally good at efficiency with compassion.” We mamas and papas need to get the job done well—and get back to the little ones who need us.

Unfortunately, instead of leaving the fairy tales to the children, we are still chasing unicorns in business and complaining that gender diversity mandates hurt talent acquisition. Canadians startups can be the role model for diversity in tech alongside important growth that will continue to catch the eye of important Silicon Valley investors, and make news for things other than which beer is on tap. Things will improve for women when leaders stop chasing the unicorn and start valuing the opportunities a culturally diverse team will create. Workplaces can thrive when executives start to do what so many claim to do, but don’t actually do. Hire the actual users of your app. Except no bros allowed.