Women in Tech: The Long Journey from Lena to Susan, Marissa and Sheryl

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Posted by: briansittley Comments: 0 0 Post Date: March 22, 2018

We started this series of three posts, concluding today, with the story of “Lena,” the so-called first lady of the internet, named for a former Playboy model whose image in 1972 became the gold standard of sorts for compression algorithms used in the efficient transfer of digital images.  In the follow-up post (here) we noted the paucity of women in programming at that time, and the study that led to the shift towards an intrinsic bias towards men that has dominated the programming employment picture for decades.  Those posts were based on the work of Emily Chang in an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and a new book entitled Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley.  Today we’ll conclude with some of Ms. Chang’s thoughts on the recent past and the subject of women in tech.
Chang points out that in Google’s early days, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page sought to hire women for key positions, and succeeded wildly when you consider that they brought on board Susan Wojcicki who helped build Google’s AdWords and AdSense, two products that formed what Chang calls the “near-perfect business model” that today drives Google’s $100 billion business.  They then brought on Sheryl Sandberg who had been chief of staff to Larry Summers at the U.S. Treasury to help transform Google’s new self-serve ad operation that’s now “bigger than any ad agency in the world.”  Today Sandberg is CFO at Facebook.  Finally, they brought in Marissa Mayer as a product manager for Google’s search page.  She would eventually become CEO at Yahoo.
But despite hiring some of the most powerful and successful women the tech industry has seen, by 2017 Google disclosed that only  31% of its employees were female, and only 25% of leadership roles and 20% of technical roles were filled by women.
The issue, according to Chang, has much to do with what happens when you start to scale hiring.  Industry standard recruiting models collectively feature many of the same school job fairs, the same recruiting websites and they subscribe to the same ‘questionable’ theories about what makes for a good engineer.  Google eventually concluded that the hiring velocity caused them not to be as ‘thoughtful’ about the hiring process, nor cast as wide a net, as they could.
Determined to make changes, in 2015 the newly rebranded Alphabet, Inc. hired several women to key positions and ended up with a management team that is 40 percent female.  As yet, none of the company heads of Google’s 13 key divisions are women – but still, it’s progress.
The lesson from the past though is clear: Women like Wojcicki, Mayer and Sandberg brought wider skill sets to the company in its earliest days, and they succeeded wildly as a company.  Notes Chang: “If subsequent managers at Google understood this lesson, that might have quieted the grumbling among engineers who had a narrow idea of what characteristics made for an ideal employee.  Google’s early success proved that diversity in the workplace needn’t be an act of altruism or an experiment in social engineering.  It was simply a good business decision.”

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