By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Keynote speaker Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Technology Officer talked about the lost history of women in technology—how few people know the integral role women have played in everything from inventing the dishwasher to cracking the Enigma code, to writing key software in the space program and working on the first team for Apple. But when they make movies about major technological breakthroughs, she pointed out, women are shadow figures representing love interests.
Smith echoed President Obama’s call to SXSW participants in his talk on Saturday that people in the tech community help push the nation forward in terms of its tech inclusion and for social programs. People in the tech community should get involved with educational programs, especially those that introduce technology to kids in underserved areas in hands-on programs. Many tech programs, she pointed out, make you read a lot of theory long before you get your hands on anything and understand what’s cool about tech.
Smith’s talk was part of a daylong panel designed to both highlight the fact that not all people who make major contributors to tech are Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg—or, as one audience participant put it ‘Young, white, unwashed men who play video games.’ But the perception that they are intimidates others from entering the tech field. Rachel Williams, head of diversity for Yelp, said she was often approached by African Americans who ask her how to cope with “all these white people.” Her advice, was “Let’s say you’re going to foreign country. What do you do? You research the people. You learn about their language. You may have to eat a Kale salad.” At the same time, she said, people in the mainstream of tech need to become allies and advocates in the effort to include others and actually have the conversation about “What is this like for you?”
Organizational leaders have to make it a priority, but it can’t be left up to them.
The most common kind of discrimination case filed against tech companies, however, is age discrimination, according to Jeff Taylor, head of Targeted Sponsor Acquisition at Tech Crunch. While statistics from the Kauffman Foundation and Vivek Wadhwa of Singularity University showed that startups that succeed are most commonly started by those over 40. But many companies discriminate against older workers by including language in job descriptions like “looking for recent grad” or hinting about how the culture at the company involves “a bunch of college buddies” shooting each other with Nerf guns in the hallways.
This is not only illegal, Taylor pointed out, but unwise since the bulk of the population with money will soon be over 50 and having team members who understand the needs of the consumer population will be crucial to organizational success.
One of the biggest problems is that the language tech people use, and the way tech is introduced inherently scares off many people who could make huge contributions. Tracy Chou, software engineer for Pinterest and formerly with Quora, said she was raised in Silicon Valley by software engineer parents. But what she saw of them was two people sitting in front of computers in dingy cubicles and her two computer science courses left her less than enthusiastic. It wasn’t until she worked at Quora and realized that what they were doing was building something that hadn’t been there before that she decided to become a software engineer.