The high-technology sector — transformative but backward

The new Irish Equality and Human Rights Commission has just come into being, following a lengthy gestation period.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer believes that employees need to be physically present in the company's hubs in order to function at their best.

It emerges from the ashes of the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission, and will have enlarged powers along with a new head, Emily Logan.

Under the new arrangement, people running public bodies will be under a positive duty to promote equality within the workplace. The idea is that human rights and equality will be ‘embedded’ within this organisation. One wishes them well.

Out in the great globalised world, however, the task of advancing the cause of so-called ‘minorities’ — from females to gay people to non-European nationals — is proving to be less than straightforward. True, Apple boss, Tim Cook, became the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to publicly acknowledge that he is homosexual, causing more than a few ripples in the pond, in the process.

But Mr Cook operates in an industry which, despite its huge transformative impact on society, remains backward enough, in other respects. The tech sector, it seems, has a lot to learn when it comes to furthering the careers of its female employees. A leading US consulting organisation, Catalyst, has just published the results of a survey of around 6,000 recent MBA graduates working in business roles in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia from 2007 to 2014.

While plenty of women are graduating with technology degrees, they just do not want to work in the tech industry, and more generally, in posts in science, technology and mathematics, a group known as STEM.

The authors conclude that “from ‘brogrammers’ in tech to the old boys’ club in oil and gas, these male- dominated industries don’t do much to help women feel welcome. The women interviewees reported being subjected to jokes based on sexual innuendo and they did not feel safe speaking up at meetings”.

About 75% of the female technology workers surveyed said that they felt that they did not belong in their organisation, whereas only 17% of the men surveyed felt the same way. The reasons cited included the small number of other women on their teams, and a ‘misogynistic’ culture, where female employees were frequently ignored by their male counterparts.

Early last year, Yahoo ceased allowing staff the chance to telecommute, thereby eliminating an option particularly suited to the needs of younger working mothers. Others following suit included Zappos, Amazon’s online retailer, and Bank of America. Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer,believes that employees need to be physically present in the company’s hubs in order to function at their best.

Another leading figure, Sheryl Sandberg, has developed the concept of ‘lean in’, under which women executives forge a path to the top by giving their all to the job.

It all sounds just a bit Annie Oakley — corporate executive cowgirls out-muscling the cowboys. But not everyone wishes to go to work with a holster.

The survey revealed 33% of women would consider career downsizing while working in an organisation with flexible working arrangements. This rises to 57% in the case of firms without such arrangements. The corresponding figures for men are 27% and 28% — in other words, the availability of flexi working barely matters in their case. These findings should concern people. Employment in high tech firms is growing at a far faster rate — around 8% a year — than is the case of workforces, in general, across the developed world.

In Ireland, US-based multinationals have typically led the way when it comes to the provision of decent pay and conditions, often including decent pension and healthcare packages for employees. The tech sector has continued to grow here, right through the recession.

The new generation of high-tech firms are often displacing industries where staff belong to unions and have enjoyed a decent basic offer in terms and conditions. If there are signs that many of these firms are failing to cater properly to women and are essentially work cultures that are dominated by younger males, what does this mean for the type of products that are developed in these places? Are the new gadgets that are shaping our lives being designed by young male ‘geeks’ with their needs primarily in mind?

The technology sector is suffering from significant apparent labour shortages and yet it seems many of its firms are happy to part with a key source of skilled labour, younger females.

Of course, in some areas, technology firms have been getting it right — they have succeeded in attracting an ethnically diverse workforce, many of whom have returned to home countries such as India where they have established successful industries.

Tackling this problem may require imagination and not simply the wagging of regulatory fingers and the imposition of penalties. Countries like Ireland are beholden to the technology sector.

Over the past decade, the US has succeeded in one key area, the integration into the economy of Hispanics, the fastest growing part of the population.

Recently, Beth Senko, a reporter with the website, The Glass Hammer, examined the position of Latinos and their Latina sisters. Latinas (hispanic females) remain as rare as hens’ teeth at the top of the US corporate tree, with just one, Gisele Ruiz, running a Fortune 50 Company — ironically, she is chief operating officer of Wal-Mart USA, a famously tough employer.

However, Latinas have broken through in fields such as finance and entrepreneurship, in part through the development of networks. Some time ago, the New America Alliance, an NGO that works to increase the participation of Latinos/ Latinas was founded.

According to its CEO, Pilar Avila, the lack of Latina representation at the top of the Fortune 500 ladder is not necessarily a bad thing.

“We [latinas] have different measures of success [from the traditional corporate world]. We are selective in what we do. The ‘Lean In’ concept conflicts with our culture. Hispanics are raised with the concepts of family first, respect for authority and placing the good of the whole ahead of what is good for oneself.”

The private sector can throw up its share of obstacles — it can also provide important opportunities for minorities seeking to better themselves.

The tech sector, it seems, has a lot to learn when it comes to furthering the careers of its female employees, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

US-based multinationals typically lead the way when it comes to decent pay and conditions

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