I am not a whistleblower or a leaker. I did not leave on the fiery coattails of a Twitter rant. Instead, I walked out of the building of a leading tech company on an otherwise unassuming Wednesday afternoon, the agreed-upon last day of my seven-year tenure, and took a deep breath.
I felt free and untethered, which was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I also hoped I hadn’t forgotten anything, because for the first time in seven years, I had no badge to get back in.
I thought I might shed a tear or feel mild panic as I drove away, but instead I felt relieved. I loved that place and my team, but the price I had begun to pay was not worth the perks. And that led me to this next, most ridiculous thought: Silicon Valley should stop recruiting efforts to hire women.
A few years ago, several tech companies, led by Google, valiantly shared demographic data about their employees; if you do not live under a rock or off the grid, you know the numbers were grim. The story they told was accurate, and I call the effort “valiant” because it was the first effort of its kind. It felt like the right thing to do. Women throughout the tech industry applauded; finally, something might happen! The truth was out!
Enter the most overused phrase in the technology industry, the hiring pipeline. The logic at tech companies is, We’re already hiring all the best and brightest, now we just have to go find the best and brightest who check all the boxes we’re looking for. In order to get the output we want, we have to stack the deck of people flowing into it. Right? Maybe. This is a long-game approach, and it mostly holds true.
What worries me, and the reason I posit that leading tech companies should halt these pipeline efforts, is that the leak is not, in fact, at the entry point; the pipe is broken further down the line. Tech company recruiters are novice plumbers patting themselves on the back because they found the problem and patched it, except the real pipe burst is a few years down the line, when the women who were just hired leave.
If companies look at this from a business perspective, they are literally flushing resources down the toilet if the person they recruited, interviewed, hired, on-boarded, and employed for two years quits because the environment is (at best) not a fit or (at worst) blatantly sexist.
That’s the real leaky pipe. All of the resources that go into finding and hiring women (and other underrepresented groups, but I can speak to my experience best) should very quickly be rerouted to retention and promotion. I’d like to see Silicon Valley release those numbers next. Those statistics are the canary in the coal mine and tell a story deeper than simply what percentage of whom is currently employed in what areas of the company.
Tech companies should form working groups that function with SWAT-team like efficiency when a manager, or the individual themselves, sounds the alert on a human capital loss risk; a k a, “My person on my team seems unhappy and I think it’s because of our culture.” I can point to the first flag I raised, and it was years ago; that incident turned out to be just one of a thousand tiny cuts, as so many women experience. A senior manager started a conversation by saying, “You’re in this demographic, let me ask you…” and proceeded to ask a question about promotion (or not), for women in my stage of life, meaning: a mother of young children. On its own, the question was likely not enough to make anyone quit, but certainly enough to give me pause. To put me on alert. Like I said, I am not a whistleblower nor a fiery ranter, but the patterns are there and are being reported.
Companies should also create zero tolerance policies—and, crucially, stick to them. Note: victim shaming or blaming under the guise of asking for more data should be at the top of that list.
Tech companies’ reliance on quantitative data when it comes to sexism is their Achilles heel. It’s the go-to response when articles about women’s experiences in Silicon Valley hit the news cycle: a demand for more data, and the request is typically from men. Questions like, How do we know women are treated worse than men? Do men leave for similar reasons? What do the numbers tell us? are rife around coolers and organic snack stations.
The most valuable data in these cases is actually qualitative; an anthropological approach, as opposed to a statistician’s read, would do some serious good. Believing a woman’s lived experience instead of asking for more data could literally be on my tombstone for the number of times I’ve shouted it at the heavens.
I believe fully in the power of diversity in all industries—and most importantly, that anyone should have an equal chance at the job of their dreams. Perhaps it’s naive, but I remain wholly optimistic that we can all make this work. It’s time to redirect resources to keep the best professionals in their seats. I left Silicon Valley for the non-profit industry, and now I feel valued for my contribution and trusted because of my expertise, full-stop. I no longer feel like I need to walk in each day and prove something; instead, I focus on the work.
Tech companies should be willing to do whatever it takes to retain, develop, and promote women, or that pipeline will continue to leak.
Kate Buckholz (@seekatewrite_) became the director of education at a Charleston, South Carolina-based non-profit after spending seven years in Silicon Valley. WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here.