Article – YouTube CEO’s Disappointing Response To Lack Of Women In Tech Completely Missed The Point

YouTube CEO's Disappointing Response To Lack Of Women In Tech Completely Missed The Point

The lack of diversity in tech isn’t a new issue, and yet top leaders in Silicon Valley still struggle to talk about it. 

The latest stumble comes from YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaking with MSNBC’s Ari Melber and Recode’s Kara Swisher at the media companies’ first town hall titled “Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World,” which aired Sunday. 

According to Wojcicki, one reason for the lack of women in tech is its reputation for being a “very geeky male industry.”  

Ouch. 

That kind of statement makes it seem like Wojcicki has forgotten about the diverse and minority perspectives that are fighting for representation in the industry. For instance, with the #IlLookLikeAnEngineer campaign, engineer Isis Wenger wrote about the sexism she faced working in tech and inspired a movement of women shutting down stereotypes. 

To give her credit, Wojcicki is one of few women executives in tech and has worked in the industry for nearly two decades, but her answer to Swisher’s questioning sounded naive and defeated. She blamed the problem on the public perception of the industry and the pipeline problem for recruiting women from college, rather than addressing the questions of retention and inclusion of women and diverse talent after they’re recruited to the industry.

Swisher started the conversation by addressing Wojcicki and calling out the statistic that two in 10 employees at Google are women. 

“Everyone talks about Silicon Valley as a meritocracy, I see it as a mirror-tocracy, meaning white guys look at each other and hire each other, essentially. What — where are we on this and what do you think needs to happen?” Swisher asked.

To which Wojcicki replied, “I think the problem is, is that computer science as a whole and tech as a whole has a reputation of being a very geeky male industry. And so if you look, not within the industry, but just as an educational pipeline, you see that we only have 20 percent of women graduating with computer science degrees, and that’s a problem in and of itself, because that means we don’t have enough people graduating who have those degrees. And you say, well, why is that? I think it has to do with these perceptions that the computer industry is, a geeky, not very interesting, not social industries, and it just couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Swisher interrupted Wojcicki with a brief, “Come on.” And later, “I’m going to — I’m going to disagree with you [on] that strongly.”

To Swisher, the lack of diversity is more than just an issue of stereotypes and a pipeline problem of not enough women graduating from college with computer science degrees. It’s a culture problem, perpetuated by other people in the tech industry. 

“Uber. I mean,” Swisher said. “It’s just — there is such hostility. You know there is. There’s hostility, not just in pay, it’s jobs, where people are. And I get the pipeline issue, I understand that. But it’s deeper than that.”

Swisher was referencing the toxic culture at Uber, which was exposed by former engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti last year and ignited a reckoning at the ride-hailing giant. 

Wojcicki maintained that stereotypes are still a major issue. But her discussion of stereotypes seemed to focus on external perception rather than what happens when someone works inside a tech company. 

“I do think there’s a stereotype that causes [women] to not go into it and then when women don’t go into it, those problems become a lot harder – like what you’re talking about, at Uber,” she said. 

That’s not to say that Wojcicki completely passed over discussing the tech industry’s culture problem. Elsewhere in the conversation, Wojcicki talked about diversity and inclusion within companies when asked about the firing of James Damore, an employee who recently sued Google for discrimination against white people, men, and conservatives. 

“I think it was the right decision where a company trying to create a very diverse inclusive environment. And if something violates our code of conduct, we should be able to take an action,” Wojcicki said. 

So, what does the industry do now?

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who also participated in the town hall event, answered that question by saying, “Really important, you can change this. Ever since Susan started running at YouTube, the percentage of women at YouTube has increased significantly. Why do you think that is?”

Pichai’s response implies that an easy solution for tech companies is to hire and promote more female executives. Yes, that’s a great thing to do, but again, it’s a disappointing answer in that it lets male executives off the hook — Pichai’s answer makes it seem like the responsibility to recruit women falls on only other women, that men in power cannot inspire women to work on their team. 

As Swisher pressed, men in power must work to address the issue too. 

“Because she’s a woman, but why can’t men do it?” Swisher asked. 

Pichai responded, “But I’m saying the representation matters. Right, so the way you solve this is by increasing the percentage of women in the tech industry. So, we need to make the environment more welcoming, we need to make the jobs more interesting.”

It’s unclear what changes Pichai wants here, as in whether the actual job of being an engineer or working at a tech company needs to be changed or whether they can just write a new job description that will better attract more women. Research has shown more inclusive languagecan change results. 

In the conversation, Pichai noted the differences between what women look for in jobs and men. 

“Women typically look for jobs with a purpose. Studies show that. I think it’s important for them to see the why of why you need to need technology,” Pichai continued. 

That’s true. Studies have shown that, including the 2015 global Management Education Graduate Survey

Pichai then mentioned his daughter and said he would be “excited for her” if she pursued a career in technology. 

“You know, I have a daughter, and I’m excited for her to go, if she chooses to, into technology. I think it’s going to be better the next 10 years than what’s been the past 10 years,” Pichai told Swisher. 

Pichai’s seemingly used his daughter as a new merit of credibility that he understands young women and the challenges. Having a daughter is notable. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made massive shifts at Facebook since the birth of his two daughters and has cited them and his legacy as reasons for change. But as Swisher noted, “you shouldn’t have to have a daughter to want this.”

Swisher’s next question brought up the the idea of standards being focused on women and people of color.

“It never talk about the standards of the – of the 16 stupid white men who did something, you know what I mean? It just doesn’t do that. And so where – where do you imagine – do you have to be more outspoken as a CEO on this issue?” Swisher asked.

The live audience watching the panel rewarded Swisher’s question with a round of applause.

According to Pichai, who attempted to answer the question, Google has been outspoken, and that’s, in part, true. The tech giant was the first in the industry to publicly publish its diversity numbers and has helped inspire other tech companies to do the same. 

And yet, as we have seen, the numbers still haven’t moved that much and the conversations are still disappointing. Wojcicki and Pichai would do well to focus less on the words “geeky” and “daughter” and focus more on “pipeline” and “inclusion.”