How tech companies scare women away from tech

Does Dropbox try to be off-putting to women in technology? Unlikely. But a story from the Washington Post suggests that in the end, the company may do just that.

The article pointed to interview questions that reportedly asked about a zombie apocalypse and superhero powers. Conference rooms where hiring interviews were held were called the Break-Up Room and the Bromance Chamber, the latter referring to a certain type of young male culture that seems stuck in a frathouse. Only men spoke at important all-employee meetings.

Cultural artifacts that might seem like humor and fun to the boys can often come across as a barrier to women. The result, whether at Dropbox or, more important, in the tech industry generally is all too often perceived injury and wasted talent and opportunities.

According to some information received by CBS MoneyWatch from Dropbox, the Post's story has some inaccuracies. The conference rooms lost their nicknames a year ago when the company realized they could be perceived as something other than a harmless joke. Dropbox has revisited its interview process -- something that has been happening more generally in tech when it became clear to companies like Google (GOOG) that brain teasers didn't help identify better candidates.

Still, article author Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke's engineering school, notes that some data suggest the number of women in serious engineering roles at Dropbox is nine out of a group of 143. (CBS MoneyWatch has requested an interview with the company.)

Recruiting women into the high-tech arena of computer science has been a challenge among the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. As The New York Times Economix blog has shown, between 1991 and 2010, the percentage of BAs taken by women in the biosciences, engineering and physical sciences has risen at least some. But in computer science, it has dropped from 29.6 percent in 1991 to 18.2 percent in 2010. (A significant decline hit mathematics also.) Historically, underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities made demonstrably more progress. And to think the first computer programmer was a woman: Ada Lovelace.

Although there's no definitive list, some of the factors cited for pushing women away from computer science include being teased for their interest early on in school, a lack of encouragement, stereotypes, marginalization at making significantly less money than men doing the same work and a bias created by what has been a male-dominated industry. That bias extends to raising money for new ventures, where women are frequently taken less seriously than men.

Changing the names of conference rooms or asking more representative -- and useful -- questions in the interview won't magically make things change. But they're steps in the right direction. Without that, high tech hiring will continue to embrace the usual suspects and skip over potential sources of talent that its leaders say are critical to the industry.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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