"Brotopia" author: Progress toward gender equality "happening slowly" in tech industry

How employee activism changes tech companies

Employee activism for gender equality at tech companies has made headlines, but change is "happening slowly," according to one Silicon Valley expert. Most visibly, last November, thousands of Google employees around the world walked out over how executives handled sexual misconduct at the tech giant.

"Believe it or not, at a lot of these companies, you basically have to take a vow of silence and sign an NDA and say that if something bad happens, you'll never complain, you'll never sue the company. Google is changing that policy," said Emily Chang, author of "Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley" and host of "Bloomberg Technology." "Other companies are changing that policy. Amazon has more diversity in the boardroom. But if you look at the latest diversity reports at Facebook and Google, the numbers haven't budged. And I would argue we should be looking at the technical roles where women have even less of those jobs. So the activism goes to show that these companies can change if they're compelled to. But they're not going to do it on their own."

Females hold just a quarter of computing jobs, and the number of women who major in computer science has declined in recent years. Women in leadership positions are still in the minority among major Silicon Valley companies, according to the latest diversity reports. About 32 percent of leaders at Twitter are female; at Google, it's 25.5 percent; and at Microsoft, women make up almost 20 percent of leadership roles.

The problem isn't just about sexism at workplaces, Chang said, "It's that sexism and racism and bias are built into these products that billions and billions of people are using." She pointed to Amazon's facial recognition technology, which she said "gets white men right 100 percent of the time" while it gets "darker-skinned women wrong 35 percent of the time."

"Imagine being accused of something, accused of a crime because the tech got it wrong. This is why we need to have women at the table. One of the fascinating things that Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, told me in the book, he thinks if more women had been at the table at Twitter in the early days, that online harassment and trolling wouldn't be such a problem," Chang said.

She gave the example of Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, the workplace collaboration platform, who committed to prioritizing the hiring of women and minorities.

"He's a multi-time entrepreneur, so he has the benefit of hindsight. They've got half women at the company, half of managers are women. And it's actually a cool place to work," Chang said. "Like women and men want to work at this company because they get it."

She also said Redfin, a real estate tech company, couldn't find enough women with the technical skills. "So they started pulling women from their marketing team, teaching them how to code, and then they found that a year into it, these women were getting promoted at the same rates. So women can learn, and companies can change. It does not have to take forever," Chang said.

The key is better education and support for women throughout the process, she said, but companies also have to improve their recruiting and interview processes, and investors need to fund more women entrepreneurs.

"What's happening is in the boardroom is that investors are still asking men and women different questions," Chang said. "They're holding women to double standards. They're saying, do you have children? Well, how many children do you have? Well, how are you going to start a company if you have children? And so there's a penalty for mothers trying to start businesses that men and fathers just don't have to face. And I for one don't want to miss out on the next billion-dollar idea or world-changing company because I think if women had more chances, we'd have some pretty amazing companies."

While asking women if they have children at interviews is illegal and discriminatory, Chang said venture capitalists and investors don't always play by the rules.

The paperback edition of "Brotopia" goes on sale Tuesday.