CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Commentary Tech Industry

Scandal, trust, greed may bring the change #womenintech hope for

Commentary: As Women's History Month begins, I'm optimistic that change will finally come for women in technology. If it doesn't, we should all ask: Why not?

Woman wearing mixed reality smartglasses

Let's see what 2018 brings for women in tech.

Getty Images

When I thought about writing this essay to kick off Women's History Month, I began compiling a list of amazing women who've done amazing things but whose accomplishments have been largely overlooked (Rosalind Franklin, DNA and Photo 51) or forgotten (Lois Weber, one of the most influential directors and screenwriters in early Hollywood).

Then I stopped. There are already plenty of lists calling out the unsung women of tech, so I decided to take a more positive approach for 2018.

In the weeks and months ahead, I'm looking forward to reading reports from Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the other companies that release data about workforce diversity. And I'm optimistic the numbers will have changed enough that we won't have to hear tech leaders' same old line about "we need to do better" when it comes to adding women and minorities to boards, executive teams and employee ranks.

Why are my fingers crossed, hoping for good news? Three reasons.

First: Scandal drives change

Thanks to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, women aren't just being heard -- they're being believed when they describe their experiences with unconscious bias, inequality in the workplace, sexual harassment, and everything in between.

In the tech industry, a lot of the recent credit goes to former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, whose February 2017 blog post matter of factly described what it was like working in Silicon Valley's toxic bro culture.  

An internal investigation led to the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick. But something really unexpected happened after that: Tech's bad actors were finally being held accountable for their actions. I'm not talking mea culpas or promises to get help, though we definitely got some of those. These were real power brokers forced to give up high-level positions in venture capital and at major companies like Uber and Amazon.

I wish I could say those ousters were motivated by a noble tech industry realizing it was time to penalize those behaving in unprofessional, unsavory ways in the workplace. But I can't. Instead I agree with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of theBoardlist, which identifies and promotes women for board seats. She says there's nothing like a crisis to turn talk into change.

"The last year has seen scandal -- a real loss of power players who have lost their companies -- and women have spoken up," she says. "The forcing function in industries with bad actors is crisis and I think the forcing function in the boardroom is, 'How could you not know this is going on in the company or with the CEO?' There's a whole cultural movement where boards are facing a different kind of pressure in those industries to do something."

Or as she put it more simply: "Scandal may breed progress where positivity has not."

Second: Trust matters

If scandal is bad for business, then those companies will have to rebuild trust with their employees and customers. And who should we trust to do that? Women. Don't take my word for it. Women in power are more trusted than men in power, according to Edelman, an influential global communications marketing firm, which last month released its 18th annual survey of trust and credibility.

Zeroing in on California, where tech reigns, Edelman found that 65 percent of the people surveyed believe women in power are more trustworthy than men in power. That's a 7 percent increase from last year. Edelman attributes that increase to millennials, who now outnumber Baby Boomers in the US, as well as to the #MeToo movement. "There's a completely different set of expectations among millennial women," said Stacey Zolt Hara, managing director of corporate and public affairs at Edelman, "and that's forcing a huge amount of change."

Third: Greed is good

In case you need reminding, the tech industry makes a lot of money. US consumers alone are expected to spend a record $351 billion on tech gadgets, apps and services in 2018. And like every business, tech companies want to make even more money, year after year. Now comes the kicker: More-diverse companies make more money than their less-diverse rivals.

"More-diverse companies have better financial returns, are more innovative and are just plain smarter than their more homogenous competitors," The Wall Street Journal reported. "Diverse teams tend to have more disagreement but better outcomes, while homogenous ones are more confident in their abilities but perform worse."

Maybe instead of "greed is good," the mantra should be, "diversity is good for business." I'm confident tech leaders will keep looking for any advantage they can find to win today's cutthroat competition in everything from smartphones to laptops to smart speakers.   

So let's put aside the silly argument that tech companies are already profitable and don't need to change and hire more-diverse teams. Let me just say, again, I've never heard a CEO, business leader or board member tell me they're happy to leave money on the table. Getting diversity right is worth the effort. And if the tech industry likes anything, it likes a challenge.

So there you have it: why I'm hopeful that smart Silicon Valley leaders, earning huge paychecks to bring us tech we love or hate, will embrace the business and social imperatives around diversity. Because in 2018, if they're still saying they need to do better when it comes to #womenintech, we should be asking them: Why?

Happy Women's History Month.

Solving for XX: The tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.