How the Tech Industry Broke the Promises It Made to WomenReading Time: 6 minutes
Why women were overrepresented in tech layoffs.
When Nadine Selim was interviewing for her dream role at Amazon, she remembers a specific moment in the interview process. ‘I was like, ‘Look, I’m nervous. I’m pregnant. Are you guys sure about this?’ ‘ she said. Selim got the job at Amazon—and quit another job, a good one—at a vulnerable time. But Amazon, like so many tech companies, had great maternity leave benefits—benefits that were designed, in part, to attract women to jobs in a male-dominated industry. So when she stepped away from work to have her baby, Selim felt pretty good.
Then, just weeks into her time away, with a newborn at home, Selim got an email. She learned she was one of hundreds of thousands of workers who had been laid off from their very good, benefit-heavy tech jobs earlier this year. Women were overrepresented in the recent wave of tech layoffs, and many got the news while they were out on maternity leave.
On a recent episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke to the New York Times’ Emma Goldberg about why so many women in tech lost their jobs, and how the tech industry can avoid doubling down on past mistakes. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Peck: To understand why women were disproportionately impacted by layoffs in tech, we have to go back to the early to mid-2000s. Big companies like Facebook and Twitter were in their infancy. The workforce reflected the leaders at these companies, meaning it was predominantly young white men. What did the typical corporate structure of these early tech companies look like?
Emma Goldberg: Hollywood offers some touch points. A lot of people have probably seen The Social Network, which encapsulates a lot of the vibe and the atmosphere of early tech. In the beginning, the industry got a lot of its energy from a sense of informality, a sense of less hierarchy, people sharing ideas with one another. This idea that really young people were in charge of a lot of money and a lot of power—that principle really animated the industry for a while. There was a sense that it was kind of like no parents, no rules, and the companies were not structured like banks and law firms and these other embodiments of traditional corporate authority.
When you say young people, it was mostly young men that were the beating heart of these Silicon Valley companies, that were staying late, playing pingpong, sleeping at the office, that kind of thing?
It was a very male industry, and continues to be, in a lot of ways. When you think about the male-dominated nature of the industry, it really does go back to early in the pipeline. Men have been overrepresented for a long time in engineering programs, in software engineering, and women have struggled to break in and to get the opportunities that men have.
But then, somewhere along the line, that changed. In the mid-2010s, you started to see these companies talking about diversity. DEI initiatives became a thing. Progressive benefits came into play. I remember covering a lot of announcements about parental leave. What changed?
As these companies got larger and more structured, they grew up a little bit. They realized that they had to have HR departments, they had to have management systems. They were too big to just run on the ideas of whoever the genius founder happened to be. So there were more and more people coming into the industry to impose some sense of structure and rules on what had previously been pretty freewheeling.
At the same time, tech companies also came to embody this new idea of what an office could be, because they brought in more structure and more of a sense of rules, but they maintained a sense of fun and playfulness. Google was famous for having a big slide. There were companies that had happy hours and fitness classes on site. And that was really in the name of making people feel like they could just have their whole lives take place at the office. When you think about who that type of work style best serves, of course it’s going to be people who don’t have child care responsibilities. So that system was still set up to best serve men.
There’s this data out now from the site Layoffs.fyi that looked at a sample of 3,400 tech workers who were laid off. They found that 45 percent of them were women, 55 percent were men. At first you’re like, ‘Well, more men than women were laid off. So that’s totally fine.’ But that’s not quite the way to look at it, right?
What’s important to bear in mind when you think about that number is that women only represented about 39 percent of the workforce overall. They might have been about 45 percent of the layoffs, but they were only 39 percent of the workforce. So the question is, why were women overrepresented in these mass layoffs?
One of the issues going on here is that laid-off workers were more likely to be in positions that tech companies might have been considering peripheral to the core work of the company. And that checks out when you think about the fact that men are still overrepresented in software engineering. So when tech companies are realizing they need to hit their diversity goals, they’re going to hire women in positions, in parts of the company like HR or customer service, which in the minds of hiring managers play into the stereotypes of what they think women might be better at.
These companies were never successful in getting to a 50–50 gender balance. But even beyond that, since the hiring of women was so skewed to the supposedly nonessential parts of the business, does that mean the diversity efforts weren’t very good in the first place?
It reveals what it really takes to diversify a company. In a lot of instances, when companies set goals around diversity, they’re thinking about how to meet those goals in an aesthetic or public-presenting way. They’re like, ‘We need to communicate to the public and to our own employees that we’ve hired X percent of women or people of color.’ But they’re not necessarily thinking about how to really bake that into the DNA of the company and make those gains sustainable. Because if you’re going to make sustainable gains around DEI, that has to also come from the pipeline. You have to be thinking about how to train women and people of color to do the tasks that are core to the company. If you hire people into positions that are kind of peripheral to what the company does, then you might not be actually meeting your goals around diversity in a sustainable way.
We also have to look at the notion that people really need allies and mentors within a company in order to succeed and climb the ranks. So if the companies still have men—and especially white men—overrepresented in their leadership ranks and in C-suites, then the people who get the best mentorship and the best kind of support and opportunities are often going to be the younger men—and especially white men—who have people who look at them and see younger versions of themselves. We still really have a lot of these myths of white male genius that get perpetuated by C-suites.
We’ve both spoken with women who lost their jobs while on maternity leave. Being home with a newborn is already an emotionally fraught time—add a layoff to the situation and you’re left reeling.
You think you’re taking maternity leave or paternity leave because you have a legal right to, and that’s reaffirmed in certain tech company policies. Tech companies have been among the most generous with parental leave, in part because they realized they needed to make those big leaps in order to diversify their ranks and communicate that parental leave was part of the generous perk packages. So people were out on their leaves thinking that they were entirely protected, and then they realized that being on parental leave didn’t offer them any special protection from a mass layoff that would’ve happened anyway. But the thing is, for people who were on parental leave, it’s especially terrifying to receive news of a layoff, because they have more financial pressure than ever, and yet they’re suddenly losing their source of income and their source of health care, and they have even less time than usual to start looking for a new position. So it’s both more terrifying and more logistically challenging than for their counterparts who aren’t on leave.
A few of the women I spoke to were like, ‘Well, I’m not going to get a job for a while. I’m just going to stay with my baby for a while.’ And you can see how that could lead to women dropping out of the workforce. It’s kind of a callback to the days before parental leave. Someone would have a baby and then not work for a few years—and then maybe get back into the workforce, or maybe not.
Exactly. And applying for jobs with a newborn or a baby in those early years is just impossibly challenging from a time-management perspective. It’s also really challenging because prospective employers could look at you and—even if this is illegal—make certain judgements around what they think you have time for. Again, it goes back to that issue that for a lot of employers, the ideal employee is still thought of as someone who has no outside obligations beyond the company. They are really putting up on a pedestal those childless single men who they feel like will just jump on a laptop or pick up the phone at any hour.
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