When we ask ourselves "why aren't there more women in tech?", we're quick to discuss how the pipeline fails young women. I would be lying if I didn't think there's room for improvement here - I've written about my own negative experiences as a young programmer - and it's exciting to dream about new ways to expose eight year old girls to programming, with or without pink. Unfortunately, we only have limited efforts to put into solutions, so it's important to understand how we can be the most efficient. Wanting to get more girls interested in computer science is fun and non-threatening. Changing workplace environments would have a more immediate impact.
We know that we lose women over caregiving issues. There are too many maternity leave policies that show workplaces are uninterested in their female employees having healthy family lives, and we expect mothers to put in time at odd hours just to keep up. Our industry needs to find ways to be flexible with talented women who also want to have families.
But the main reason we lose women isn't related to caregiving - it is a myth that pregnancy is the main thing that holds women back when it only accounts for a sixth of women who leave engineering. We primarily lose women to toxic work environments: misogyny and sexual harassment are commonly cited as reasons for leaving. This ranges from assumptions that women can't possibly be good engineers to a man erasing the work of a woman because she refused to date him. Treating women fairly could very well be the simplest way to increase the number of women in technology.
But we don't discuss the importance of fixing these problems like we discuss the importance of the pipeline. Discussing the pipeline is convenient - we've agreed that improving the pipeline is a complicated and daunting task that we can't be expected to solve in a quick timeline. So we're able to put it off and pat ourselves on the back for thinking about how to fix things in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. Blaming the pipeline means we don't have to confront the internalized misogyny in our day-to-day environments. It's a cop-out.
Admitting that the culture can be hostile is admitting that there's something we can work on changing now. It's time for us to decide to change.
The next time someone asks you to help get girls interested in technology, also ask them what they're doing to support the women who've already made it through the pipeline.