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Careers for Women in Technology Companies Are a Global Challenge

By Alina Tugend

While tech companies in the United States are the ones that make headlines because of gender issues and discrimination, women say the problems exist elsewhere as well.
 
Ashley Seil Smith
While tech companies in the United States are the ones that make headlines because of gender issues and discrimination, women say the problems exist elsewhere as well.

European women working in the technology field are very familiar with the concerns expressed by their counterparts in the United States — too few girls and young women studying science and technology in school, gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace.

But, they say, the problems play out in different ways.

“We don’t have a frat-boy culture, we have more of an old-boys culture,” said Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of Stemettes, a British nonprofit aimed at encouraging girls to pursue science, engineering, math and technology. Class differences, she said, play a bigger role in making outsiders feel alienated in the United Kingdom than in the United States, but “the result is the same.”

Over the past year or so in the United States, one accusation of sexual harassment and gender bias in one high-profile company has barely died down before another pops up. Susan Fowler, an Uber employee, wrote a blog post in February about harassment and retaliation that landed like dynamite; after investigations and more revelations, Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, left the company.

At Google, a software engineer was fired after writing a memo that argued that biological differences — such as women experiencing higher levels of anxiety and less tolerance for stress — explained why there were fewer women in top engineering and leadership position at the company. And at the end of September, Dave McClue, the founder of the company 500 Startups, said he was stepping down after The New York Times reported he had made an advance to a woman who was applying for a job at his firm.

One of the biggest cases involved Ellen Pao, who sued her venture capital firm alleging gender discrimination and lost the case in 2015. She is back in the news with a book, “Reset,” about her experiences.

And, of course, there is the inevitable backlash. James Altizer, 52, an engineer at the chipmaker Nvidia, declared in a recent Times article that “feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.” He called the firing of some male employees in tech companies “a witch hunt,” and said there were a growing number of men across Silicon Valley and elsewhere who felt as he did.

While U.S. companies are primarily the ones in the spotlight, they have a global reach, not just because of their size, but because of the ways their actions resonate around the world. And even if gender issues elsewhere don’t make headlines, women on both sides of the Atlantic point to similar problems — although political and cultural disparities create different challenges and opportunities.

Justin T. GellersonDr. Hajar Abulfazl, who works at a nonprofit focused on children’s and women’s rights, in Washington, Oct. 2, 2017. Growing up in Kabul, Abulfazl had to sneak out of the house to soccer practices; she went on to play for the Afghan women’s national team for a decade. “I know the benefits of sports and people can’t hide their eyes to it,” she said.
Dr. Hajar Abulfazl, who works at a nonprofit focused on children’s and women’s rights, in Washington, Oct. 2, 2017. Growing up in Kabul, Abulfazl had to sneak out of the house to soccer practices; she went on to play for the Afghan women’s national team for a decade. “I know the benefits of sports and people can’t hide their eyes to it,” she said.

For example, while being a working mother, especially in high-powered technology fields, can be difficult, the paid maternity leaves and state-subsidised child care available in many European countries make life simpler.

Karoli Hindriks, 34, of Estonia, started her first company when she was 16. At 19, she spoke before the European Parliament about young entrepreneurs. And she didn’t consider herself a feminist.

“I thought, if you’re good enough, you’ll get the position,” she said. Then, she was propositioned by a possible investor. Writing about the episode in her blog, she described it as “the most humiliating situation imaginable.” She also said that when she was applying for an accelerator program for the company she currently heads, Jobbatical, she was told she should leave the fact that she had a child off the application. (Jobbatical matches global companies and job-seekers in technology, business and creative fields.)

“I was very full of myself when younger,” she said. “It has been eye-opening.”

But one thing making her life easier is “that the state is supporting family so strongly,” Hindriks said. “We have 18 months’ paid paternity and maternity leave. Preschool costs nothing. Taking care of a child is not an issue.”

Geraldine Le Meur, 45, moved from Paris to San Francisco a decade ago to be, as she put it, “in the center of the jet engine. It was and is the place to be when you are in the digital and tech space.”

One the biggest cultural differences she found is how surprised people were that, as a mother of three, she opted to work full time.

“It was almost shocking to people that I continue working rather than stay at home with the boys,” said Le Meur, who started the Refiners, a San Francisco-based seed fund program to help foreign tech startups go global. “It wouldn’t be the same in France; it wouldn’t be that surprising.” And she also attributes the differing attitudes to state-subsidised day care and to an earlier starting age for school — 3 years old rather than 5 in the United States.

“You know that the people taking care of your babies while you work are professionals,” she said. “I see friends here who have little kids who are super-conflicted. If they’re financially well-off, it doesn’t seem right not to take care of the kids yourself. My kids are the best part of my life, but not the only part.”

Shira Kaplan, 34, who moved with her husband from Israel to Zurich for his job, found that the message about combining motherhood and work was very different in Switzerland than in her native Israel. She served in the elite cybersecurity intelligence unit in the Israeli military, but when she became pregnant with her first child while working at a private Swiss bank, she said she was constantly asked: “'Are you coming back? Are you coming back 100 percent?’ In the end, they restructured my team while I was on maternity leave and it was a very strong signal.”

She then started and now runs Cyverse, a firm that brings Israeli cybersecurity expertise to Europe. Yet, even as the industry is increasingly eager to show diversity by bringing on women — “we’re the new hot thing” — she still feels different, not just about being a woman, but a young woman, she said.

Adam FergusonMembers of the Afghan women’s national soccer teams practice in Kabul, March 13, 2016. In so many places around the world, girls and women either don’t have access to sports, or don’t have the same access as boys and men. And in some countries, the decision to participate can be a risky one.
Members of the Afghan women’s national soccer teams practice in Kabul, March 13, 2016. In so many places around the world, girls and women either don’t have access to sports, or don’t have the same access as boys and men. And in some countries, the decision to participate can be a risky one.

Vanessa Evers, a professor of computer science at the University of Twente in the Netherlands who was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and who worked for Boston Consulting Group in London, said the United States offers more women role models in technology and science than her country does. “In America, it is easier to find support,” said Evers, who specialises in human-computer interactions. “I had women mentors who were willing to allow me to be there to observe and come along to important meetings. I learned so much just from being there. It’s not so common here — there’s more of a class system, a sense that ‘you don’t crash the party.'”

She feels, she said, a “basic condescension” as a woman in tech. “I feel I have to convince them that I know the technology, and they’re surprised when I do.”

Jean Bennington Sweeney, the chief sustainability officer and vice president of social responsibility for 3M, is now based in Minnesota at the company headquarters. But she meets often with European counterparts and used to be based in Australia and Taiwan.

“What I see in Europe and the U.S. is lots of encouragement for girls in STEM. It’s not where it needs to be, but I do see more encouragement in schools and even in families,” she said. Through mentoring and tutoring, she does her part to try to get more young women to enter the STEM field.

In Asia, in general, “while things are improving, the bosses are still older men and may be less willing to accept” young women as engineers, Sweeney said. “It’s more like it was 20 to 30 years ago in the U.S.” And it is women with more financial means, she said, who can more easily break through the gender barrier.

In Singapore, more and more women are running successful tech companies or startups, said Jacqueline Poh, chief executive of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore, adding that “a significant proportion” of top executives in the country’s tech companies are women.

Sweeney said all women in all countries also have to move away from the idea that they “have to be super smart to be in science and engineering. It’s not just for the best and the brightest,” she said. “Boys and men assume that if they are 30 to 40 percent qualified, they’ll go for it. Girls and women feel they need to be 80 percent qualified to attempt it. We have to get past the idea that you need to be exceptional, not just good. Believe me, the men aren’t all exceptional.”