I didn’t experience it as a toxic culture, exactly. As I’ve already written about, I found that the vast majority of my colleagues (and bosses) were intelligent, supportive, hard-working, and motivated. I just found that it was an all-consuming culture, and quite frankly, I wanted a life.
That’s a far cry from the appalling account of Susan Fowler, which outlined an absurdly toxic culture at Uber. Why? In part, I believe, because she was in the engineering department.
When you have a company with over 12,000 employees (as Uber now does), management change at the top isn’t going to make an immediate impact on most people in most departments, including engineering. It’s barely going to make a dent in the everyday lives of the people working at the company.
If Uber really wants to change its culture where it matters, it needs to focus specifically and relentlessly on the engineering department.
Social science research points to a tipping point when it comes to gender equality: things really start to shift once you have at least 33 percent women on a team, a board, and/or in top management. You can’t just throw a few token women into the mix and hope it helps; you need at least one third women around to actually make a difference.
For Uber to truly shift things in engineering, they’d need to do two things: one, fire those who’ve committed egregious breaches in ethics or harass employees (one hopes this has already been done). Two, give themselves a deadline and a quota: within one year, at least one third of our engineers will be women, and at least one third of our engineering managers will be women.
Yes, this would require dedicating significant resources to this. Yes, it would mean aggressively going after female engineering talent. Yes, it would mean heavily favoring the promotion of women over men in the engineering department for a while. But if you actually want to change culture, you have change things systematically. You can’t just go on a witch hunt for “bad” people and hope it works.
You also can’t just replace the head of the company and think that will solve the problem.
In 2017, Uber doubled its workforce, and over 40 percent of its new hires were women. That’s wonderful, but the breakdown breaks down when you look at engineering: according to diversity data shared in 2017, the gender breakdown in Uber’s engineering department is 85 percent men, 15 percent women.
Companies like Uber need big change (and we all know Uber isn’t the only company to need this kind of change). Fortunately, this kind of change is possible, and it doesn’t have to take decades. Harvey Mudd college, for example, took on gender inequality and in just a few years, its numbers spiked dramatically: nationally, roughly 16 percent of undergrad computer majors are women. This year, 56 percent of Harvey Mudd’s computer science graduating class were women.
How did they do it? By making the commitment to do it, then taking a number of strategic and creative steps. They redesigned their intro computer sciences courses to emphasize how to use programming for creative problem-solving (instead of just learning how to code). Women, it turns out, need to know how coding can actually help people or help do things in order to stay interested.
They also addressed the intimidation factor. They split the intro course into two sections: one for those with coding experience, and one for those with none–so no one felt intimidated if they had no experience yet. They also shifted away from homework done individually (which can feel isolating) to group projects, so students code together.
The school also prioritized putting women in leadership positions in the faculty. Next year, 6 out of its 7 department chairs will be women, and 38 percent of its total professor will be women.
It worked. Before the changes, around 10 percent of computer science majors were women. After, they started averaging 40+ percent.
Moving towards gender equality isn’t just good for statistics. It’s good for product innovation, company culture, and the bottom line. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, companies with a higher share of women in executive positions not only financially outperform other companies, but experience less stock market volatility and earnings changes.
Places like Harvey Mudd are doing their part to increase the pipeline of women in tech. This year, 64 percent of women graduates of the college said their full-time job after graduation was in the the tech industry.
Now it’s up to companies like Uber to seek them out, make room for them, develop them, and promote them.
That will change things.