The Problem with the Anita Borg Institute’s “Top Companies for Women Technologists”

by MVC News Bot on April 17th, 2015

The Anita Borg Institute has released their annual list of the Top Companies for Women Technologists. The stated goal is to “recognize companies where women technologists can thrive.” Of the 13 companies named, over half of them — Google, IBM, GoDaddy, Accenture, Rackspace, eBay and Salesforce — are (paying) partners of the Anita Borg Institute.

According to stats ABI quotes in their own press release, women make up 23% of the technical workforce, but multiple of the companies named don’t even have that representation of women technologists. Salesforce’s tech team is only 20% women, as is Apple’s, and Google’s tech team is only 17% women. eBay’s tech team fares slightly better, but is still only 24% women.

Others of the companies listed have not even released their diversity data, meaning they staunchly refuse to meet even the existing community baseline for disclosure and transparency.

Why are these companies being recognized as “top companies for women technologists” when most of them don’t even hire and retain women at their rate of representation in the overall industry? Are we really supposed to believe that these are “top” companies for women technologists?

Unfortunately, the awards reflect an ongoing pattern in which white-male dominated companies are rewarded for doing the barest of possible minimums for diversity in tech, adorned with fancy titles and rewards, and coddled with an unlimited supply of cookies for the merest of gestures. Such head-patting also erases the profound, historic and ongoing cultural problems at many of these companies. GoDaddy has a decades-long history of misogynistic advertising campaigns, multiple companies on the list have been accused of sexual harassment, discrimination and other gendered abuses, and many companies with analogous cultures and representation of women technologists (including Facebook and Twitter) are currently being sued for discrimination — it’s easy to imagine that some on the ABI’s list are next, and unrealistic to believe that the same patterns aren’t occurring at most of them, even if they’ve been kept quiet or otherwise suppressed to date.

Happily for these tech companies, though, these types of awards conveniently sweep the severity and complexity of their diversity problems right under the rug. As noted in Diversity for Sale: “Many tech companies take parallel steps towards addressing diversity by targeting low hanging fruit. Few are acknowledging, let alone trying to address, the complex, systemic issues at the heart of the problem. If none of them stand out, they can all get away with a degree of mediocrity and still check that ‘diversity’ box. With a consistently low bar, even a little effort gets a gold star.”

The ABI’s awards are exactly such a star. While the Anita Borg Institute claims that it uses a “rigorous statistical methodology,” it doesn’t release any of the data actually provided by the companies in pursuit of the reward… data that would be useful for benchmarking and public discourse at a time when detailed diversity data is still carefully guarded. It’s also notable that this type of simplistic and opaque data analysis eschews an opportunity to look beyond “women” as a monolithic category. Collapsing “women” into a single category erases diversity and disparity across groups of women and discussions about who benefits the most from tech diversity initiatives. How well do these companies do for women of color, trans women, queer women, women with disabilities?

It’s absolutely true that the Anita Borg Institute has done, and continues to do, a lot for women in technology. Their Grace Hopper Conference of Women in Computing is consistently reviewed as one of the top events for women in the industry — while some of its choices have been (rightfully) criticized, ABI still plays a critical role in the community. However, perpetuating a system that rewards top tech companies with decades-long histories of discrimination, ongoing problems with misogynistic abuse, and entrenched cultural problems for what amounts to pure, status-quo mediocrity is cause for serious concern.