Parenting / 9 November 2014, 09:00am / Brigid Schulte
Washington - Last month Apple and Facebook announced they will pay up to $20 000 (about R200 000) for female employees to stop the ticking of their biological clocks and freeze their eggs so they can keep on keeping on at work in those critical years when peak fertility clashes with peak career building.
The news was met with a swarm of media coverage buzzing that this was the latest in the “perks arms race” to attract talent.
Yet, to me, the satirical Onion had perhaps the best perspective: “I'll be proud to show my children the browser plug-in that's the reason they're nine and not 14,” said one fictional programmer.
But, more to the point, “What about women who want to have kids now? Do they at least get offered a decent severance package?”
That joke, unfortunately, rings a little too true.
High-tech firms, with the kind of high-paying jobs that will only become more in demand as the world turns ever-more digital, are notoriously white and Asian male, according to their own internal audits. The culture values those who work such long hours that they sometimes sleep under their desks. Yahoo employees once sported T-shirts, “90 Hours a week and Loving it.”
Work is done at the last minute to meet impossible deadlines. That “hero mindset,” according to a report by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, “is sending the message that those who have family responsibilities need not apply.”
As do the new policies that support egg freezing.
And it's not as if the best work gets done in that seat-of-the-pants style, the report noted. Instead, those long hours and herculean pushes to meet impossible deadlines that are so much the hallmark of working in Silicon Valley, are merely the result of... bad management. Bad management by boy geniuses, the report writes, with somewhat awkward social skills.
So the message in the new egg freezing policy seems to me to be pretty loud and clear: Instead of analysing work flow and their own work cultures, these high-tech companies are acquiescing to the exhausting, unsustainable status quo. They won't, can't or don't want to change the way they expect people to work in technology. So you, dearie, must use said technology to change the way you expect to live.
Marianne Cooper, a sociologist who has studied these hero hours in Silicon Valley, has written that they show not only status, but prove manliness. “There's a lot of ... 'He's a real man; he works 90-hour weeks. He's a slacker, he works 50 hours a week,' “ engineers told Cooper.
To be fair, some high-tech companies offer generous paid parental leave to both men and women. They offer “baby cash” payments of $500 to $4 000. Google and Intel are among the few to offer not just ping-pong tables and drycleaning, but on-site child care. And many embrace flexible work arrangements for all - though that can often mean, instead of working anywhere, anytime, working everywhere, all the time.
Still, something testosterone-injected happened to the tech culture between the 1980s, when as many as nearly 40 percent of all computer science majors were women, and now, when statistics gathered by the National Center for Women & Information Technology show that that share has fallen to barely 18 percent. Women make up about 26 percent of the high-tech workforce, and only a handful of its top managers.
And, rather than accept the status quo, some colleges are aggressively - and successfully - seeking to change that. The Anita Borg Institute and Harvey Mudd College in California are teaming up with 15 universities across the country to boost the number of women and people of colour going into computer science, in an initiative called Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity, or BRAID.
Each participating university will get $30 000 a year for three years - funded by several high-tech companies - to design a programme in the hopes of following in the footsteps of institutions like Harvey Mudd itself. The university went from women making up 10 percent of computer science grads in 2006 to, most recently, 40 percent.
“The really interesting things about these changes - it doesn't cost millions and millions of dollars to make them. What it requires is that you be willing to change the way you teach some of the introductory courses,” said Matthew Dwyer, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one of the BRAID initiative sites.
Dwyer said university professors began making changes to the curriculum, to make it more about creative problem solving, than dry, boring coding, he said, at the start of the term in September. A group of 15 women computer science students will also go to the annual Grace Hopper celebration of women in computer science, to see role models and find networks of support. “So they won't feel like they're such a drastic minority,” Dwyer said.
And finally, they're working to make computer science more collaborative, more applicable to real world problems, rather than the stereotypical one geeky dude sitting alone in front of his computer, Dwyer said.
“There's just so much good brainpower out there that needs to be put to use for the good of society, for the good of the world,” Dwyer said. “It would be a shame if we couldn't figure out how to do it.”
Just as offering to freeze women's eggs may be a nod to current reality, but truly a shame if that's really the best Silicon Valley has to offer women and men who want to both work in this fascinating, rewarding and highly compensated field, and have families while they still can.
* Schulte is a regular contributor to The Washington Post's She The People blog and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.”