The great tech labor divide: Netflix courts women, startups like Uber court the bro’s. Which will win?

Where public tech companies lead will bro’d out startups have to follow?

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 11, 2015

From The Gender Wars Desk

No policy change that has anything to do with motherhood ever goes smoothly.

A woman in authority takes too much maternity leave? She’s shirking her duties and shouldn’t be in that job. Not enough maternity leave? She’s setting an unrealistic example for other women.

When Marissa Mayer decided that under-performing Yahoo needed to have a culture of coming in to the office, it was declared as a devastating blow to working moms. When Facebook, Apple, and others offered new egg-freezing benefits so that women could take more control of their own maternity timeline, the Internet declared this was a way pressuring women not to have kids.

When numbers came out showing the tech industry was overwhelmingly white and male, the outrage Internet demanded change. Pinterest made public its new hiring goals: To “increase new hires of full-time engineering roles to 30% female and 8% minorities and bring non-engineering new hires up to 12% underrepresented ethnic minorities.” The internet complained it wasn’t enough.

And-- most notably-- as the stat has circulated that the US is one of only three nations that doesn’t give parents any guaranteed paid parental leave, Netflix made perhaps the biggest statement to date on making tech culture less macho and less bro allowing parents to take a full year of paid parental leave in whatever configuration they prefer. And the Internet outrage in response to it was the most absurd we’ve seen yet.

The Guardian chastened us against applauding for Netflix, because not every company will do this and many people don’t work in tech so Netflix’s actions won’t help them. Um….ok.

Even weirder was a piece in Time that argued the policy could hurt women because they would only bond with their babies more.

I know what you are thinking: That’s the point, right? But Time would like you to know that too much bonding can be a bad thing. When a mom goes back to work it could be irreparably traumatic for mother and child. Because that’s how parenthood works. That’s why kids of stay-at-home-moms are advised never to grow up, never to go to school, and not to leave the house under any circumstances.

Further, there was this nonsense:

As a society, we’d do better to acknowledge the fact that women (and men, for that matter, though in a different way) change as a result of having children, and often do care less about work. And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that why people have babies? To make life more meaningful? And, dare I say it, less focused on work?

I hope not. Having a baby to get out of work is a pretty lousy reason.

In truth, most women are -- just like men!-- multi-faceted people who can love work and their families, and want to feel fulfilled in both. That means something different for everyone. And that’s why Netflix should be applauded for such an overwhelmingly flexible policy.

The idea that giving women more options will “force” them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise is inherently sexist, because it assumes women can’t rationally make the best decisions for themselves and their families when given more choice.

Don’t offer a woman the choice to freeze her eggs!

Don’t offer a woman the option to stay home longer!

We need to tell her what to do!

Fortunately, most of this concern porn is limited to hack columnists trying to get clicks. Companies in tech continue to follow Netflix’s lead, rightly seeing it’s a powerful way to get an edge in the recruiting battle.

In an excellent post called, “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem you haven’t been paying attention,” Rachel Thomas argues why the culture of these companies is to blame. She notes that when Google increased its paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the number of new moms quitting Google dropped by 50%. Considering the cost of hiring, on-boarding and retaining new employees-- some 20% of a candidate’s annual salary-- that’s meaningful.

Microsoft followed suit right after Netflix, offering eight weeks more parental leave. Yesterday Adobe doubled its parental leave. More will come.

The tech world has made rapid progress of late on the issue of women, after decades of “Hey! It’s a meritocracy! Women just don’t want these jobs!” Many of the large firms finally released data on the diversity in their work forces, and many more have hired HR experts and recruiters focused on fighting unconscious bias. It’s a big admission that the gender gap isn’t the fault of women. It’s the fault of those hiring.

Research has shown pretty damning and conclusive evidence of this, including studies where male and female candidates read from identical scripts to potential employers or would be investors. Check out some of the examples listed in Thomas’ Medium piece.

The next step is some companies-- like Netflix-- admitting that the women who do get through those hurdles shouldn’t have to adjust to macho, bro, “work hard and then work the kegerator” cultures that typify the tech world. The culture of tech will likely have to change too.

From Thomas’ piece:

When researcher Kieran Snyder interviewed 716 women who left tech after an average tenure of 7 years, almost all of them said they liked the work itself, but cited discriminatory environments as their main reason for leaving. In NSF-funded research, Nadya Fouad surveyed 5,300 women who had earned engineering degrees (of all types) over the last 50 years, and only 38% of them are still working as engineers. Fouad summarized her findings on why they leave with “It’s the climate, stupid!”

It’s not surprising that publicly traded tech companies (plus Pinterest) are leading the way here.

In the startup world, this is a lot trickier. Not everyone is raising a mega round, for many companies resources are more scarce and multiple employees taking a year off could have dire effects on the company. Many startup managers don’t take vacations for that reason.

When I was pregnant with Eli and working at AOL-owned TechCrunch, I took four months of leave, a combination of paid and vacation time. When I was running Pando and pregnant with my second child, I didn’t take any formal leave, I just worked fewer hours per day. Part of me regrets it. I look back fondly on those four months of just me and Eli, and I’m sad I never had that time with Evie. But given the fragility of the company, I’m not sure what else I could have done. I balanced the best I could.

There’s some criticism out there that, like with unlimited vacation, many employees feel pressure not to take the full maternity leave they could take. It’s true that a small percentage will likely take a full year. But if that’s the maximum, the rules could encourage more women to take what used to be considered standard.

The bigger reason change will be hard for even well-funded startups is the oppressive cult of the founder. Changing the bro “we’re crushing it, dude” culture isn’t so much about changing benefits, it’s about the message, say, calling your company “Boober” in the press sends to women who work for you. When it comes to startups, if you are the founder, and your company is growing, you are performing… period. If you act inappropriately in anyway, well, so did Steve Jobs. It’s a feature not a bug. Robber barons are disruptive and this is the new age of robber barons.

After all, it’s worth noting the irony that these large, dominant publicly-traded tech companies are leading the country in progressive employment benefits, while the large pre-public startups in the tech world are creating an entire new labor headache in hundreds of thousands of contract workers. Many of those are either suing to change status, pissed their status is getting changed on them with no explanation or choice, or work for a company that says it can’t wait to replace them with robots.

We are seeing the same industry bend over backwards to accommodate women on one hand, and create a new service class with no employment rights, all at once. I’m not one of these believers that the sharing economy is all bad for workers, or homeowners. But to pretend it’s all good is to never speak to anyone delivering all these goods to you.

But I’m hopeful for at least the employees of startups.

As intransigent as the cult of the founder is, there’s also a strong history of benefits trickling down from big companies to small ones in the tech world. After all, the small(er) companies are competing for the same talent, and aim to become big companies one day themselves. Salaries are pretty much the same at most levels. Free food is a perk startups try to throw into the mix as early as they can. Gorgeous office space, if not a “campus,” is a must. And remember, Netflix was the one who first pioneered unlimited vacation, which is standard at a lot of tech companies.

Actual policies forcing friendlier environments for women won’t solve all of tech’s cultural problems. But the industry hasn’t been so good at solving those anyway, so at least this is a start.