On the rooftop of the Galvanize building on Tehama Street, Alaina Percival leans forward and brushes a handful of hair over her shoulder before settling both hands back on her lap. She’s telling a story about visiting a company where male engineers used Nerf guns as a way of team building, but the team specifically mentioned that their women engineers didn’t like getting pelted by the bullets.
“These shouldn’t be thought of as problems, they should be thought of as opportunities, and when you introduce Nerf guns—which makes a group of people happy—there’s something else that will make another group of people happy,” she says.
Percival is the CEO of Women Who Code, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that aims to keep women working within the tech field through mentorship, group training, and meetings that give women a forum to talk about life within tech culture.
“In the tech industry, a youthful, non-professional culture is really celebrated, and sometimes that can dip a little bit below what should be allowed in the workplace,” Percival says.
Such is a problem for women especially, who have had to toe a line between being ambitious and professional while at the same time trying to succeed in an atmosphere where ping pong tables and Star Wars T-shirts are the norm.
But save for the recent attention given to the Ellen Pao trial, where Pao (a junior executive at a venture capital firm) was made an example of how hard it is to prove and litigate bias, the national conversation has yet to shift to the biggest problem facing tech culture, which is how tech companies have failed to keep women within the industry.
Most media outlets continue to focus primarily on the lack of women and people of color currently represented in tech, ever since a handful of Silicon Valley companies released their diversity numbers last year. In response, there has been an immense amount of public and private initiatives to get young girls in elementary and junior high school interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
But where everyone else is focused on filling the talent pipeline, Percival is focused on maintaining the current pipeline, which for all intents and purposes is starting to leak.
KEEPING WOMEN ONCE THEY’RE CAUGHT
Based on the diversity numbers released by some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley, including Apple and Google, men outnumber women 4 to 1. But that number becomes even more stark when you learn that women are also much more likely to leave their tech careers for other jobs.
According to a study done by the Harvard Business Review, almost 56 percent of women leave STEM-related careers midway because of hostile work environments.
"I think its both a cultural and competitive issue," says Nikki Mehta, a software development engineer at the SF-based peer-to-peer lending platform, Prosper. "A female leader in tech is expected to be an extrovert and a domineering personality. As a female engineer, it can get a bit awkward to be the loudest person in the room—which often needs to happen if you want to be heard. A lot of women prefer to move to non-engineering jobs so that they can have more female peers."
“Maybe this is a really important number to figure out: If a woman leaves a career 15 years too early, what is the cost in the market?” asks Percival, adding that Women Who Code has been successful at keeping women happy and embedded in their tech careers.
Having started as a meetup group, Percival’s ambitions to make Women Who Code a major player in the tech diversity battle is only recent—it’s been less than a year since the company received its 501(c)(3) status, and before that, Percival was working full time at another job in order to maintain the business.
Percival is not the original founder of the meetup, which had its first meeting as a hackathon event. Percival quickly took on a leadership position and grew it into a global nonprofit.
So far, the company is in 15 countries with more than 25,000 members. It produced more than 500 free technical events for women in 2014 alone.
And where other companies are focusing on providing women with training in technology, Women Who Code is one of the few companies in SF focused on working with women to develop their careers, and to push for raises and higher leadership positions.
“What happens is that people you’re connecting with are able to support your career, so when you say that you’re looking for a change, somebody will jump in and connect you,” Percival says. “It’s just adding a little bit of positive social pressure to be successful.”
For women who have to confront bias in the workplace, it’s the little nuances that Percival says are the biggest challenge.
In one example, a woman told Percival that an architect she worked with said he’d never explained architecture to a woman before.
“It’s the woman asking the questions and the man next to her getting the answer, or sitting in a meeting and asking ‘can she take notes’,” says Percival. “It’s like death by a thousand cuts.”
BEING THE CHANGE
For some companies, like Silicon Valley-based Addepar, including women is a non-issue. Some of the most senior people in the company are women, including its CFO, CMO, and vice president of people.
“Having women in positions of leadership is one step toward creating a supportive environment for other women,” says Addepar engineering manager Alice Li. “It’s important that both men and women address the problem of women in technology. We have open conversations about the topic where we share articles and personal experiences and both men and women attend—just getting that conversation started can make a huge impact on the company culture as a whole.
But as problematic as inclusion may be for some companies, Percival doesn’t see it as a lasting issue—but she does say it will take time.
“We’re talking about making cultural shifts,” she cautions. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”