When it comes to discrimination against women in the workplace, few industries have as big of an image problem as tech. As Hillary Clinton noted in a recent keynote speech, around one in five software developers and just one in ten executives in Silicon Valley are women. As she told her audience at the Santa Clara Convention Center, “We’re going backward in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward […] We can literally count on one hand the number of women who have actually been able to come here and turn their dreams into billion-dollar businesses."
Vidya Gargote is someone who knows better than most the stresses that the tech industry can place on its employees—and how the cumulative effect of these is driving women away from one of the U.S. economy's major growth centers.
An 8-year veteran of the tech community—and married to a fellow industry professional—Gargote quit her job after starting a family, when the stress of the long hours and unrealistic expectations became too much to bear. Who better to ask, then, about how the industry could have treated her better?
During the course of our recent interview, Gargote touched on a number of difficult personal subjects: the "very tragic start" to her life as a parent, when one of her twin newborns passed away unexpectedly; her subsequent battle with depression, which led to a period of hospitalization; and her recovery from that struggle, aided in no small part by the discovery of a passion for poetry. (Gargote recently published MUTE: Poems that Saved My Life –a book of her poems that she wrote while dealing with her depression.)
Incompatibility with family life
In talking about her journey from project manager for a number of major financial services firms to her current "passion-oriented" role as a writer, consultant and entrepreneur, one thing became very clear: Gargote believes that, as the tech industry is currently structured, it is incompatible with raising a family and being fully present as a parent—especially if both parents are employed in the industry. For her, the crucial issue was the number of hours required: as a project manager, much of her time was spent dealing with offshore centers, often in India; a fact that necessitated extremely long days. As she recalls, her work day would usually involved a "regular" workday in California, followed by "calls from 9 at night to 1 in the morning, every day." With a husband working a similar schedule, it was clear that something had to give. "One partner," as she puts it, "has to step down."
While Gargote's situation is far from typical, her family's solution to it is more common: when children come along, one parent—typically the mother—steps back from their career. That situation, together with few guarantees of parental leave, and the difficulty of scaling back or job-sharing in positions of high responsibility, undoubtedly play a role in creating the kind of stats cited in the opening paragraph.*
What can be done about it?
As someone who has suffered "total burnout" in a tech career, Gargote is especially illuminating when it comes to the question of what steps both employers and new parents can take to improve the situation in future. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of her response to this question was the degree to which her recommendations centered around personal decisions and a willingness to make tradeoffs—while she believes that companies can and should do more to help new parents, the majority of her action items are practical suggestions for employees. For example, when I asked about on-site daycare, she stressed that, while "high-quality daycare could solve a lot of problems, it's not a fix for the lifestyle changes at the start of a child's life."
With that in mind, then, here are a few of Gargote's other prescriptions for both new parents, and companies:
What parents can do:
1) "Recognize that every child is unique, and that every new parent's situation is unique. You can't compare yourself to anyone else. 'We did it, so you can too', is not realistic."
2) "Seek help from Employee Assistance Programs."
3) "Know your rights as new parents"—this includes everything from knowing about how/when to use sick days to learning the company's policy on telecommuting.
4) "Parents should always check the job description […] you need to know what you're being hired for." This is key for avoiding mission-creep or expectations that are above and beyond the job description.
5) "Work around your passions and field of expertise so work doesn't feel like a struggle."
6) "Limit expectations of yourself."
7) "Avoid off-hour emails."
8) "Take time for your health at work—walking around, working in an ergonomic environment—and make sure to take time off as well."
What companies should do:
1) "I believe that companies should provide support, resources and education for new parents."
2) "Companies should help manage schedules, and provide a flexible workplace."
What's your take on this issue? Let us know in the comments below.
*Of course, the tech industry has other problems too—even a cursory investigatoin of the issues surrounding #Gamergate, for example, underline that fact.