Nearly every day, we hear about a new, innovative piece of technology with the potential to change the world as we know it coming out of the ever-foward thinking tech industry. So why does it sometimes seem like the tech industry is so far behind when it comes to diversity?
It's not secret that like most industries in our society, the tech sector has long been predominantly white and male. Recently, the release of diversity reports from Facebook, Google and Apple again raised the question of whether we're doing enough to get more diversity in the tech industry. This is particularly the case for women, who represent about 30 percent of employees at these companies.
Recent estimates from the National Center for Women & Information Technology show that though women made up 57 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2013, they only accounted for 26 percent of the professional computing jobs in the country. Though we've come a long way from where we once were, there's still much to be done to achieve greater representation for women in the tech industry. PowerToFly is hoping to be one of those solutions.
The new startup, which officially launched on Aug. 18, aims to get more women into the tech industry by connecting female programmers, developers and designers from all over the world to potential employers. But the site's power isn't just in its networking opportunities. It's really about introducing a new way of working that can help women thrive in the professional world.
PowerToFly focuses on connecting women to remote job opportunities, which may give them more freedom in their careers, eliminating potential factors, such as where they live or figuring out who will watch the kids. That latter point is one of the reasons why working remotely is especially beneficial to women, according to PowerToFly's co-founder and president Katharine Zaleski.
"I had a baby in December, so this totally made sense to me, the ability to essentially allow women to have a third way that doesn't exist," Zaleski said during a phone interview. "Right now, it's either you go back to the office for 10 hours a day or you slowly pull out and you lose 10 years of experience, and you go, which is happening to a ridiculous amount of women, and it's really unfortunate."
Whether you live in New York or the Netherlands, you can create a profile on PowerToFly to look for contract work from companies, such as Hearst, BuzzFeed or Graham Holdings. User profiles include basic resume details like education, skills and work experience but also feature the candidates' personal stories to give potential employers even greater insight into who they are beyond their code. Once a client expresses interest in a user, PowerToFly helps facilitate the vetting and interview process. There is also a paid trial period of two to four weeks once a hire is made to ensure the job is a good fit for both the client and the talent.
Before starting PowerToFly, Zaleski and co-founder and CEO Milena Berry had years of experience building and working with digital teams. Berry was the CTO of Avaaz.org, the largest online political organizer, and Zaleski was one of the first employees at The Huffington Post before moving on to lead digital news products at The Washington Post and become the founding managing editor of NowThis News.
They decided to use their experiences working with remote teams to try to address the women in tech problem. Berry and Zaleski raised $1 million from famous investors in tech companies, including BuzzFeed's founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, The Washington Post's former owner Don Graham and Lerer Hippeau Ventures. Now they've built an international team at PowerToFly, which is 95 percent female and 46 percent moms.
"We're totally living the model, saying basically that women can build a great product and distribute it around the world," Zaleski said. "We are way more productive than any company I've ever been in."
Still, convincing companies to change their culture to encourage employees to work remotely isn't always easy for the startup.
"The challenge we're coming up against is that we're clearly proving that women have changed, women want this new way of working, but the way of working needs to change, too," Berry said. "The only challenge we get is with those stubborn companies who have a huge problem, you know, getting more women in tech, and yet they say, 'You know, we really believe in the in-office interaction.'"
Yahoo's first female CEO Marissa Mayer is a recent example of a famous proponent of in-office work in the tech industry. She came under scrutiny when an internal memo from Yahoo's head of human resources Jackie Reses was leaked in February 2013 announcing a new policy requiring all employees with "work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices." Mayer later defended her decision saying, "people are more productive when they're alone," but "they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together."
In this age where people tend to communicate digitally, even if they're sitting in the cubicle next to the person they're talking to, Zaleski argues that you can achieve the same sort of interaction with colleagues working from home as you do in the office.
"The whole watercooler, 'Hey, did you have a nice time watching the football game last night?' has no value relative to the amount of effort and energy that's wasted in trying to actually get to that watercooler, especially when the real watercoolers are spent online right now," Zaleski said.
As telecommuting becomes more popular, the value of working remotely has been debated. A recent study found that the productivity of employees who worked at home actually increased, and they were happier, sick less often and were less likely to quit. However, the rate of promotion for those workers dropped by 50 percent, which is both bad for the careers of the employees and also for employers who may be passing over exceptional talent. Past surveys have also found that employees watch TV or do chores while they work at home.
The biggest question is whether or not working remotely will actually help bring more women into the tech industry. Clearly, working from home as you take care of your children is a helpful and appealing option for many moms that think remaining in the workforce will not be manageable. If the option to work remotely actually inspires more women to get into the tech industry, that's obviously a good thing.
However, I wonder if it is just a temporary solution. To me, it seems like to change the culture of the tech industry, we not only need more women working in it but also being physically present in it. Knowing that you're collaborating with a female colleague through email doesn't seem like it would increase their visibility in the tech industry as much as if they were working right alongside you and physically collaborating with you. How can we change the face of the tech industry if we can't visually picture more women being a part of it? Research has shown that seeing really is believing, after all.
"Women aren't visible in the tech industry right now," Zaleski said in response to this issue. "The way to get more women to become a part of the tech industry and have women bring in other women, is to start by actually lifting up this requirement that you have to go sit in an office. That will actually probably bring more women into office spaces because a woman will tell another woman that this is actually an environment that encourages a woman to be a part of it. We have to start somewhere."
Of course, PowerToFly doesn't suggest that working remotely is the only solution to getting more women to pursue careers in tech. If a woman wanted to work full-time in an office somewhere, the organization would help make that happen as well, Zaleski said. PowerToFly is really all about having choices.
"We want these women's profiles to inspire a whole new generation that says there is a way. I can be working in technology, and I can have a family as well," Berry said. "All these women are proving that concept."