The Deficiencies of Tech's 'Pipeline' Metaphor

An easy, ultimately lacking, way to talk about the messy reality of inequality, discrimination, and corporate culture in America

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Tech industry leaders are constantly talking about the so-called “pipeline problem.” On corporate stages and at academic conferences, CEOs and activists pledge their commitment to “fixing the pipeline for STEM”—the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math—by which they mean they want to get more young women and people of color into the coursework (and, ideally, the internships) that will eventually turn them into attractive job candidates for tech companies.

This pipeline is the norm for getting tech-sector jobs; it is also the main cause of workforce homogeneity, which, according to statistics that companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have released, is severe. Employers claim there aren’t enough qualified graduates for jobs in the booming industry, culminating in the current dependence on international hires. Emerging businesses demand specific expertise that U.S. colleges aren’t equipped to fill, and the cash-strapped education system can’t adjust quickly enough. And even if firms do find the right people, there’s a retention problem: Tech has a high turnover rate in general, and firms find it particularly hard to keep women on staff. Hence the pipeline is deemed to be not only insufficient but also “leaky.” Fixing the pipeline is about both swelling capacity and plugging holes.

For years schools and colleges have been working to improve the appeal of technology and science careers for girls, depicting the jobs of programmer or engineer without the nerdiness stigma they tend to carry. And for those who do make it through the STEM education pipeline, the mystery HR and management experts are trying to solve is why so many women abandon tech jobs once they attain them. Lately I’ve even heard talk of a “glass pipeline,” which I can only guess means a career path that is especially fragile. Perhaps it is meant to suggest that minorities should be treated delicately in order to keep them happy in the system.

What these mixed metaphors really suggest is (to mix metaphors further) that the glass ceiling of the boardroom and the homogeneity of the pipeline are one and the same problem, namely that of America’s inequalities between men and women and whites and everyone else, and the complex cultural dynamics that produce them. The pipeline problem is a way for predominantly male leaders to talk about diversity in a way that avoids talking about this messy reality, not to mention the privileges they themselves have benefitted from.

It’s no accident that a pipeline is an engineering term, as engineers tend to run tech companies. And a pipeline, as it is imagined, is a breezy sort of narrative about how to get these companies the right job candidates: Once a person is in the funnel, the rest is easy—sheer force and momentum will ensure progress to the desired destination. In such a vision, ongoing employment assumes an indefatigably linear form, with definitive points of entry and clear direction from the outset. But who has anything like this level of job security today? And what kind of employee makes use throughout her career of the same skill set acquired at the start of her professional life? With workers in the employment market longer than ever, and all the fluctuations—personal, social, and economic—that they are sure to endure, the pipeline is a poor metaphor for what people actually experience.

A pipeline further implies that getting work done involves little outside interaction or internal friction. The pesky thing about workplaces is that they are full of individuals—colleagues whose ambitions, anxieties, and emotions collectively create a culture of participation. Most companies make a point of celebrating certain values to influence this behavior and make internal dynamics good for the business. That’s because the same values aren’t always intuitive for everyone: some inevitably go against the belief systems of different cultures, meaning that career advancement may entail relinquishing part of the worldview one has grown up with. These nuances of day to day interaction and motivation are invisible in diversity statistics.

The pipeline trades on the anachronism of a job for life. It comes close to the proposition that a professional identity is forever, that people don’t change over time or seek challenges elsewhere. As a colleague recently noted, speaking of the way that tech companies recruit, “All the attention is on the wedding, not the marriage.”

Women’s determination to reject the terms of high-tech careers is at least as much a statement that other ways of working are possible as it is a failure of nerve. An aggressive, long-hours culture of incessant productivity and accomplishment is hardly an opportunity to be coveted, certainly not for everyone. Viewed this way, a leaky pipeline might actually be a sign of workers’ agency—of their empowerment and willingness to leave intransigent cultures that don’t align with their values.