Tracy Chou’s parents are both software engineers. She grew up in Silicon Valley. She studied engineering at Stanford University. Nearly everything about Chou made it “inevitable” that she would work in software, she told Jeffrey Goldberg in a recent episode of The Atlantic Interview. “Minus my gender.”
As soon as Chou started working full-time as an engineer in Silicon Valley, she said, “I could see that there were differences in how I was being judged.” Some of her colleagues made it clear that they saw work as a place to find romantic partners. Others would engage in behavior that Chou described as “petting.” “People said things like, ‘Wow, you’re so cute,’ and would make me feel as if it were a novelty that I was even there.”
That sexist culture matched an imbalance in “the sorts of opportunities” available to men and women, Chou says. But when she started working, she didn’t have the numbers to back up her sense that she and other women were being wronged. In 2013, she issued a call to action to the tech community to release real data about diversity. Apple, Facebook, and Google all released their first diversity reports the next year.
In 2013, and again in her interview with Goldberg, Chou emphasized that the gender imbalance at tech companies isn’t just about how many of their employees are women; the more telling numbers, she said, are how many women are in leadership and technical roles. When the data did come out in 2014, they revealed that women were indeed especially underrepresented in those categories. The most recent reports from Apple, Facebook, and Google continue to show the same trend.
That specific, well-documented lack of power is, according to Chou, holding Silicon Valley back from addressing its veritable plague of sexual harassment—perhaps even more so, she said, than Hollywood. She argued that keeping women out of positions of influence keeps them from making their voices heard. “To be able to speak up about sexual harassment or these sorts of abuses of power,” Chou said, “requires having some of your own power.”
Despite the clear picture of underrepresentation painted by data that is now publicly available, Chou has seen little impetus for change. At a previous job, after Chou raised concerns about the company’s diversity statistics, “I was told that we weren’t worse than average, and so there was no need for us to put any particular effort toward making the place better for women.” According to Chou, that’s because the people in charge are comfortable with what they see as a rightful order in the tech world. “It’s easier for people to believe that they have created an environment that is great, and anybody who has problems with it is deficient ... The people who are at the top want to believe in meritocracy because it means that they deserve their successes.”
In 2016, along with seven other women in tech, Chou cofounded Project Include to speed up the stalled process of diversifying the industry. The nonprofit works with early- and mid-stage start-ups to assess where they are lacking in inclusion, develop plans to fix it, and hold those in power accountable for the results.
The primary targets for Project Include are CEOs and upper management, and for good reason. The way things are now, Chou says, “Most ... leaders at these tech companies are men. If they can see themselves succeeding and they can see other people like themselves, they don’t really find it to be a problem that women aren’t there.”