In 2018, Mei’lani Eyre, an 18-year-old computer science student at Cascadia College in Washington state, was in the middle of a phone interview with a hotshot Y Combinator–funded tech company, when the interviewer barked at her to stop talking and just code. “But with that kind of bass in his voice,” Eyre says. “You can hear when they snap at you.”
Interviewing for an engineering internship can be an exacting process—with many of the same hoops as applying for a job as a full-time engineer. The first step is often a phone screener, where candidates are asked to demonstrate their technical skills using tools like CoderPad, which allows interviewers to watch what they type in real time. After that, candidates typically face a series of in-person interviews, where they often have to write code on a whiteboard, sometimes in front of multiple people.
Eyre had worked as a software intern at Code.org and Microsoft. She knew that interviewers needed to push the candidate along and expected them to get annoyed if it was taking a long time, but this felt different. “In Seattle, the tech bro persona isn’t really a thing, but this guy was what I imagine a tech bro to be,” she says. During the tense phone screen, Eyre answered the question correctly and was ultimately offered the internship, but declined.
Nitasha Tiku is a senior writer for WIRED covering people and power in Silicon Valley and the tech industry’s impact on politics and culture.
Maybe the startup was going to be the next big thing, and maybe it was the right move to go there, but Eyre asked herself, “If this is how you’re going to talk to me during the interview, how are you going to talk to me when I work there?”
Eyre is one of more than 1,000 young women college-aged or older, hailing from 300 schools around the country, who participated in a recent survey about the challenges female engineers face while applying for technical internships. The study was conducted last fall by Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that educates and supports girls studying computer science, which has 30,000 college-aged alumnae and 17,000 alumnae potentially entering college this fall. The analysis was limited to young women in the Girls Who Code network who are studying or previously studied computer science and related fields.
The results reveal that many young women, whom the tech industry is counting on to diversify its heavily male workforce, are put off by their first encounters with tech companies.
More than half of the respondents said they either had a negative experience while applying for engineering internships or knew another woman who had a negative experience, such as being subjected to gender-biased interview questions and inappropriate remarks, or observing a noticeable lack of diversity when they interacted with company representatives during the interview process.
“Tech has solved some of the world’s biggest challenges—but it hasn’t cracked the one closest to home: toxic, sexist workplace culture. It starts before women even get in the door, when they’re still teenagers in college applying for their very first jobs.”
Although the survey did not explicitly ask about sexual harassment and discrimination, respondents raised both issues in written responses at the end of the survey. They described instances where a male interviewer flirted with them during the interview, sent an unsolicited photo of himself, asked if they had a significant other, or made sexual remarks in their presence. The respondents also reported feeling dismissed or demeaned because of their gender. One respondent was asked why she would want to go into tech as a woman; in another instance, a male interviewer laughed when the candidate said she saw herself becoming a software engineer in five years.
The inappropriate behavior they describe is alarming considering that the average age of the respondents was 19 and, for the most part, they’re describing interactions with grown men who have some control over their access to opportunity.
“Tech has solved some of the world’s biggest challenges—but it hasn’t cracked the one closest to home: toxic, sexist workplace culture,” says Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani. “It starts before women even get in the door, when they’re still teenagers in college applying for their very first jobs. No one should be calling this a ‘pipeline problem’ anymore.”
“Pipeline problem” is the framework many in Silicon Valley use to explain the lack of diversity in the technical workforce. Executives say there just aren’t enough qualified female, black, or Hispanic computer science graduates in the pipeline. Under this rationale, the lack of female engineers is a supply problem, rather than the result of institutionalized gender bias or permissive culture around sexual harassment, which may be why employers sometimes redirect debates around diversity toward that first phase of the pipeline. For instance, in 2017, six months after Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, wrote a blog post exposing the company’s toxic culture of harassment, Uber tried to cleanse its image with a $125,000 donation to Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that helps girls ages 7 to 17. (Founder Kimberly Bryant rejected Uber’s donation because it appeared to be more “PR driven than actually focused on real change,” she said at the time.) And in 2014, when Google first released a report about the demographics of its workforce, Google was careful to note that it had donated more than $40 million to organizations promoting computer science education.
The reports from Girls Who Code alumnae about unwelcoming behavior as early in their careers as the internship interview suggests that the start of pipeline suffers from the same systemic problems.
Fifty-four percent of respondents said they encountered a noticeable lack of diversity at the company, 25 percent said the interview process focused on their personal attributes, rather than their technical skills, 21 percent said they were asked questions they viewed as biased or that the interviewer made inappropriate verbal remarks, and 16 percent reported biased technical exercises.
“From our perspective, girls are being shut out of valuable technical internships because of biased hiring practices—and, moreover, are discouraged from entering the field—where they are already a minority,” Saujani says.
The findings from the Girls Who Code survey help explain the persistent gender disparity in Silicon Valley, and raise questions about whether the industry has reformed. In its most recent demographic reports, the technical workforces at Google, Apple, and Facebook are each 77 percent male, while Microsoft’s is 80 percent male. Amazon does not share that data.
In interviews with WIRED, four Girls Who Code alumnae pursuing undergraduate degrees in computer science and one recent graduate described positive internship experiences including supportive work environments and mentorship from tech company executives, but also faced persistent messages that they did not belong and were not as suited to coding as men. In some cases, the young women said the internship application process mirrored the challenges of studying computer science in high school and college, where they encountered sexist memes in computer science Facebook groups, professors who credited their code to male students, and the sense that they were already behind their male peers because they didn’t start learning to code until high school. The young women who spoke to WIRED said networks of female peers and gatherings like Grace Hopper, an annual conference for women in computing, sustained them through moments of isolation and self-doubt.
Although the Girls Who Code survey focused on the application process, the internship itself can be just as fraught. During a summer engineering internship at Adobe’s New York City office in 2016, Diana Navarro, then a junior at Rutgers University studying computer science, was assigned a male mentor to guide her work on the company’s photo-editing products. It was Navarro’s fourth engineering internship in as many years—after spending the summer before college as a software intern for Gilt Groupe and the next two summers as an engineering intern for Qualcomm. At Adobe, however, the mentor assigned to Navarro seemed uncomfortable in her presence.
“I’m just going to be really candid right now. I feel like he would stare at my boobs when he had to explain something to me,” Navarro says. “If you stare at a girl’s boobs for one second—it felt like three years for me.”
“I used to be really scared about talking about my experience at Adobe, but I realized the more that I talked about it, the less likely people are to just brush it off the next time that it happens,” she says.
In a statement to WIRED, a spokesperson for Adobe said, “[W]e do not tolerate sexism or harassment in any form and we take our responsibility to create an inclusive and safe work environment for everyone very seriously. Any unwelcome comments or physical advances to fellow employees, customers or business partners are unacceptable and we promptly investigate all reported concerns about harassment.”
In recent years, tech companies have tried to make internships welcoming to women, says Greg Morrisett, the former dean of Computing and Information Science at Cornell, who was recently named the dean and vice provost at Cornell Tech. “At bigger tech companies, [internships are] pretty curated experiences,” he says. But companies need to catch up with academia when it comes to making their workforces more equal. Morrisett says schools like Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT have improved their gender ratio by sharing best practices with organizations like Anita Borg, which hosts the Grace Hopper conference, or the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
“There’s this big bubble of women that are coming out, and then they’re hitting the workforce, and finding out that’s where the barrier is, whereas, 10 or 20 years ago, they were running into that when they entered the university,” he says.
The college students who spoke to WIRED were aware of the industry’s reputation. In some cases they had read Emily Chang’s book Brotopia, about Silicon Valley boys’ clubs, or heard about support for the Google memo, a screed that went viral in 2017, arguing that women are less predisposed to careers in tech. The stories didn’t change their determination to become professional engineers, but it did make them mindful of red flags during in company job listings or interviews that suggested an office environment hostile to women.
“I’m going to graduate in 2022. I’m going to have to find a job. What if I’m like [Susan Fowler] that woman who went to Uber and her manager was making offhand comments?” says Devika Chipalkatti, a rising sophomore at Scripps College in Claremont, California. “Who would I tell? What if HR didn’t believe me?”
The tech industry began its highly publicized effort to diversify its ranks around the same time that most of the young women began pursuing computer science. But in a predictable twist of fate, the young women said it was routine for fellow students, or even well-intentioned adults, to undermine their accomplishments by saying the bar had been lowered for women and it was easier for girls to find job opportunities.
Chipalkatti had the opposite experience. As the only girl in her Data Structures class that followed AP Computer Science, she was excluded from networks where other students shared information that could help her career. Chipalkatti, for example, didn’t know that Microsoft had an internship for high school students until she looked over a classmates’ shoulder when he was asking the teacher to give him a recommendation. At the time, she couldn’t get the other students to work with her on school projects unless she downloaded Discord, a platform for text and voice chat popular with gamers. “They all have Discord because they all game together, they all go to parties together, and they all apply to [University of Washington] together,” she says.
As for Eyre, the Y Combinator–backed startup wasn’t her only offer. Instead, she accepted an internship at GitHub in San Francisco, where she has been impressed by the active employee resource groups, including organizations for black and LGBTQ+ and gender nonbinary employees, which organized events for Pride and Juneteenth. “It’s the employees themselves that are taking action to make sure their workplace is comfortable for them,” she says. “And I really appreciate that.”