SXSW: Pinterest's Chou puts focus on diversity issues in the tech industry

Posted March 12th, 2016


 While Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, has become well-known for speaking out against the lack of racial and gender diversity in the tech world, she wasn’t always aware of the significance of the issue of representation.  

During her Saturday SXSW Interactive session “Tech Diversity: Why We’re Still Talking About It,” Chou shared her experiences of being a woman in tech and how and why the industry should become more inclusive.  

Carlie PorterfieldTracy Chou speaks Saturday during a SXSW Interactive panel.

The daughter of two Sillicon Valley computer scientists, Chou went to high school in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered, and went on to study computer science at Stanford University.  

“You could almost say I was born and bred to be a software engineer,” Chou said.  

But it wasn’t until her introductory computer science courses at Stanford that she noticed nearly all of her classmates were not only male, but seemed to have been previously exposed to more of the material than she had. And they weren’t afraid to show it.  

“I was faced with the gender imbalance that is so well-documented now,” Chou said. “I felt entirely out of place.”  

The problem isn’t reserved for university computer science programs. Women make up about 20 percent of tech roles within tech companies, a number Chou calls “generous.” Even within those numbers, some of those women are working in marketing or another department, she said.  

Even more disturbing than the low numbers of women working in the tech industry, Chou said,  is that the already low percentage has dropped over time. 

Some tech industry leaders say the lack of women is a “pipeline problem,” that not enough women want to pursue a career in the field. But even upon entering the field, 47 percent of women will leave their tech role within 10 years, some industry studies indicate. Other industries do not have this issue, Chou said, and tech companies need to be mindful of the representation in their workforce.  

“It is kind of the right thing to do, to build an industry that is inclusive of all backgrounds,” Chou said. “But it is also the smart thing to do.”  

Diverse tech teams are more successful than the ones who aren’t, Chou said. Because members come together from different backgrounds, they are often able to work together to solve problems using their combined experiences. By not systematically excluding parts of the population, the tech industry is selling itself short, she said. Companies should set goals and invest in measures to reach out to underrepresented populations. 

“Talent is equally distributed,” Chou said. “Opportunity is not.”

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