22 Aug For Young Female Coders, Internship Interviews Can Be Toxic
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 hot shot 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 Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that helps girls ages 7 to 17 called. (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 in 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…