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Twitter’s new female board member is impressive. Their decision to pick her isn’t.

Twitter announced its first female board member this morning: Marjorie Scardino. Scardino is an impressive woman — a one-time newspaper editor, New York Times reporter and CEO of one of the world's largest publishing and education companies, Pearson, where in 16 years she tripled profits. But that doesn't mean anyone should be impressed by Twitter's decision to appoint her to their board.

Vivek Wadhwa criticized Twitter for going public with no women on its board, but he also says there is a lack of diversity across the company that starts at the top of it. (The Washington Post)

Instead of blindly applauding Twitter for finally making some measure of progress, now is the perfect time for some serious reflection on why it took so long for Twitter to add some level of diversity to its board, areas still in need of improvement, and the barriers to full female participation on the technology sector. And Twitter CEO Dick Costelo probably agrees  on this point, since he tweeted "the whole thing has to be about more than checking a box and saying 'we did it' " during an exchange about the gender makeup of the board in October.

Unfortunately, despite Scardino's extraordinary accomplishments, her appointment feels like a PR move due to the months of public scrutiny about Twitter's gender dynamics. Countless outlets have put a magnifying glass on Twitter's board, whose all-white, male makeup reflects a lot of the institutional problems in the tech sector. And it's debatable just how much influence having one white woman on the board will have on the company in terms of its diversity problem.

Plus, the rest of the company's leadership doesn't look much better: Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times noted in October that there was only one female executive officer in the Twitter's IPO filings — General Counsel Vijaya Gadde, who had the job for only five weeks at the time.  It's no secret that tech can be a bit of a boys club — especially the director level leadership of Web 2.0 companies, as Kara Swisher at All Things D has been pointing out for years. And many assert that this is due to the lack of women in more technical jobs, a claim reflected by the fact that Twitter has several female vice presidents, but they are in business, not technical roles.

And there is a smaller pool of female programmers and computer engineers. But there's a reason for that: Tech can be an incredibly hostile place for women — even in the colleges. In fact, an American Association of University Women describes "stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities" as barriers to full female participation. And high-profile sexism incidents in the tech sector from the past year — like Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson declaring that tech "doesn't have a woman problem" after being fired for some pretty offensive tweets including rape jokes — suggest that things don't improve once women are out in the job market.

Scardino's appointment is likely good for her and for Twitter. But solving that entire problem is not, as Dick Costello said, about checking one box. So thinking about how to hack the system so more women can actively contribute to the technology industry makes more sense than giving the company kudos for a relatively minor change to a still-skewed status quo.


Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.



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Brian Fung · December 5, 2013

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