Working for Justice

Tech Needs An Intervention: Stopping Systematic Gender Bias, Part 2

As I noted last week, it’s time for the tech industry to acknowledge its systemic bias against women.  Once that happens, the industry will be much more likely to do something about the problem.  Tech has proudly “disrupted” the status quo for how we buy books, make payments, hail cabs, use phones, play Scrabble, and thousands of other things. Now, they can and should “disrupt” systematic gender bias. There are a number of different ways for tech to attach the problem – the most general being to focus on key points in career development: hiring, assignments, promotions and compensation, and retention.

As a starting point, the overall key is having a plan. As Joan Williams points out in her article, “Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem,” companies should: (1) assess data on gender bias in the company’s workplace, (2) create a hypothesis on steps that the company can take to address those problems, and (3) implement the change, see if it works, reassess, and try again.

Here are some suggestions for companies to take deliberate action to combat systematic gender bias, rounded up based on tactics that have worked and that research shows could work:

Recruitment & Hiring

  • Expand the recruitment pool. Tech recruitment relies heavily on a small set of elite colleges and referrals from current employees; both unnecessarily limit the pool of applicants. Tech companies should expand recruitment to strategically developing relationships with more universities, such as the University of Maryland, which produces a high number of female and minority graduates in science and engineering. Similarly, relying on referrals can trap tech companies in the like hires like problem: individuals are drawn to hiring people who look like themselves. Avoiding an overreliance of hiring friends of friends can help open up the pool of applicants.
  • Rewrite job descriptions to attract more women. A study showed that women found job postings with masculine coded-words less appealing, so paying attention to that wording can make a significant change. For example, changingsuperior ability to satisfy customers” to “sensitive to clients’ needs.” Job descriptions can also be more inclusive by avoiding gender-specific pronouns and extreme modifiers.
  • Also: Seek diversity driven networks (such as diversityworking.com or local non-profits). Provide blinded resumes, when possible. Agree on standard interview questions to avoid gendered questions and bias in interviews.

Assignments, Promotions & Compensation

  • Document how assignments are distributed between women and men. Women will often be assigned to lower revenue accounts or more “office housework” than men. In order to address this issue, a company should track how assignments are distributed, and then make a conscious deliberate effort to even out equal project assignments.
  • Base performance evaluations and promotions on objective metrics. Women are more likely to succeed when they are measured in objective metrics. Thus, companies can help to support and promote women by avoiding subjective and gut-driven evaluation of individuals’ work. And do the same for compensation. Moreover, small steps, such as including the phrase “salary negotiable” in a job description has been shown to reduce the pay gap by 45%.
  • Change how certain behavior is valued. Steven Sinofsky suggests that companies should measure performance on “achieving goals, not heroic work.” He recounts how, as a manager, he noticed a tendency for men to overcommit to work so it would seem they were doing a lot, whereas women were more likely to realistically “promise and deliver.” He preferred the latter and decided to stop rewarding the former, inefficient behavior.
  • Also: Invite women to lead teams and make presentations. Track how certain work assignments translate into rewards and recalibrate if it results in unequal treatment.

Retention

  • Change the culture. A recent study found that 80% of women in STEM say they love their jobs, but feel compelled to leave due to an unwelcoming and discriminatory culture. Companies can improve retention of women by creating a more welcoming culture. This can include how you ask for feedback – for example, asking for feedback in an open and comfortable way, as opposed top putting someone on the spot. And creating small groups for brainstorming both work ideas and feedback.
  • Offer benefits and flexibility. Such as day care, childcare subsidies, flexible schedules, and accommodation of cultural and religious holidays.
  • Also: Set up mentoring networks. Emphasize opportunities for advancement. Hold safe exit interviews so companies can actually identify the problems harming their retention.

Tech companies have the tools, research, brains, and motivation (even if it is only, cynically, stopping the bad press) to stop systematic gender bias in its tracks. Here’s hoping they recognize their power and do it.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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