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Fixing tech’s gender bias

September 24, 2014

Joan C. Williams’s recent HBR story Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem not only does a fantastic job of drawing attention to organizational gender bias in the tech sector, but she also has some great ideas about how to fix the problem.

“When Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Facebook disclosed their woefully low levels of female employment in the summer of 2014, admitting that they had a lot of work to do to improve them, they signaled a shift for the technology industry,” she writes. “It’s remarkable that the sector is finally stepping up to the plate on [gender] diversity—and refreshing that its focus is on metrics rather than rhetoric.

“Make no mistake: Improving those metrics will be challenging. A key feature of the tech culture—the shared belief that it’s a meritocracy—may work against change. An important study by Emilio J. Castilla and Stephen Benard has shown that when an organization’s core values state that raises and promotions are “based entirely on the performance of the employee”—in other words, when a company sees itself as a meritocracy—women are actually more likely to get smaller bonuses than men with equivalent performance reviews. Subtle biases against women are clearly at work here. Moreover, 40 years of social science research have taught us that such biases will be perpetuated unless they’re intentionally interrupted, and people who think they work for meritocracies are less likely to do what it takes to interrupt them.”

This is an important and timely article because since nearly all tech companies understand a “fail fast, break things, and move fast mentality,” they are also well positioned to move the needle on organizational gender diversity. Especially as tech companies see how gender bias can make a real impact on their bottom line.

The next question you should be asking is: Are the women in your organization encountering one or more basic patterns of gender bias that Williams describes?  Below are a few examples of bias that women experience.

The competence bias: Scores of studies show that women often have to provide more evidence of competence than men do to be seen as equally capable.

The tightrope bias: This is the kind of bias faced by women at the salary negotiation phase. High-status jobs are seen as requiring stereotypically masculine qualities, while women are expected to be modest and self-effacing, so women must walk a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be effective and too masculine to be likable.

The maternal bias: The bias triggered by motherhood has dramatic effects. In one famous study subjects evaluated pairs of equally qualified candidates, one of whom was a mother. The subjects received identical résumés, but the candidate who was a mother varied. The researchers found that mothers were 79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.

The tug of war bias: This pattern, reported by 45% of the women interviewed, occurs when gender bias against women fuels conflict among women. Research shows that women who encounter discrimination early in their careers tend to distance themselves from other women, refuse to help them, or even align themselves with men at other women’s expense.

I agree with Williams when she says: “Doing anything once will not change organizational culture forever. You need to continually interrupt bias.” It’s not only a moral imperative that we recognize and fix the bias against women in our organizations, but it’s good for business too.

Some tips to help eliminate bias are actually quite easy to do. Simply steering clear of masculine gendered words, such as “competitive, assertive, and ambitious” in job descriptions is a start. It’s also important for organizations to make sure that male and female team members have equal access to growth projects as well as training.

And since men continue to be compensated better, and promoted more than women, it’s critical that organizations combat this bias by implementing systems that set equal compensation and advancement metrics for both men and women.

So what is your organization doing to ensure gender diversity?

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