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Concrete Strategies for Hiring and Retaining Women in Tech (or Any Industry)

February 27, 2018

Emerging tech and cybersecurity are among the worst fields for hiring and retaining women. Concretized by uber engineer Susan J. Fowler’s blog post a year ago, we have seen increasing awareness of the fact that unfortunately, women in tech experience rough treatment across the board

The #metoo movement over the last year has drawn attention to and added another layer of complexity, particularly for fields that have already been difficult for women, but it has also spawned backlash. For example, there was an emboldened response by self-righteous men in tech, encapsulated in a New York Times article, entitled “Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far,” and in Google employee James Damore, whose memo proposed that women are genetically inferior at engineering, and propelled him into fame.

Most of us like to think that we understand why it’s important to have a healthy, diverse workplace. Certainly, the nature of technical work such as coding and artificial intelligence demonstrates that the equitable involvement of women and other individuals from diverse backgrounds contribute value. But when it comes to initiating change in the workplace, it can be tough to know where to start.

Here, I provide some concrete suggestions for folks who want to help – from the C suite, to the developer who sits next to you, to the institutional support staff. Admiring the problem and appointing a “diversity committee” aren’t good enough. The day-to-day experience of these workplaces is paramount, and there is an amalgamation of many factors that we can control.

CEO Level

As the CEO, you may not be focused on the day-to-day as much, but hiring and retention are crucial to a successful company. Industries like tech that experience a dearth of women and minorities are particularly likely to benefit from improvements in:

1)    Provision of family leave for maternity, paternity and other family issues.

The United States is far behind other countries on this point. Even the US federal government doesn’t provide any maternity or paternity leave, designated as such. After giving birth, employees are permitted to use 6 weeks of sick leave (8 weeks if you have a C-Section) in lieu of maternity leave and after that, must use their annual leave-- in other words, vacation. Vacation and sick leave are also only accrued over time; so if employees are fairly new to the government, they wouldn’t have an opportunity to earn the leave. Paternity leave is just as crucial as maternity leave, since in about half of American families led by a married couple, both parents work.

2)    Pregnancy parking and other accessibility issues

This is one that Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her book, Lean In. It wasn’t until she became an executive that she realized that there was no maternity parking. Part of her point was recognizing that there had been plenty of junior employees--and support staff in the cafeteria for example-- who had not been in a position to raise the issue. In addition to nursing mothers’ rooms, there is a variety of other accessibility needs to which men might have the luxury of being blind.

3)    Don’t schedule retreats that conflict with working mothers or caregivers.

Not just for children but also informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law, friends and neighbors, women make up an estimated 66% of caregivers. The average caregiver is a 49 year old woman who works outside the home and provides 20 hours per week of unpaid care to her mother. Corporate retreats or outside activities, from happy hour to kickball leagues or golf games, can put a disproportionate strain on caregivers who need those hours for their “second shift.” Even those termed voluntary are often times that determine who gets cozy with the boss and who gets promoted, or sold to the client.

4)    Don’t create culture in which off-color jokes are acceptable.

Sure, there are some jerks in the workplace, anywhere you go. But turning a blind eye to rude behavior, even in small instances, is an isolating signal to women and minorities. Those jokes are often at the expense of those who aren’t in a position to speak up, so even if we’re laughing along, don’t assume we find it funny – it may be a survival mechanism. Even if “She’s cool with it,” as a CEO, it’s your responsibility to set the tone. Oh, and you’ll have the added benefit of not participating in a “hostile work environment” that might even be illegal.

Coworker level

Ok, so you’re not the CEO. But as a colleague, there are ways that you can have a strong impact on the experience of women in the workplace.

5)    Shine theory

Ann Friedman articulated shine theory in an article in 2013. She suggests that women (and, I would extend it to men) should befriend powerful women, because the shine from their success will rub off and propel those around them. It is a contrast from “queen bee syndrome”, where a woman (or a man) assumes that once you have one powerful woman, that’s “enough” and where the “queen bee” (powerful woman) herself assumes that there is only room for one. In shine theory, we assume that powerful and empowered women beget more of the same, and that it is good for the organization as a whole.

6)    Amplification

A tool that was popularized by the Obama White House, amplification starts from the reality that women often raise an idea that gets ignored, until a man reiterates it--and gets the credit. In fact, research shows that women are interrupted more, by both women and men. Amplification suggests that women (and, I would extend it to men) make a point to repeat it when a woman makes a key point – and credit it back to her. Subtle inequalities like interruption and credit-stealing are hard to point to, but easy to identify in patterns once we are attuned; and subtle tools to combat it may have significant ripples – and reverberations, as coworkers return the favor.

7)    Don’t schedule happy hours for after hours because this is hardest on moms.

When a man leaves the office early to take care of the kids, he’s a good dad. When a woman leaves for the same reason, she isn’t prioritizing work. The double standard is particularly hazardous because women do tend to do more of the household work, including but not exclusive to child raising. We know that women still do a “second shift” at home and we pay for it, not only metaphorically but literally: the disproportionate work at home corresponds to a gender pay gap surfacing during child-bearing and child-rearing years.

Happy hours can be tough for a mom who has daycare restrictions, while dads are more likely to have flexibility because moms are still more commonly the primary caregiver. Consider scheduling group social activities for breakfast, lunch, or day-time coffee.

8)    Create a culture of whistleblowing and anti-harassment as the norm. Be aware of off-color jokes.

Maybe white men don’t consider it their “job” to care about women and minorities’ comfort, but they’re short-sighted. A man may be best positioned to raise issues (even anonymously), because women and minorities fear reprisal. Men are also in the best position to correct an off-color joke or to escalate an issue if it rises to a level of discomfort. They’re less vulnerable institutionally and they may be perceived to be more neutral. This includes correcting the conversation when women or the target of the joke aren’t present-- resist the “in-group” jokes.

Institutional level (HR, Operations, and Chief of Staff)

Don’t stop at diversity committees, diversity retreats, and diversity mentoring. This isn’t a problem for women and minorities to solve. It’s a core, foundational issue that requires institutional buy-in.

9)    Be aware of coded language selecting for male traits in your hiring language.

Recruiters and human resources folks may not realize that they are using terms of art that select for white men. There are helpful tools online, including this one, where you can post your job advertisement to help understand the gender coded under and over tones. Maybe algorithms can even help overcome biases in the hiring process.

10)    Be honest rather than aspirational about hiring requirements

It’s important that hiring managers are aware of how imposter syndrome factors in. Imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women, means that women may feel that they don’t belong or don’t have enough credentials, even if they do. In the hiring environment, this plays out because it turns out that a woman is much less likely to apply for a job where she does not have the exact qualifications, whereas a man will reason, “I’ll learn them.” (Or even may delusionally believe that he already possesses them—the Dunning-Kruger effect is the cognitive bias where a person mistakenly believes his cognitive ability to be greater than it is.)

So, if you’re asking for 10 years of experience but really you’re open to 6 years plus education in the area, consider being explicit about your expectations and your flexibilities on credentialing.

11)    Standardize metrics where possible, to avoid promoting mediocre men

As Harvard Business Review has reported, the problem with women rising in fields might be the fact that higher ranks are clogged with mediocre men. To avoid allowing mediocre men to be promoted, be aware of the confidence gap and minimize the effect of politics or self-promotion upon promotion decisions and attempt to standardize promotion potential and metrics for success.

12)    Publicize where to take escalations

Sometimes, an employee has an issue that cannot go to an immediate supervisor, for a variety of potential reasons (most commonly: it involves the supervisor). Create an avenue for employees to raise legitimate concerns, and to ensure that the company documents and enforces the legal protections around some issues, like harassment-- legal protections like non-retaliation. Put posters in the bathrooms and other public places so employees don’t have to go hunting for the information, and preserve confidentiality or be transparent about your reporting obligations to the company.

Consider implementing a feedback tool like an app where employees can report harassment or assault without choosing to escalate it, so that the institution can correlate data and find patterns and pain points. The technology exists, but it stands to be adopted at the institutional level

13)    Anonymous feedback cuts both ways. Be conscious of ways it can undermine relationships.

Sure, some legally-sophisticated employees know that the HR department exists to preserve the institution. But it’s a moral hazard to pretend that the organization is creating a feedback channel when the executors of it intend to protect the corporation at the expense of a specific person (or many, over time). Amazon has come under fire for a tool that allows employees to anonymously undercut fellow employees, and the anonymization clearly plays a role in the brutality.

Also, be aware of the double edged sword HR may be creating with “anonymous” feedback. I have a friend who attended a mandatory “diversity” day at a tech company and then was punished for expressing her experiences. I know that the institution needs to protect itself, but don’t ask for feedback if you don’t have an avenue to re-integrate information. It’s disingenuous, and a company’s reputation is enduring and far-reaching. Don’t force employees to dig their own graves.

14)    Get specific about your diversity hiring goals, and measure success.

There’s a common saying: the best way to hire women in tech, is to hire women in tech. Make specific goals for the organization, and measure against them. In addition to being the right thing to do, hiring and retaining a diverse workforce is a financially smart investment: diverse companies outperform and are more profitable. In industries like tech where thought itself is a commodity, diversity of thought-- the fact that women and minorities have different life experiences and therefore think (and code) differently, matters.

We owe it to ourselves to get in the trenches on this one. Contact me with your ideas for additional ways to push the ball forward.

On March 9, Merritt will deliver a mentor talk on this subject at SXSW 2018.

The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the FCC, for whom she works.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829