Overcoming Unconscious Biases: Support Women in Technology

Overcoming Unconscious Biases: Support Women in TechnologyAs we approach Mother’s Day, we’re once again reflecting on the reasons why women and technology are a perfect match. In 2013, we proclaimed that working moms love IT—and the statement remains true today. Studies detail the measurable impact women can have on tech teams and the desirable benefits tech careers offer women, but there remains a deficit of female techies in the workplace. How can such a disparity exist? Despite the innovative nature of the tech industry and technology careers in general, women in tech positions—as in other fields—still face gender biases.

Often these biases are completely unconscious—and not limited to men. But that doesn’t make them any less tangible. A Digital Trends article reported on studies from Harvard Business School, Wharton, MIT Sloan, and Yale, which uncovered accounts of gender bias against women working in technology. These biases range from preferential treatment of a male-narrated pitch over a woman’s, to unbalanced performance reviews of male and female tech all-stars — revealing 85 percent more negative reviews of women than of men. These findings aren’t limited to Silicon Valley. Another study found that within the tech industry, women who hold technology positions perceive more gender inequality than women who hold non-technical positions.

But there’s good news: while unconscious gender bias can’t necessarily be “controlled,” by continually fighting for gender parity in tech careers and bringing these biases to light we can move toward eradicating them. Male and female techies shouldn’t feel chastised for their unconscious biases, but tech remains a male-dominated industry which means we should be working to move the needle to gender equality in the workplace. To help in this endeavor, we’ve compiled a list of unconscious biases to recognize and action steps that we in the tech industry can use to foster change.

 

Bias: Hire What You Get, Hire What You Know

One of the arguments companies make for hiring more male techies than female techies is that the disparity is reflective of their application pool. But research has shown a gender bias pattern when it comes to hiring that extends beyond this explanation. A LinkedIn investigation revealed that LinkedIn Search queries were more likely to produce male names than female names—the result of human-generated algorithms and machine learning from a general pattern of more male-name searches than female. Yet another study found that women who used feminine words to describe themselves in cover letters and applications were viewed as less qualified for jobs in male-dominated fields.

Supervisors and hiring managers can also fall into the trap of “hiring what they know”—or favoring a male candidate because his personality, skill sets, and experience are similar to other successful employees within the company. The problem with this logic is research has continually shown that diverse tech teams outperform their unilateral counterparts. Though there’s been an increase in the number of women working in technology—up to nearly half of the technology workforce—an imbalance remains in managerial and top-earning tech occupations. This means that companies are still not receiving the greatest output—and diversity of innovative ideas—from the top-down.

Course of Action: Change The “Norm”

  1. Rewrite Application Standards. As a supervisor or hiring manager, if your candidate pool is comprised of more male techies than female techies, it’s time to take a new approach to your hiring practices. A diverse pool of candidates is important to help you truly identify the best fit for an open IT gig. One of the ways you can encourage more women to apply to your positions is by including fewer criteria on your job descriptions. Research has shown that women won’t apply for positions unless they feel they are 100 percent qualified, whereas men will apply if they feel they are 60 percent qualified. By focusing more on true technical criteria rather than preferential skills, you’ll increase the likelihood that female techies will consider your opportunity.
  2. Support the Younger Generation. Supporting women in tech starts by encouraging girls to code. Volunteer to lead a boot camp, workshop, or get involved with other girls in tech programs. Doing so will set the precedent that gender diversity in tech matters to you, and that you want to help make a difference for future generations.
  3. Raise Diversity Standards. Create a plan to hire more female techies. For a tech company, this could include hiring more women in non-technical roles to increase the appeal of your company culture for female techies. For other tech teams, it could mean setting a timeline and specific goals for diversifying your tech hiring. Either way, as you begin to move the needle toward diversity, hiring men-only will no longer be your “norm,” and will therefore increase the likelihood that you’ll continually be open to new and more diverse hires on your tech team.

 

Bias: The Expectation of Family Commitments

Women working in technology have reported that assumptions about their family life, marital status, and children are among the greatest unconscious biases they face in the workplace. According to one survey, 75 percent of women get asked about their family life during job interviews. But because of the implications that can be drawn from discussing family life (i.e. increased need for time off, maternity leave, etc.) 40 percent of women feel they need to carefully guard these details during interviews.

The result? Even before they begin a new tech gig, female techies may feel singled out, scrutinized, and defensive. This contributes greatly to the reason why nearly 60 percent leave the technology industry at midpoints in their career. Retention is one of the greatest challenges hindering gender parity in tech; fighting against this bias is one of the greatest opportunities technology professionals have to make a difference.

Course of Action: Replace “Motherhood” With “Parenthood”

  1. Make Work A Family Matter. One of the surest ways to help women techies feel less singled-out about their family life? Talk about your own! Beat down the “brogrammer” stereotype by opening up about your nieces/nephews, partner, children, etc. Help plan a bring your child to work day, and give the whole team an opportunity to relate to one another.
  2. Support Paternity Leave. When women get asked about their family lives during an interview, it implies that the interviewer is really asking, “will you need to take extended time off?” The possibility of maternity leave in itself is a source of bias against women, in and outside of the tech industry. Companies can squash that by adjusting their parental leave policy to offer an equal amount of paternity leave. While you may not be in a position to make this change yourself, you can suggest and support this benefit by speaking to your supervisor or HR representative. Communicate that a paternity leave policy helps to remove bias against female techies by evening the time-off playing field, and promoting the idea that men and women play an equal role in parenting.
  3. Prioritize Outputs Over Time. Flexible scheduling helps working mothers (and fathers) be engaged at work and at home. This has long been one of the assets of the tech industry for working parents. But templatised work—converting time-based work to output-based work—may be of even greater value. This kind of system gives both men and women the flexibility to deliver quality work in whatever time that work takes—not necessarily 40 hours a week. Whether or not you have the power to implement such a policy, you can support working moms and dads by adjusting your mindset. Set aside judgments about time spent in the office and ask yourself, “does she or he consistently provide value to our team?”

 

Bias: Equality Includes Behavior

Even in cases where companies have increased diversity among their tech teams, female techies have still experienced tension resulting from a lack of diversity. At first, this may sound absurd—but the issue isn’t lack of female techies physically present in the workplace. What such companies are lacking is equality of different gender characteristics. Ultimately, in these workplaces women have been hired with the unconscious expectation that they will behave more like their male counterparts. When female techies experience discriminatory behavior—such as the 90 percent of women who witnessed sexist behavior at company off-sites or the 54 percent of female techies who reported gender inequality at work (compared with 45 percent of working women overall)—they feel pressure to behave more like men. This is amplified by other reports, including the fact that opportunities and promotions go to male techies at a higher rate than women working in technology.

On the flip side, when women techies do make an attempt to act more like men, they receive pushback. One survey revealed that 84 percent of women working in tech were told they were “too aggressive” at work. Some experts refer to this phenomenon as a “double bind”—meaning that women can be chastised for both acting too feminine and too masculine. As a result, women can feel exhausted from constantly trying to monitor the way their actions and characteristics may be coming across to colleagues, and this is another major cause of their eventual exodus from tech.

Not only is this unconscious bias a problem in that it drives women from tech, but it also nullifies the positive benefits—like increased productivity and strengthening a company’s bottom line—to diversifying a tech team. The primary strength of a diverse tech team exists in its differences. By pressuring every person on a team to act the same, diversity is not truly achieved.

 Course of Action: Acknowledge the Imbalance

  1. Embrace Differences. The key way that you can support women working in tech? Understand what it means for women to work in tech. While everyone should be expected to produce high quality work and behave professionally, everyone’s personalities don’t need to be the same. Acknowledge and respect your peers—male and female—for their differences. If you notice a disproportionate number of women leaving your team, take the initiative to find out why rather than making assumptions about women in general. Other actions you can take include training women in a more step-by-step manner, rather than encouraging “trial and error,” which is a learning method preferred by men.
  2. Create Transparency. If you want everyone to be treated equally, make it clear how you treat everyone else. For supervisors, this includes developing a transparent performance review system that gives women confidence their evaluations are not biased.
  3. Buck Cultural Trends. Be open in your encouragement of female colleagues. There is a cultural expectation for women to be humble (and not “aggressive” as mentioned above) so they’re often uncomfortable talking about their successes. By acknowledging their victories and encouraging them to bring those accomplishments to light, you’ll simultaneously promote their skills and quell unconscious expectations.

 

As previously stated, achieving gender parity and eliminating implicit gender bias against women is the responsibility of everyone in the technology industry. Women are making their voices heard through social media campaigns like #ILookLikeAnEngineer and other global initiatives. In Minnesota, female leaders are on a mission to transform tech by speaking out about their own extraordinary journeys. Tech is a field that is capable of rapid change—but it starts with you, IT pros, standing up for gender parity and investing in the future possibilities of your work. Together we can make it happen!

We love helping women in tech launch and advance their careers. Contact an ESP IT recruiter or account executive today to learn more about how we can partner with you to make a difference.

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