Women Still Facing Discrimination in Tech Jobs

One way to solve the decades-long problem might be to train employees to recognize their biases

17 April 2017

As a senior engineer at Second Life in her 30s, Bethanye Blount noticed people frequently would ask male colleagues questions that were in her area of expertise. And at meetings, she was often the one asked to take notes. She also found that male job applicants were dismissive of her, despite knowing she would help determine whether they got the job.

Those are not uncommon experiences for women in tech, according to the cover story in The Atlantic this month. “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” reports on the discrimination they experience, including being silenced or verbally attacked when expressing their opinions.

Blount, who was interviewed for the article, says circumstances are no better now than they were 25 years ago when she began her career. Last year she launched Cathy Labs, a Silicon Valley company that provides software compensation tools to help startup founders grow their companies.

While women have made strides in law, medicine, and other fields, the article points out, only a quarter of U.S. computing and math jobs are held by women—and that number is declining. Not only are fewer women hired, but they also leave the tech field at more than twice the rate men do.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

After Google first disclosed its workforce statistics in 2014, revealing that 17 percent of its technical employees were women, it decided to take action. It changed its hiring practices and implemented inclusion programs to help ensure all employees are treated fairly and respectfully. Other high-tech companies followed suit. Intel and Facebook now are spending small fortunes to increase diversity in their workplaces. The number of women working at those companies, however, has barely budged, according to The Atlantic.

The article points to a 2015 study published in Science indicating that those in math and science fields tend to be perceived as having an innate knack for the subjects—something more likely to be seen as a male trait. The authors found fewer female Ph.D.’s in those fields for which people prized inborn talent.

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

One way to increase diversity might be to train people to be aware of their biases and how to avoid them, according to the article. Facebook and Google have posted videos (here’s an example) of their training modules for other employers to follow.

The idea that everyone holds biases and that there is nothing wrong with having them is a core tenet of the training, according to Joelle Emerson, founder of Paradigm, a company in San Francisco that helps organizations—including Airbnb, Pinterest, and Slack—implement strategies to improve diversity and inclusion.

Biases help people take shortcuts, relying on the subconscious to make decisions quickly, Emerson says. When sorting through résumés, a hiring manager might take note of a university he’s familiar with or a conventional “white or male name,” and that candidate gets a job interview without the manager realizing why he selected that person over others.

Unconscious-bias training could backfire, however. Employees tend to resent others telling them how to behave, and trying force them to do something could provoke them to do the opposite. To get around that, at Facebook the sessions are “suggested,” not mandatory. Part of the training requires a safe space where employees can concede, for example, that they believe men are better than women at math. But that could normalize prejudices and even lead to people being more accepting of their bias if others agree with them, according to the Atlantic article. Some might even become more biased by accepting things are “just the way they are,” it says.

Some experts in workplace diversity and inclusion argue that instead of hosting training sessions for employees, it would be more useful for hiring managers to have an anti-bias checklist.

Startups are popping up in Silicon Valley that are developing software to help businesses avoid bias during the hiring process. GapJumpers, for example, hides identifying information on résumés, including names, until job applicants perform a test to assess their skills. Unitive provides hiring managers with interview questions designed to focus on relevant skills, while avoiding queries that can reveal bias.

But even when women land high-tech jobs, biases in the workplace still need to be addressed to keep them in the field.

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