Gabby Burlacu 22 Jun 2017 03:59pm

How to address gender bias in the technology industry

The technology industry is growing and innovating like never before, making it one of the most exciting, impactful, and dynamic fields to work in on the planet

Caption: Women who apply for tech jobs receive lower starting salary offers than men nearly two thirds of the time.

However unfortunately, it isn’t the friendliest place for women to grow their careers. Women who apply for tech jobs receive lower starting salary offers than men nearly two thirds of the time. Women under 25 in this industry earn 81% of what their male counterparts make.

They face overt discrimination and macho culture, which results in a quit rate for women that is double that of men. And these trends, already disheartening, only capture the experiences of women who gain access to tech roles in the first place - many are discouraged long before they get the chance to apply or be hired. And as for driving the innovation that keeps this industry exciting, last year female start-ups received less than 3% of the funding male-led start-ups received.

As the global workforce becomes more diverse and skills gaps continue to widen, driving the war for skilled expertise, an entire industry that fails to fully leverage 50% of the available talent in the market is downright dangerous. Tech companies that fail to create equal opportunities for women are not only leaving serious capital on the table, they risk overlooking the skills they need in order to survive and serve an increasingly diverse customer base. In short, keeping the technology industry a “boy’s club” is making less and less sense by the day.

This issue is further complicated by the fact that business leaders are not intentionally keeping women out. So what can companies do below the leadership level to ensure the playing field is even, and talent rises to the top? In order to truly influence female representation and inclusion in tech, companies need to consider whether their practices are creating an environment for everyone - or just some - to thrive.

Recognise the impact of retention

With the best of intentions, some tech companies have sought to increase the number of women working for them by hiring more women. This is certainly an essential first step. But when diversity efforts are linked only to recruiting, everything that follows runs the risk of driving women out. This extends beyond the press coverage we’ve seen indicating that culturally, tech companies have a long way to go before they are truly gender inclusive. It’s also about the processes used to manage and engage employees.

Research from Stanford University shows that gender bias can infiltrate performance management and feedback, with women receiving feedback that is vaguer, less tied to business objectives, and therefore less useful in building a career. Career development processes are also far from equitable, with women reporting greater difficulty in finding mentors. And the lack of representation of women in leadership in the tech industry is a clear outcome of biased promotion processes.

Recruiting may be a starting point for bringing women in, but companies in the tech industry will greatly benefit from creating and implementing processes that get them to stay.

Beware of unstructured human capital management

In recent years continuous performance management practices have gained popularity, driving more informal, conversational methods of managing employee performance and motivation. Compared to a formal, documented annual review, this approach is considered to be more similar to how employees actually work and it’s supposed to be more favorable for managers and employees, since it takes a lot of the structure and rigidity of performance management off their plates.

But from a diversity perspective, processes that remove manager accountability and allow full discretion in how to reward, develop and assess employees can be disastrous. Recent research shows that gender differences in rewards are fourteen times greater than gender differences in performance ratings, with women getting the short end of the stick.

This effect is even larger in male-dominated industries like tech, or in highly skilled positions. Now imagine the effect when there is no performance rating to anchor compensation decisions to.

While reduced structure in HR processes can be beneficial, organisations should ensure that these approaches are adopted in conjunction with rigorous manager training and a method of accountability that directly addresses the implications of the decisions they will now have full discretion in making.

Drive action, not awareness

Training has become the single most common approach to addressing diversity challenges in the tech industry. This is unfortunate, since it doesn’t work, at least not in the long term. This training tends to cover unconscious bias and the impact this has on how we make decisions. But while this kind of material helps drive awareness, it does little to actually change behaviour, especially since the behaviors are being driven unconsciously.

The solution for organisations is not just to drive awareness, but also to provide decision-makers with the tools they need to inform better, less biased decision making as they’re making decisions.

This can take the form of providing business leaders with relevant data, or circumventing the bias process entirely by creating opportunities for “blind” reviews of job candidate or employee capabilities and skills. While these tools may be a departure from how decisions are currently made, this is the kind of change that the tech industry needs in order to fully leverage available skilled talent and stay a dynamic, forward-thinking, and exciting place to work in the years to come.

Gabby Burlacu, human capital management researcher, SAP SuccessFactors