Diversity & Inclusion

Interrupting gender bias: Fire away!

by Michael P. Maslanka

I am honored to be a Bedford mentor at the University of North Texas School of Law in Dallas. Mentors divide into numerous small groups with students, and each group reads a different book on a matter of public interest. Our book is Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzezinski. So I read with interest an article in the October 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review, “Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem” by Joan C. Williams. As its title indicates, the article deals with issues at tech companies, but her advice is portable to all businesses. First, though, some statistics. Solution - break the rule

According to the article, tech companies have a “brogrammer” culture that is very male-focused. Williams notes that 37% of computer science degrees were awarded to women in 1985; by contrast, that number dropped to 18% in 2012. Women held 37% of all computing jobs in 1991; today, it’s down to 26%. And in the tech industry, 41% of women leave their jobs after 10 years, as opposed to 17% of men.

Williams also offers some interesting statistics on the tech industry and motherhood. She says that in one famous study, subjects evaluated pairs of equally qualified candidates with a single variance: One résumé identified the applicant as a “mother,” while the other did not. Who got selected? When all the numbers were crunched, the results were amazing. The research found that mothers were 79% less likely to be hired and half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards.

According to the article, there’s also a cruel catch-22 for working mothers. A different study looked at mothers who were considered “indisputably competent” and “committed” to work, but perversely, because of their dedication to their job, they were seen as bad mothers and bad people. The result? They faced overall dislike and yet again being held to higher performance standards.

Williams suggests that to combat bias—in tech companies or elsewhere—employers should deploy what she calls an “interrupter.” She offers three.

Interrupter No. 1: In job ads, state that “salary is negotiable.” Williams cites a study of two versions of job announcements for administrative assistants in stereotypically masculine businesses: NASCAR, football, and basketball. One version of the job announcement said zip about salaries; the other noted that salary was “negotiable.” That difference made all the difference. The “salary negotiable” group closed the gap between job offers made to men and women. The bonus: The gap closed but it happened without anyone talking about bias or even raising it as an issue.

Interrupter No. 2: Scrub words like “competitive,” “assertive,” and “ambitious” from job advertisements and job descriptions. Those words are masculine-focused words, and using them results in fewer female applicants. Williams suggests that hiring managers should be given blind résumés if possible, so they can’t tell whether the applicant is a man or a woman.

Interrupter No. 3: Get rid of seemingly innocent interview questions such as: “Tell me about a personal or professional accomplishment that best shows your strengths.” Why are these types of questions problematic? Williams writes that women traditionally will tell the interviewer how proud they are of their kids; men will give a more work- related answer. The latter response advances careers, while the former doesn’t.

The author’s bottom line: “Unlike women’s initiatives, which often seek to fix women, and unlike stand-alone bias training, which can make diversity metrics worse, interrupters do something novel. They identify how bias is playing out in real time. And they short-circuit it.” It’s true that an “interrupter” sounds like a weapon out of a Star Trek episode, but Williams might be onto something. So, as Captain Kirk would say: “Mr. Sulu, fire the interrupters!”

Michael P. Maslanka is an attorney with Fisher Broyles in Dallas, Texas. He may be contacted at Michael.Maslanka@FisherBroyles.com