It’s not just a pipeline problem: Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
When Julie Oberweis and Monica Leas first started talking about gender discrimination in the workplace at tech and venture capital firms, they heard a similar refrain: “it’s a pipeline problem“—there simply aren’t enough women studying technical fields. Some of the more hopeful even suggested that the problem would right itself over time as more women chose to major in STEM fields.
One problem with this narrative, however, was that it took the responsibility for encouraging diversity out of the hands of the venture capital and tech firms themselves, letting them shrug their shoulders and raise their hands in helplessness: it’s not our fault. In other words, the pipeline narrative had become an excuse for the lack of diversity, not the first steps towards a solution.
So Oberweis and Leas dug deeper. As fellows at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, they conducted dozens of interviews and surveyed more than 200 senior-level women in tech and venture capital fields. Through their research they uncovered some alarming patterns on the origins of gender discrimination in the tech industry and some possible solutions to this longstanding issue.
On Tuesday they joined us to discuss their findings and some potential solutions. (View the full webinar below.)
Leas and Oberweis don’t claim that the pipeline isn’t a problem; it is. But to reduce the lack of gender diversity in tech to a leaky pipeline oversimplifies things. For instance, Oberweis and Leas identified two other important obstacles to promoting gender diversity through hiring, especially in venture capital firms: similarity bias and structural barriers.
Networks matter in the venture capital industry—a lot—and venture capitalists tend to bond with people who look and think like them (i.e., “similarity bias”). Since VC firms have historically been run by men, similarity bias suggests that they’ll hire other men like themselves. Furthermore, VC firms are small, have little turnover, and are promoting fewer people internally, all of which means that women have little chance to break into the industry and few paths to promotion once they’re there.
But if getting more women into tech and VC firms is a problem, Oberweis and Leas’s research showed that retention is also crucial.
Sexual harassment has grabbed headlines recently, and in their interviews and surveys, Oberweis and Leas did uncover evidence of widespread harassment. Many women recounted horrifying stories. What surprised the researchers, however, was how few of the women who experienced harassment reported it.
In many cases, the women felt that reporting would negatively affect their careers—and again, the small, intimate nature of many VC firms compounded the issue. It’s one thing to report sexual harassment at a large firm. It’s quite another to do so in a company with just a handful of people.
But if sexual harassment in tech is what makes headlines, it was the subtle but more frequent kinds of gender discrimination in the workplace that dominated the data Oberweis and Leas collected.
These slights were rarely intentional; rather they usually reflected the unconscious biases of their male peers. Women talked about being mistaken for an administrative assistant because of their gender, being asked to fetch coffee or hang up coats for colleagues of equal standing, or having clients only make eye contact with the other men in the room.
Many of the women laughed these incidents off, according to Leas and Oberweis. But even if a single incident seemed insignificant, over time they added up. And Oberweis and Leas pointed out that the women to whom they spoke were senior-level and sitting on top of established, successful careers. For a junior-level woman just building a career, such a barrage of slights, no matter how small, could be deeply discouraging.
Women also frequently found themselves excluded from social and networking events. In particular, assumptions about “family factors” impacted the way women were treated. Leas and Oberweis talked to one VC partner who described not being invited to late afternoon meetings once she had children. When she confronted her colleagues, she discovered they had assumed she wouldn’t want to attend because of her family. She retorted, “Don’t assume that I don’t want to do the meeting at 5:00pm. If it’s an important meeting, I want to be there.”
Although a lack of gender diversity remains a persistent and deep-seated problem in Silicon Valley, Oberweis and Leas also shared some promising developments.
Facebook, for instance, recently committed to using the “Rooney Rule” in its hiring practices. Named after Dan Rooney, the former head of the NFL’s diversity committee, the Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for senior positions. The idea is to get hiring committees to consider a greater range of candidates than they might otherwise. Within Leas and Oberweis’s framework, it can help Silicon Valley address the distorting effects of similarity bias.
Similarly, Reddit has announced that hires will not be able to negotiate their salary. Studies indicate that salary negotiations can more negatively impact women in comparison to men, and so the process can actually perpetuate gender disparities.
Despite these developments, it’s important to continue the conversation and to share ideas and strategies for addressing these complex issues. Monica Leas and Julie Oberweis’s research points one way forward, and we hope to have the opportunity to talk to them again.
As an employee training company, diversity and gender discrimination in the workplace are topics core to our business—and we’re proud to deliver training solutions to many of the best-known and fastest growing tech companies. Feel free to contact us if you’re interested in learning more.