Imagine the scene: You’re a young woman studying STEM on the hunt for your first job out of college. You check out a talk by recruiters at your university from a big Silicon Valley company. Onstage, a couple of guys make jokes about video games you’ve never heard of and drop references to porn. You zone out because their jokes aren’t relevant to your interests. They play a promo video for their company, and the only women featured are cast in support roles, answering calls for their male colleagues with helpful, happy smiles. The men on stage joke about all the beer pong in the office and their “work hard, play harder” culture—long hours in a frat-like environment aren’t really selling it for you. Their female colleague is busy fixing snacks for everyone and doesn’t get up on stage to talk. It’s hard to imagine yourself fitting in at the company.
Situations like those described in the above scene are actually quite common, says Alison Wynn, a research associate at Stanford‘s VMware Women‘s Leadership Innovation Lab. Wynn shared her qualitative observations last year, after she and three undergraduate research assistants attended 84 recruiting sessions at an elite West Coast university. Their goal? to understand why recruiters weren’t connecting with women. Working with Dr. Shelley Correll, Wynn and their team blended in with the students and observed sessions incognito and found that many tech companies had surprisingly gendered recruiting practices that created “a chilly climate” for women, like the one described above. Their work revealed that while there’s a serious lack of women in STEM jobs, recruiters aren’t doing enough to help address the gender gap.
This isn’t great news, given that women are hugely underrepresented in positions of power in the tech world. According to 2019’s Silicon Valley Bank Startup Outlook Survey, which looked at tech and healthcare founders and executives in the US, the UK, China, and Canada, only 56% of startups had a single woman in an executive role and just 40% had a woman on the board of directors. This is actually something many startups say they want to change: Six in 10 had programs to increase women in leadership. So why are so many failing to change the status quo?
Many companies are failing at a recruitment level. “In general, I think recruiters are deeply committed to increasing diversity and inclusion, but they just don’t know how to do it,” Wynn says. “Or they don’t know just how ineffective their company’s recruiting efforts are currently.”
For one, recruiters fail to present women in positions of power. Many companies Wynn and Correll observed either didn’t bother sending women from their own companies to recruitment sessions, or men treated the women colleagues with subtle gendered differences. “Across many sessions, male presenters shared the spotlight with one another” but failed to do so with their female colleagues, explain Wynn and Correll in their study. Instead “female company representatives set up the food and decorations, handed out t-shirts, and collected résumés, often without ever speaking or being introduced to the audience by their male colleagues.” Female engineers presented technical content in only 22% of the recruiting sessions the team observed.
Small details matter, too. Do all the men introduce themselves but the women get introduced? Wynn and Correll observed a male recruiter, for example, introducing his college by saying: “This is Kathy. She’s really nice. She cries easily.”
Research shows that the role models we see actually influence our perceptions of what we’re capable of achieving. So if you want to inspire more women to work at your tech company, you should present the women who already work at your company as strong role models. “Candidates are trying to picture themselves at your company,” says Wynn. “So make sure they can envision themselves being happy, respected, and successful.”
Wynn and the research team noticed that recruiters often failed to connect with women in the audience by using gendered pop culture references. For instance, in one case, which they detailed in their report, a recruiter from a big online retailer shared a slide featuring the vintage cartoon characters Popeye and Olive: “Popeye, a man flexing his burly biceps, had the label ‘data plane,’ and Olive, his demure female counterpart—her heart shown beating out of her chest, as if she were swooning over her man—had the label ‘control plane.'”
Recruiters need to be trained to recognize the stereotypes they might unconsciously hold, says Julie Elberfeld, senior vice president, card technology and executive sponsor of diversity and inclusion for technology at Capital One. “We know that as humans, we carry unconscious or implicit biases, so it is important for all of us to look at our risk for bias, but more importantly, to learn techniques for mitigating bias,” says Elberfeld. “Many of us have seen a narrative in the tech industry that implies women are just not a fit for the tech world. Otherwise, we would see them in it. This generalized narrative is false and is rooted in stereotypes and biases.”
Capital One’s 2019 Women in Tech survey showed that when women do have tech jobs, nearly 80% are happy with their work, and the majority also describe themselves as good at their jobs.
Another thing recruiters need to be aware of is the confidence gap between women and men. Women are less likely than men to think they’re competent, even when they’re equally skilled. Many qualified women are falling through the cracks: While 40% of men with these STEM college degrees work in their field, only 26% of women do. “My suggestion to recruiters would be to consider carefully how jobs are described and marketed,” says Wynn. “Be sure that you only list job qualifications that are truly necessary to perform the job successfully. Listing too many extraneous qualifications will discourage women more readily than men.”
It’s crucial recruiters take steps to offset the gender balance in tech, because tech companies are shaping the future in many ways—a future that half of the population deserves to be part of. “Right now, the people creating the technologies that will change how we work, communicate, and live, are largely white and Asian men. Although they’re revolutionizing technology, they may understandably create products that reflect their worldview,” says Elberfeld. “The time is now, in the midst of this digital revolution, to embrace the value of diverse teams in tech.”
The spelling of Alison Wynn’s name has been corrected.