Behavior Is Not the Problem, Bias Is

Lately, there’s been a renewed, international discussion around harassment and discrimination against women in the workplace. Hopefully this new attention to an age-old problem means that change is coming. Real change, not just talk. But change requires action, and the right actions might require really understanding the numbers and identifying what causes the gap between men and women’s positioning and advancement at work.

A quick review of the facts about women in technology

Let’s start with troubling stats about the state of the the pipeline of women in tech:

Declining number of women computer science majors: While the percentage of women entering STEM fields in general has risen, the reverse trend is underway in computer science. The percentage of female computer – and information-science majors peaked in 1984, at about 37 percent; today it stands at 18 percent.

Perception of fewer advancement opportunities by women in IT: 43% of women polled cited the lack of advancement opportunities as a challenge to working in IT, versus 26% of men. And 44% of women with 8 or more years of experience, considered the lack of advancement opportunities in IT pervasive.

When it comes to women holding leadership roles in the technology industry, the stats paint an even grimmer picture:

Women hold roughly 11% of executive positions in Silicon Valley.

On the Forbes list of 19 Most Powerful Women in Business 2017, none of the women who made the business list are in technology.

These data points aren’t surprising. Much like finance and politics, the technology field has long been a male-dominated industry. And as women climb the ranks, they find themselves in the company of fewer and fewer women. What is new is a growing body of industry research focused on solving this gender gap. Some of the answers are pointing to a plain and simple cause: bias.

Men and women found to network and perform similarly

The Harvard Business Review recently conducted a study that set out to determine if different behavioral patterns between men and women contributed to the fact that men held more senior-level positions than women. But instead of using surveys or self-assessments, this study used sensors to measure movement and instruments to capture dialogue to report where people communicate, who talks with whom, and who dominates conversations.

Tellingly, the report summarizing the study’s finding found that the behavior of women and men did not significantly diverge and could not account for differences in their career advancement:  “Some have argued that women lack access to important, informal networks because they don’t reach out to or spend time with ‘the boys club.’ But this didn’t hold up in our data. We found that the amount of direct interaction with management was identical between genders and that women were just as central as men in the workplace’s social network.”

[su_pullquote align=”right”]This study used sensors to measure movement and instruments to capture dialogue to report where people communicate, who talks with whom, and who dominates conversations.[/su_pullquote]

Furthermore, in performance evaluations, the report found that men and women received statistically identical scores – at each level of seniority: “Despite the mirror-like performance at this organization, women weren’t advancing, and men were.”

No, YOU lean in.

If the behaviors are the same, what explains the differences in outcomes? According to HBR, bias.

“Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. This indicates that arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean-in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

If working as hard, performing as well, and being as proactive in talking to senior managers as men doesn’t level the playing field, what does? The answer: sweeping, sustained change that begins with a new kind of leader who embraces difference – different perspectives, different voices, different experiences.

We need to cultivate leaders who are prepared to end the gender employment imbalances that plague the technology sector. This undertaking will take awareness-raising, an understanding of the value of diversity, and the skill sets required to achieve it. But when it comes, the change will benefit not just individuals but entire organizations – after all, promoting diversity isn’t just casting a vote for equality and fairness, it also makes plain old business sense.

Technology is a fast-paced industry; the change we envision must come swiftly, too.

Brown University School of Professional Studies

Brown University School of Professional Studies

To ensure you have the critical skills needed to be a tech industry leader, learn more about the Brown University Executive Master in Science and Technology Leadership, a program designed to transform engineering, science, and technology professionals into leaders prepared to drive innovation in today’s complex, rapidly evolving, global markets.

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