Designing Away Discrimination

The latest chapter in our culture wars is still unfolding across social media following the firing of a male Google engineer over his authorship of a sexist memo.

WOC in Tech Chat / Creative Commons

Google is hardly alone in confronting sexism in tech. One day before the engineer in question was fired, reports came out that TIME Magazine was facing a lawsuit for gender discrimination against a high ranking female editor who says she was bullied by a younger male colleague. Last week, FOX’s Eric Bolling was suspended over accusations he sent lewd texts to colleagues less than a year after FOX’s top host and its CEO were ousted over sexism. And remember Uber, and the widespread allegations of sexual harassment there? That was only just last month, but already we’ve moved on to the backlash feared by many women in venture capital funding who took their stories to the media.

These abundant examples of gender discrimination are hopefully raising awareness of the many issues women are facing in the workplace, where few females make it to the C-suite. But the incidents and uproar beg the question: now what? Amidst the outrage on both sides, an opportunity remains overlooked to cut past the rhetoric and address the policies and factors enabling discrimination to persist. It’s something companies should be keenly aware of both to protect themselves, and to verify that they are running a truly inclusive workplace.

Research indicates that there is a solution: Managers can design away discrimination.

The Google memo argues that women aren’t biologically capable of succeeding equally as men at the company, and that they are overly anxious and less interested in high status positions because their value lies more in their “beauty.” What the author ignores are reams of research demonstrating that diverse groups are more creative, innovative and, in the case of companies with more female managers and board members, more profitable.

While many organizations give much more than lip service to equality and invest in expensive diversity training programs, these often don’t target the pervasive and subtle ways unconscious bias leads to discrimination. Societally we are all enmeshed in ingrained unconscious bias, with pronounced effects in the technology industry. Paul Gompers and Sophie Wang of the National Bureau of Economic Research used a data set of Harvard MBA students between 2013 -2016 to examine homophily, or the desire to associate with those similar to you, in entrepreneurial team formation. Their studies reveal that homophily in gender and ethnicity affect team formation by 25 percent and serve as a stronger motivator than either shared educational institutions or past working experience.

We can manage our way out of this problem by implementing systemic approaches to test and track solutions to the problem of assembling the highest performing, profit-making leadership teams.

In her book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Iris Bohnet writes that companies can use proven design templates to correct unconscious bias, and give women more power in business in Silicon Valley. It starts with the hiring. Many candidates are sourced from personal networks, which tend to be made up of similar people. Open hiring can help ensure that there is a level playing field. When dealing with pay, companies should not ask for a salary history, as that could bias employers and disadvantage women and minorities who were previously underpaid. There’s now legislation in Massachusetts and other states to restrict asking for salary history. And there are hiring techniques that can be employed, such as asking evaluators to compare two or more actual candidates against each other, to calibrate observations and avoid reliance on internal stereotypes as a gauge. Stereotypes are activated by subtle cues and can become self-fulfilling prophecies for who opts in and out of certain roles in industries. Put differently: Small changes can have surprising effects, and role models powerfully help shape perceptions of what is possible.

These steps are similarly codified in the five-point action plan advanced by the Paradigm for Parity coalition of business leaders and academics, dedicated to addressing the leadership gender gap in corporate America. Their road map to achieve gender parity by 2030 adds another interesting suggestion: collect data.

If your organization has gender parity, it’s increasingly easy to collect data that demonstrates equality, especially in media organizations. At Public Radio International, for example, editors track the gender of those bylining articles, those quoted in stories and those interviewed on air. Top management consistently reviews that data to determine that both genders are being given equal air time. If TIME Magazine is also tracking the presence of women on the pages of its magazine, then it should easily be able to defend itself against discrimination accusations in its lawsuit that charges the magazine ignores stories about women. It’s more common, though, that data is pointing out bias. For example, last month data on salaries at the BBC showed a massive discrepancy in pay to women, and prompted outrage among female staff.

Nationally, we spend almost $14 billion on leadership development, according to McKinsey & Co—but to what impact? Empowering mentors and sponsors who take active ownership over mentees career advancement can offer the support that many young women feel is needed when entering a predominantly male environment. In some cases, single gender quotas may be needed, and should be considered.

These management strategies make for higher performing workplaces anyway, but they are particularly good at eliminating the potential for unconscious bias to cloud our judgment. Clear targets and performance indicators for all employees can help management know for certain who is outperforming and who is lagging.

No one has believed longer and harder in the meritocracy than America’s women. But by any measure, the playing field and professional achievement remain deeply unequal for half the labor force—and certainly for women in America’s innovation labs. It’s time to move beyond agreement on the professional definitions of acceptable behavior to management tools and techniques VC firms can track and measure.

There is no design-free world. Until the framework shifts from helping women navigate an existing playing field to redesigning the field, it may be for naught.

Sarah O’Hagan is the board chair of the Fuller Project for International Reporting, an independent media organization that reports the news that matters most to women, around the world and in the U.S.

ms. blog digest banner