The tech industry epitomizes innovation and progress, yet ironically has some of the most disparate representations of women and minorities of any industry in the U.S. Despite recent efforts to address the diversity gap by corporations, high-profile NGOs, and the public sector, women’s representation in technical and executive leadership roles has not improved since 1991.
To answer that question, UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation and Office of Information Technology convened 250 influential leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors for a conference on April 30th, 2015.
Strategies to reduce inequality in the tech sector fall into three main categories: personal, private and public. Rather than focusing on personal strategies that place the onus of cultural change on individuals, UCLA’s conference focused on private and public strategies to foster systemic change. Private strategies include policies or processes implemented by private organizations to improve their own culture and outcomes in terms of gender equality. Public strategies encompass a broader category that can include social movement/large-scale public dialogue aided by social media, non-profit initiatives, government initiatives, public-private partnerships, and public policies.
The conference yielded a list of key strategies, but also underscored gaps in existing practice and research, particularly about public sector strategies. Most research to date has focused on private strategies. The conference also explored a wider range of strategies within the public domain, including the role of government, which offer critical pieces for a holistic strategy for change. Less is understood about effective public strategies, creating an opportunity to inform more proactive approaches in this sector.
Based on a survey of extant literature and crowd-sourced knowledge from UCLA’s conference, the following are examples of recurring themes and insights that emerged. Conference speakers discussed the importance of:
Whether a company publicizes its data about the proportion of women in tech and leadership capacities (which adds an element of public accountability), or assesses those figures internally, measuring women’s representation provides an important frame of reference to assess baseline metrics and progress.
As Google—a conference sponsor—wrote when it published diversity data in 2014, “put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.” Monique Morrow of Cisco—another conference sponsor—also discussed the importance of publishing diversity statistics to establish a baseline metric, saying “we have to be data-driven. [Our metrics are] available [to the public].”
Studies on unconscious bias indicate that during traditional venture capital pitches, when men and women present the same content, the women are often viewed as less competent and are considered to have less innovative or viable concepts. New funding approaches can provide alternatives that can sidestep some of these barriers. For example, crowdfunding platforms can allow men and women to present their concepts through Internet-based, product-focused descriptions, which is “a huge shift in the way that we can get women to be funded, people of diversity to be funded,” Melinda Moore, Chief Marketing Officer of crowdfunder.com, said at the conference. “It can be the greatest equalizer.”
Some startup-focused organizations have even gone a step further. For example, Hackers/Founders uses a submission processes in which “applications are blind with no mention of gender, age, ethnicity, or education.” Pipeline Fellowship, an angel investing bootcamp for women, works to “increase diversity in the U.S. angel investing community and create capital for women social entrepreneurs.” 500 Startups has a 500 Women Initiative, targeting female entrepreneurs specifically for funding and mentorship.
The way job descriptions are written can impact the pool of candidates who apply. Brooke Hunter of Engine discussed studies that show women will only apply for jobs for which they are 100% qualified, while men will apply if they meet 60% of a job’s listed qualifications. Only 10% of women surveyed cite a belief that they will not be able to perform required tasks as reason they don’t apply; most women surveyed instead cite a belief that the criteria outlined are a prerequisite for applying. Altering wording to indicate that all criteria do not need to be met for an applicant to be considered, removing masculine pronouns or adjectives, and ensuring that there is at least one female candidate considered for a job opening have been shown to increase the number of qualified women in tech roles.
Women are disproportionately likely to be evaluated based on their personalities in performance reviews, and are more likely than men to receive negative comments about their personalities. These assessments of women’s personalities—not competence—in performance reviews can negatively impact their careers. When performance reviews are restructured to assess only whether job expectations were met, fewer subjective personality traits are mentioned about women, which leads to more equitable and relevant assessments of male and female employees.
Mentorship is one of the most often cited and least controversial means of retaining and advancing women in tech. Because there is a lack of women in top positions in almost every industry, and informal mentorship typically does not cross gender lines, many women report a lack of mentors or role models at work. Mentorship should involve both senior women and men to guide and support junior women along their career paths.
Louis Stewart, Deputy Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship for California Governor Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development discussed strategies within “the triple helix” of government, industry, and academia. He suggested expanding efforts for public-private partnerships to solve the current reality of “way too many fractured conversations happening.” Louis Stewart remarked at the conference, “I challenge all of you to look at the state as a partner and convener.”
Linda Moore, President and CEO of TechNet underscored this sentiment by describing that government agencies need to be part of the solution. “As long as companies and nonprofits continue to do one offs and just do things all by themselves, it will never go. It will never add up to more than the sum of the parts,” she commented.
By virtue of their size, small firms are exempt from certain labor laws and regulations enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Moreover, many existing public strategies provide consequences for misconduct by employers, rather than incentivizing employment practices that promote diversity. More creative public incentive programs should be developed to expand the scope of existing policies and encourage innovative diversity measures in companies of all sizes.
Michelle Angier, the Director of eBay’s Women's Initiative Network (WIN), cited CEO John Donahoe’s commitment to diversity. As she implied, a unified commitment to implement and critically evaluate diversity initiatives among an organization’s executives is necessary for company and industry-wide change. This should start with critically assessing how unconscious biases may be unintentionally perpetuated in standard policies and procedures, necessitating reevaluation.
The UCLA Luskin Center will produce a conference outcome report, to be released in the second half of 2015. It will document the aforementioned strategies and others discussed at the conference, while also identifying gaps that exist. Myriad conference speakers, regardless of their sector of influence, cited the need to expand and build upon existing efforts in addition to creating new initiatives.
The conference underscored gaps in existing knowledge especially around public sector strategies. The need to inform public strategies, that are relevant to the constantly evolving technical workforce, is a priority for the Luskin Center for Innovation. Some government programs such as California Competes offer income tax credits to businesses that meet certain objectives, though public sector initiatives currently remain fragmented and limited.
The outcome report will propose a roadmap for more primary research to analyze best practices and inform ways to fill the gaps. We will also work with leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in the coming months to expand effective strategies and public-private partnerships. Stay tuned into the Luskin Center for Innovation website for updates in research and promising strategies to advance women in tech.