Despite notable female industry leaders Marisa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly recognize that they need to create a more gender-balanced workplace. But how should a company change its ways?
Professor Joan C. Williams argues in a new article just out in the Harvard Business Review, “Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem,” that, rather than focusing on amorphous culture change initiatives, tech companies adopt a new model she calls “bias interrupters.”
Bias interrupters are small steps that can be quickly implemented and tested in order to generate evidence-based feedback to assess whether the desired culture change has been accomplished. Through these changes, companies can start small and see big results – the same strategies that made tech companies successful in the first place.
As the Founding Director of The Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, Professor Williams has been studying gender discrimination in the workplace for well over a decade. As she explains in her article, gender discrimination can take subtle forms: giving women “office housekeeping” work like ordering lunches; assuming that mothers are less dedicated to their jobs; and requiring women to prove their competence more frequently than men.
Her prior work has documented how subtle bias plays out at work. Her 2014 book, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (co-authored with her daughter Rachel Dempsey) found that virtually all of the 127 highly successful women interviewed for the book reported encountering gender bias. Professor Williams’s research confirms prior studies that show that bias is widespread, and is unintentionally replicated unless it is interrupted by personal reflection or organizational change.
The gender imbalance in Silicon Valley is often exacerbated by the fast pace and hectic schedules demanded of its employees, as well as the ideal that tech culture is a pure meritocracy. Professor Williams points out that bias interrupters allow management to intervene strategically, develop metrics, try a small change, and tweak as necessary. In other words, it’s better for companies to try, measure, and try again, than do nothing—or to try to change everything at once.
Professor Williams gives an example of a successful bias interrupter at Google. When executives noticed that women were promoted less often than men, Google instituted workshops on how to self-promote, encouraging women to nominate themselves for promotions. And it worked. In fact, the intervention was so successful that it eliminated the gender differences. Williams suggests that companies should reexamine how they hire, assign work, evaluate, and promote female employees to look for key factors that may be perpetuating gender disparity.
Most importantly, Professor Williams points out that her method relies on empirical evidence rather than just on good intentions. Bias interrupters just might be the first necessary step towards “disrupting” our way to gender equality.
--Jessica Carew Kraft