Workplace Gender Equality: Lots of Obstacles, but Signs of Progress

Charles Cooper
May 18, 2018 · 8 min read
Martina Lauchengco, Allison Lewis, Tracy Young, Nick Mehta, & Emily Chang at Seat @ the Table.

A lot has changed in the three decades since I began covering the technology business. When I started out as a reporter, the IBM PC represented the state-of-the-art in the computing world. Since then, I’ve witnessed the emergence of the internet, mobile devices, and the cloud — sometimes the developments would come in fits and starts, but you always knew that everything was pointed toward a transformed tomorrow.

Except when it came to who was running the show.

Just how little that’s changed became clear to me last week when I joined several hundred other people gathered at LinkedIn headquarters to listen to a panel discussion about the challenges women in the workplace face seeking to move into tech management roles.

The stories shared by the panelists probably came as no surprise to the largely-female audience in the packed ballroom.

“Do me a favor and raise your hand if you would be satisfied if one Caltrain in 10 showed up on time,” said Rachel Thomas, co-founder & president of LeanIn.Org.

Not a single person raised their hand.

“And raise your hand again would you be satisfied if one in ten coffees you ordered were made correctly?,” she asked. Again, no hands went up.

Yet when one in 10 leaders in an organization is a women, she said, 50% of men say women are well-represented.

“And ladies,” she said, “don’t laugh too hard because 30% of women say the same thing. So if our bar for success is so low it is hard to imagine a groundswell of change.”

As one of the very few males there, I was astonished after hearing Thomas roll out one statistic after another, painting a dismal picture of the state of gender equality in the workplace.

LeanIn.Org conducts their Women in the Workplace report annually along with McKinsey. A couple of years ago, their joint research concluded that it would take 100 years for women to reach gender parity in this C-suite.

And sadly, Thomas said, not much has changed.

“For the last three years, we see the same story in the data; women are under-represented at every level of corporate America and it is far worse for women of color.”

The uphill climb is made steeper given that women are also much less likely to get the first promotion to manager — in fact, 20% less likely — and so they never catch up. The upshot: By the time you reach the C-suite, just one-in-five leaders is a woman and less than 1 in 30 is a woman of color.

“And it’s not because of lack of interest,” Thomas said. “We know that women are just as interested in being promoted to the next level.”

To be sure, women are negotiating for promotions at the same rates as men nowadays. That’s up from a decade ago when men were negotiating at 2 to 3 times the rate — in some cases as much as 8 to 9 times — more than women. So women are leaning in. Now it’s up to companies to close that gap.

Unfortunately, change is glacial and men and women still understand the challenge posed by gender and opportunity in different ways. Thomas offered up the following stats for consideration:

  • Only 30% of employees say their managers are making sure that diverse voices are getting represented.
  • If you change a woman’s name to a man’s name on a resume, the odds of getting hired go up by 60%,
  • Men are more optimistic about gender diversity at their companies and more likely to think that their companies are doing a good job and that management is taking steps to foster diversity. Because of this men are less committed to gender diversity than women.

The room went silent as Thomas rattled off the numbers.

Bottom line: If managers don’t buy in, change will remain stuck in neutral.

Getting the basics right is going to be key as managers are the ones who will decide which policies get rolled out and how widely they get adopted.

Will things change? As a big first step, organizations are going to need to do a better job equipping managers with the necessary data to make course corrections in hiring and promotion decisions. When you consider that only 30% of companies require mandated slates and just 6% use blind resume reviews, there’s a lot of work to do. As I listened to the discussion that followed, I found cause for guarded optimism as each in their own way, the other panelists shed light on the ways they’re trying to effect change.

It starts at the top.

For instance, Tracy Young, the co-founder and CEO of construction software maker PlanGrid, said her company holds internal internal group conversations tackling the topic head-on.

“It’s been really cool seeing the team talk openly about anything related to this topic,”she said. “For us, it’s just been really inspiring to hear these incredibly vulnerable stories about their lives and how that leads into professional and what they would like to see for the future.”

PlanGrid has also taken steps to eliminate pay disparities between male and female staff members. About three years ago, Young went to the other members of the executive team — four males — to propose the company sign an equal pay pledge.

“I said I would like to do this and there was no hesitation; they said, `absolutely,’” she recalled. “We had HR go through every comp in the company and made the adjustments. We solved that and committed to making sure that wouldn’t be a problem moving forward. We also made sure that we had a really generous parental leave policies for both men and women. People are taking three months off to being with their families and coming back even more committed to PlanGrid. So we are really proud of our team for making those decisions. It’s about our commitment to the team members who are working their asses off to build PlanGrid.”

Rachel Thomas presenting the Women in the Workplace data.

Even small steps make a difference.

By his own description, Nick Mehta is “the most privileged person imaginable.” American-born and Ivy League educated, he now leads more than 500 employees as CEO of SaaS customer success software company Gainsight.

“I’m like the person for who this system is rigged,” said Mehta, the lone male on the panel. “I think about that every single day. I’m running a company, doing well, I’m smart. But if I were a woman or someone from an underrepresented class, would I be here? I don’t know.”

Mehta said that his life experience had left him with the motivation to try and make things better by taking steps that are within his power, no matter how small they might appear in the larger scheme of things.

For instance, when Gainsight was seeking to hire a “Chief People Officer,” Mehta said that all of the candidates that walked into his office for interviews were men. That’s when Mehta told the Human Resource he would refuse to see any more candidates until he was presented with a balanced slate.

“The next week, we had five female candidates,” he said. “In Silicon Valley, everyone talks about changing the world. But if we can have a small impact, that would make me feel good.”

Mehta said that the Susan Fowler revelations had provided a “spark” for a broad-ranging conversation that will eventually translate into concrete change. But, he added, “everything in business starts with small steps.”

“They always say it’s hard,” Mehta said. “You’re the freaking CEO. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s in the job description. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s hard but that should be inspiring because it’s important.”

Advocacy helps.

Looking back on her first management job, Allison Lewis, a Group Manager for Consumer Market Research at LinkedIn, said having a female boss who pushed her — and advocated her — was a big factor in her success.

“I was a new manager and my manager knew I wanted to lead a consumer research team. So, in our 1-on-1s, she’d ask whether I had applied (for the job). She finally really got through to me when she said, `They are going to hire someone less qualified than you who will be in the role two years and how will you feel about that?’ So, she advocated and pushed. I know she also talked to the hiring manager.”

“It was really inspiring and empowering,” she said.

The lesson stayed with her and it’s informed her view about ways to put the idea of greater gender equality into practice.

“If you’re looking for ways to move up, articulate where you want to go and have reason for it — and find someone who will advocate for you,” she said. “If you’re in position of power, watch for that and hold your peers accountable in any hiring decision that you’re making.”

Don’t accept the status quo.

Bloomberg anchor Emily Chang, and the author of the recently published expose “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley.”

Chang described the deep frustration expressed by a group of female engineers she had invited to her house for dinner to discuss the viral post written by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who recounted the sexual harassment she endured while working at the company.

They were tired of being the only women in the room, Chang said. “It’s almost like a second job because you have to prove yourself over and over again. These are things that won’t change unless you get to 50–50 [in the workplace]. If you have 6 men around the table, the conversation goes one way. Add a woman, and the conversation shifts.

“We’re not reaching our full potential. Women make up half of the workforce. The tech industry created the pipeline problem. If you have an imbalance, then you’re doing something wrong. This is about promotion and retention,” she said.

“Don’t accept the status quo,” Chang urged the audience. “There are clever ways to give constructive feedback and raise your voice in ways that will be well received. We all have an opportunity here to make a difference.”

Paraphrasing a comment primatologist Jane Goodall made to her recently, Chang stirred loud applause when she finished with a call to action. “We can’t just throw up our hands and say that’s the way it is. You all have chance to make a difference. You have to decide what that difference will be.”

Costanoa Ventures

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Charles Cooper

Written by

Been writing about tech and business forever. Still have great jump shot from 20 feet. My French needs help

Costanoa Ventures

We back tenacious and thoughtful founders who change how business gets done.

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