The century gap

Will we ever achieve gender equality in the workplace as worldwide data points to a gender gap that is like to continue into perpetuity?

by Alice Azzolini


When will we close the gender gap? 2119, almost one century from now, is the average prediction in a World Economic Forum special report, which monitors 107 countries across the globe. Does that also apply to the workplace? Unfortunately, yes. Salaries are one of the areas with the lowest progress: In this case, the gap increases even more, to 247 years — we are closer to “year zero” than reaching gender parity. No matter which angle you look at it from, it doesn’t look good.

Knowing that the gender gap is likely to continue in our lifetime and that of our great-granddaughters, makes it look more like an unreachable goal instead of an achievable one. One might think that those average numbers are so high because of the countries who are doing worse than Europe and North America. That’s somewhat true, but they’re not that promising either. North America (like Europe) has closed its educational and health gender gaps, and has the smallest gap at the workplace, but this last figure (24% of the gap still to be closed) has remained unchanged since 2006.

Our notion of power, which has remained unchanged in the last centuries, has a lot to do with this quiescence: power is a crucial piece of the equation that composes the concept of gender. And power is also a fundamental ingredient of organizations, who essentially are groups of people whose relationships are profoundly based on the power each individual holds, and exercises.

Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, considers this situation. “The source of the employer’s power lies in the structure of relationships in the workplace and deference to those relationships,” says Haslanger. “In general, relationships are constituted by norms that define successful or apt participation in them; such norms allow for the accumulation and transfer of various forms of capital — economic, social, cultural, symbolic. This conception of power is important because it shifts attention from individuals and personalities to the structure of our relationships. There are incompetent and malevolent people who are in charge of some institutions and there is reason to replace them. But it is also true that individuals are deeply shaped by the social roles they are asked to play, and we should be looking to establish a just configuration of social positions rather than simply aim to get nice or smart people in positions of power.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the tech industry is not only as far away from gender inequality as any other industry — it is actually doing worse. According to hiring firm, Adeva IT, women hold only 25% percent of computing jobs — a figure that’s been declining since 1991. This is even though tech organizations are investing significant resources to hiring more women.

Alison Tracy Wynn, a research associate with the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab says there are a lot of different factors operating to contribute to that gap, and “that’s why the problem is so difficult to eradicate.”

She adds: “It’s not like you can just fight gender inequality in one space, or on one front and fix it.” Wynn spent a year analyzing the impact of gender equality initiatives in Silicon Valley — which mostly consist of mentorship programs and diversity programs — to understand the root of the problem and think of new solutions.

Bias is indeed one of the main issues that tech companies have to look at. “Humans are exceptionally adept at noticing patterns,” says Haslanger. “But we also have a tendency to assume that the best explanation of a pattern lies in the nature of the kind that exhibits the pattern. For example, if we only see owls at night, we conclude that owls are nocturnal — it is a feature of the kind.” But such inferences are notoriously problematic, especially in the social domain. “Structural conditions in society create patterns that we take to be natural and right. So we expect them to behave in certain ways and often punish them if they don’t.”

“The tech industry in particular,” confirms Wynn, “also has a set of unique stereotypes that tend to continue to keep women out. STEM subjects are still considered only for boys, and these cultural assumptions are then confirmed by the reality they have created,” echoes Haslanger. When this stereotype is activated, “women will usually not perform up to their potential. Due to the negative stereotypes of women in technology, stereotype threat is certainly a factor in reducing women’s participation.”

Moreover, even if one persists in the face of stereotype threat, it can seem that the best strategy is to avoid risks and stick with tasks that don’t reveal one’s vulnerabilities. This is not a winning approach in tech fields.” In a vicious circle, stereotype is reinforced by education. Says Haslanger: “Small differences at an early age add up. Also, access to technology and adult role models in tech are not equally distributed across income groups. It is no surprise, then, that white boys have the advantage of greater experience and comfort with technology by the time they are teenagers.”

“That assumption is really damaging, because it lets companies off the hook and leaves executives to have a defeatist mindset that there’s nothing they can do to change inequality,” says Wynn. No matter the resources many companies are investing in to try and close the gender gap, it is still wide open because the problem, according to Wynn’s research, is being looked at with the wrong lens: it is seen as an individualistic problem, something which organizations have little control over, instead of an organizational one, an area where they do have room for manoeuvre. They try to change people’s mindsets, without realizing they should change their policies, too.

“In my research, I see a larger individualistic mindset about inequality and about diversity and inclusion, where people think that if they change what’s inside people’s heads, then all the problems will go away,” says Wynn. “So the assumption is if we can train people to think differently and be less biased, or if we can teach women to have the skills to succeed in our current environment, then that’ll fix everything.” With unconscious bias training and a mentorship program, most companies think the job is done, but they’ve actually missed what really needs to be done, and that is scrutinizing company policies and procedures that have an impact on inequality. Wynn says “as long as those things continue to disadvantage women systematically, it’s not going to matter if you change what’s inside people’s heads, or it’ll only do so much.”

What to do, then?: Look at all the touchpoints of one’s employee lifecycle and human resources. Catalina Schveninger, CPO at FutureLearn, discusses this based on her own experience. “There are lots of processes that need fixing from the core, and HR could play a better role not just to “police” manifestations of discrimination but also to redesign processes that drive diversity and limit bias,” says Schveninger. “When I was leading recruitment globally at Vodafone we built a report with the end-to-end recruitment funnel to analyze where we don’t get enough women through the shortlists — to our surprise the data was pointing to “usual suspects” — line managers who were interviewing more male than female candidates even when presented with a gender-balanced shortlist. It’s the role of HR to raise awareness and have the conversation and being data-driven helps to start a better conversation around a delicate subject — nobody likes to hear that he or she has unconscious bias.”

Wynn also found out that “a lot of tech companies were using inappropriate language references, and images in their recruiting sessions. They would talk about pornography and prostitution when trying to recruit candidates. They would put up sexy images of women or just make inappropriate references. There are also more innocuous things, which are just as important, like having female role models. A lot of companies would have all men doing tech content presenting. The women, if they were there at all, would be handing out t-shirts or food or things like that. Companies should consider where they can find candidates who can add gender balance to their teams. Are they only going to five of the top universities? Are they reaching out to historically black colleges or hosting events for diverse audiences? How are they recruiting first?’”

A second, crucial step is management: McKinsey’s 2019 Women in the Workplace report found that the first promotion to management is often the one where women are facing the most barriers. “That’s an interesting insight companies should look at: How do we give women that first step into management?” Then, performance comes: “we find that women are held to a higher standard than men and are evaluated differently. They’re more likely to be evaluated based on personality, or more likely to be given vague feedback. Looking at your evaluation procedures for employees and making sure that you’re evaluating them fairly and that you have clear, consistent criteria, tied to business impact and actual performance,” continues Wynn. The same goes for project assignment, and decision-making, and any other processes that form a company’s policies.

An additional layer of complexity is that the gender gap is not easy to monitor, especially while we go on with our lives, and businesses. Wynn says: “In Shelley Correll’s ‘small wins’ model, you create a small win and you basically create this contagion where people get excited about it. Small wins will then help identify the next areas to change.” An argument that also Haslanger brings up: “Most of us have very little opportunity to bring about change in our social milieu and we aren’t motivated to look for it. Change is difficult because it is disruptive, not only for relationships, but also our self-understanding. But when taken up with others, in a moment of resistance or in a social movement, the challenges can be inspiring and even small change becomes empowering.”

“The good faith is there, people want to change,” says Wynn, “they just don’t know how.” Treating gender parity not as individuals, but as a collective, structural, organizational issue is a tough mindset to build, but it will help us move beyond mentorships, possibly making the year human society will finally defeat this inequality closer than 2199.