In a country known for its melting-pot evolution, diversity in the workplace continues to be a challenge for U.S. companies large and small. It takes effort to hire the best, most diverse group of people, and it seems to be a particularly vexing problem in the tech realm.
No company, perhaps, knows this better than Google. The August 2017 disclosure of a Google engineer’s now-infamous, discriminatory-charged treatise thrust the company into the midst of the ongoing conversation about the lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to gender, in the tech industry.
James Damore, the Google engineer who was subsequently fired for circulating the 10-page document, was attempting, at least in part, to make a case that conservative viewpoints should be welcomed in a truly diverse workplace. Unfortunately, he went on to suggest that biological differences between genders were to blame for Google’s heavily male population and leadership, an assertion that drew wide criticism.
The law and the reality
Since the 1960s, employment laws have barred workplace discrimination based on race or sex. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, for example, requires employers to pay men and women the same wage for the same job, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
But employment laws and regulations are just part of the equation.
“The fact that this is still an issue is really disconcerting,” said Carolyn Goerner, clinical professor of management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “The minute we start to define things by gender roles, we’re getting into a very restrictive paradigm of, ‘well, you can’t do this because you’re fill-in-the-blank,'” Goerner added.
Per Google’s own figures, 80 percent of the company’s tech jobs are held by men, as are 75 percent of the leadership roles. Overall, only 2 percent of Google employees are black, and Hispanics account for just 4 percent of the Google workforce. Thirty-five 35 percent are Asian and 56% are white.
Women step forward
In the aftermath of Damore’s treatise, several former Google female employees stepped forward to talk about the discomfort they felt while working there.
Qichen Zhang, a former technical specialist at Google, told The Guardian she was in the middle of the office when a white male colleague began joking with her about her hiring, telling her, “It must’ve been really easy for you to get your job because you’re an Asian woman and people assume you’re good at math.”
And that wasn’t the only incident, Zhang said. She quit a few months later, because she didn’t feel there was a future for her in a male-dominated company.
The Guardian story also quotes a black woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, who said discrimination and prejudice affected her job daily. “I felt like I didn’t belong nor did anybody want me to belong.” She added that she overheard racist jokes many times, was excluded from emails and social events, and worked alongside colleagues who didn’t care to learn her name.
She also was disheartened after serving on a hiring committee, which consisted of mostly white hiring managers, who complained of candidates who lacked “Googliness,” opining that they might not be a good match for the company culture.
Another woman, Lakshmi Parthasarathy, said her time at Google lacked female mentors and managers. “It’s difficult for women to see paths for themselves at Google or in tech,” she said.
Parthasarathy said she was frustrated by the argument that affirmative action helps unqualified minorities get hired. “People do think it’s easier for me to get into my job…There’s this feeling all the time whenever I do a project, you always have to prove yourself, and that really sucks.”
The enduring gender bias
Goerner, the business school professor, has a “So what?” attitude regarding the notion men and women are biologically different. “[Using biological differences] as a reason people aren’t suited to a job is problematic for both genders, she said. “I just don’t see that as being a valid argument.”
The gender argument differs from that of race, she added. “I think we’ve moved beyond saying you can’t do this, or you have certain personality traits, because of the color of your skin,” Goerner said. “But, unfortunately, we haven’t moved beyond that in regards to gender.”
A major problem is how it affects relationships, she noted. The perception that someone was hired based on a classification, such as race or sex, undermines that person’s credibility, especially if they were hired based solely on merit. So when a company hires someone who is a member of a legally protected class, the person’s merit for the role is often viewed as dubious by certain colleagues and managers.
“Anyone who works in those protected categories become suspect, because the belief is they’re not as competent, and are treated as such,” Goerner said. “They don’t get the same opportunities, job assignments — they don’t rise through the ranks,”
It also can lead to a “stereotype activation” that affects everyone. For example, consider the situation of a man and a woman on the opposite sides of a negotiation. If they’re aware of the stereotypical notion that female negotiators don’t push hard enough, both parties may act out the stereotype, even if neither necessarily subscribes to it. Awareness itself may be enough to activate the stereotype.
“It changes existing relationships in a way that puts barriers around them and starts to make people view each other as stereotypes,” Goerner said. And whether Google likes it or not, Damore’s treatise likely has brought male-female stereotypes to the fore.
How companies and small businesses can adjust
- Clarify hiring practices
“One of things any company should do is be very clear what they hire for,” she added. She recommends statements such as “We hire to make sure our internal perspective reflects our customers’ perspectives. We hire to make sure we understand our customers—that their viewpoint is represented among on our staff.”
Goerner noted it is critical for businesses to understand the importance of having a workforce that reflects their customers. Both large companies and small businesses should recognize that if it doesn’t have people who mirror their customers’ perspectives, they’re likely to lose market share. There’s data that diverse workforces are more likely to succeed. It’s not guaranteed, but having someone to challenge the majority opinion is healthy for an organization.
- Create a melting pot of ideas
Another pitfall to avoid: Hiring only people who are in sync with the voice of their group. Goerner said it’s important to hire for people who are open to different viewpoints.
“I think we sometimes confound recruiting for minorities and women with preferential treatment of minorities and women, and that’s not the case,” she said.
- Be wary of the “old boy network”
Also, think twice about employee referrals. “If all [an employer is] relying on are employee referrals, they’re going to get people who are exactly the same.”
At the end of the day, diversity of opinions is as important as gender and racial diversity. “The more competitive the industry, the more men and women need to get rid of the gender bias,” Goerner said.