How 7 Tech Companies Are Fighting Workplace Sexism

By: Fullstack Staff

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that Susan Fowler’s reasons for leaving Uber and AJ Vandermeyden’s tribulations at Tesla aren’t outliers. For many women in Silicon Valley and the wider tech world, experiences like theirs are the norm. It’s abundantly clear that women in tech are fighting an uphill battle every day.

Case in point: In 2015, a survey called “The Elephant in the Valley” collected responses from  more than 200 women, all of whom had at least 10 years of experience in tech. Among those women:

  • 88 percent had experienced unconscious bias.
  • 84 percent had been told they are too aggressive.
  • 75 percent had been asked about family life during interviews, a practice that is illegal.
  • 66 percent had felt excluded from key social or networking opportunities because of their gender.
  • 60 percent had experienced sexual harassment at work—also illegal.

Sexism in the industry is still rife, but the #MeToo movement and exposés like Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley are giving the industry hope. As awareness grows and more women courageously choose to come forward, some tech companies have begun to take a stand. Below are seven companies using transparency, technology, policies, and hiring targets to address workplace sexism.

Asana and Intel Change the Hiring Process

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki believes that the best solution to gender discrimination in tech is for companies to hire more women. Qualified women are out there, and “employing more women at all levels of a company, from new hires to senior leaders, creates a virtuous cycle,” she says. “Companies become more attuned to the needs of their female employees, improving workplace culture while lowering attrition. They escape a cycle of men mostly hiring men. And study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better outcomes, more innovative solutions, less groupthink, better stock performance, and G.D.P. growth.”

Project management company Asana is on it. A few years ago, after deciding to take aggressive action to improve diversity metrics, the company hired diversity consulting firm Paradigm to implement a number of practices aimed at removing barriers and unconscious bias from their hiring process.

The Guardian’s Dwyer Gunn reports that as a result of the partnership between Asana and Paradigm, software engineers applying for jobs at Asan now undergo anonymous coding tests before personal interviews. Previous hiring process didn’t anonymize the test. That process no longer includes a whiteboard interview, either. Paradigm found that women often fared poorly in the whiteboard interview—even when they performed well in other tests—which wasn’t a true indicator of how they’d perform on the job, anyway.

Intel is yet another tech fixture examining its hiring practices in an attempt to hire more women. They began by establishing ambitious hiring goals, according to Danielle Brown, Intel’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. In 2015, for instance, Intel wanted 40 percent of hires to be female or underrepresented minorities. To ensure those targets would be met, Intel linked everyone’s annual bonuses directly to those hiring goals. This gave execs a financial incentive to hit their targets, and was also a way to hold them accountable to the entire organization.

This strategy has paid off: Since the start of the initiative, Intel has met or exceeded all of its diversity-related hiring goals. In 2015, for example, 43 percent of hires were women or underrepresented minorities, exceeding the company’s goal by 3 percent. In 2016, the firm raised its target to 45 percent—and met that as well. These targets are being more specifically used to increase diversity at the top, too: In 2016, 40 percent of new hires at Intel’s vice presidential level were women or minorities. 

Handshake between two woman, representing solidarity against workplace sexisim

  

Netflix and Vodafone Implement Inclusive Policies

Actively trying to hire more women is a start—but that’s just one of the ways tech firms can fight workplace sexism. Examining company policies is another way to effect change.

Elizabeth Nyamayaro, head of the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, advocates for men in tech to create inclusive workplace policies, such as equal pay and shared parental leave. She believes companies should also have a clearly defined sexual harassment policy with dedicated reporting channels and support.

Vodafone was one of the first global tech companies to adopt a radically inclusive maternity leave policy. By the end of 2015, all of the brand’s 30 companies provided a minimum of 16 weeks of maternity leave and offered new mothers 30-hour workweeks at full pay.

Netflix has also introduced forward-thinking parental leave policies in a bid to foster a more welcoming environment and attract the best female talent. In 2015, the company announced that parents would be able to take unlimited paid parental leave for an entire year. The idea, the company says, is for “employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances.”

Sexual harassment policies are changing, too. In the wake of the 2018 walk-out at Google, a number of Silicon Valley’s leading tech firms have acknowledged the downsides of forced arbitration clauses, says The Next Web’s Rachel Kaser. Facebook, Airbnb, and eBay have all taken steps to remove forced arbitration—a condition under which employees are contractually obligated to settle disputes internally rather than through the courts—from their policies.

Convercent Leverages Technology

Patrick Quinlan’s approach to fighting workplace sexism in Silicon Valley is, not surprisingly, a high-tech one: His firm, Convercent, builds artificial intelligence to combat the issue.

As he sees it, when employees at large companies report harassment, the agents they speak to on HR hotlines are typically following scripts that don’t lend themselves to flexible conversations or a full picture of what has happened. Convercent’s solution to this problem is an AI-powered chatbot that gathers information while giving those who’ve called to report these issues the option to remain anonymous.

But it’s important to remember that technology itself can be biased when built by biased humans—and all humans are, to some extent, biased. Just look at Amazon’s AI recruitment tool, which turned out to favor male applicants. It’s a prime example of the dangers of relying on technology to solve what is fundamentally a people problem.

Mahe Bayireddi, CEO of Phenom People theorizes that the power of AI and machine learning lies in these tools’ ability to bring human biases into relief. It might be easier, in other words, to identify and confront bias when we see it as coming from a machine, rather than from a coworker. “Bias may exist, but artificial intelligence will bring these biases to the forefront, enabling HR and talent acquisition professionals to figure out its origin and fix it.”

Woman hold a smartphone, representing workplace sexism

Buffer and InHerSight Maintain Strict Transparency

Transparency is the key to parity in the workplace. The more open companies are about gender balance, salaries, and other potential sources of inequality, the more accountable they are to their own employees, and the more likely they are to improve working conditions..

Buffer has taken this to heart. The company is transparent about everything from employee equity levels to salaries to inclusivity metrics. Anyone can go to Buffer’s website and see the exact salary of everyone in the company and the way in which that salary is calculated. They can also see statistics on employee diversity, broken down by gender, ethnicity, family status, and more.

Buffer’s level of transparency has been transformational for the organization. According to one company employee quoted in Tech.co: “Overall, transparency at Buffer has helped to shape and define our culture for the better. It helps remove a lot of bias and ambiguity from things like our hiring and promotion processes.”

But with most companies a long way from salary transparency, the industry has to offer other pathways to equity between male and female employees. Enter InHerSight, a public platform created by Ursula Mead, where women can anonymously rate their current or previous employer on 14 different policies, including maternity leave, family growth support, equal opportunities, and female representation at senior levels.

The benefits of her platform are two-fold, Mead says. Most importantly, the reviews from inside the company help women outside the company make informed decisions about where they want to work. But the data also helps companies themselves identify their weaknesses and create policies that both attract new women hires and retain women already on staff.

While all of these are positive steps, the truth is that among tech companies, they’re the exception, not the norm. Until more tech companies take steps to address gender imbalance, the wage gap, and other inequalities in the workplace, stories of harassment and discrimination in the tech industry like Fowler’s and Vandermeyden’s will persist.

Want to learn more about the battle against workplace sexism? Check out these 20 organizations working to close tech’s gender gap.

Images by: rawpixel, Frank Vex

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