How Tech Companies ‘Alienate’ Women In Recruiting

WomenLead Power Networking event. Courtesy photoIt’s no secret that the tech industry has been known for its bro-ness. As of last year, Silicon Valley’s most influential firms still trailed Wall Street’s banks in employing percentages of women and in women holding executive roles. According to research published earlier this year by Stanford University, the pipeline for women into tech roles is “punctured” at the beginning. The researchers, who are based in Stanford’s sociology department, observed 84 on-campus recruiting events hosted by technology companies at a “U.S. West Coast university known for its large concentration of engineering and computer science majors.” And what they observed was a “chilly” recruiting environment for women.

“Through gender-imbalanced presenter roles, geek culture references, overt use of gender stereotypes and other gendered speech and actions, representatives may puncture the pipeline, deflating the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers,” reads the research paper, which was authored by Ph.D. candidate Alison Wynn and Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology and organizational behavior in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

The research, which took place during 2012 and 2013, was conducted by Wynn and three other female graduate research assistants. Because of the age of the researchers, they were able to blend in as undergraduate students interested in working for the companies visiting campus, which ranged from small startups to multi-national tech giants. Despite computer science being one of the most popular majors on campus, on average just 24% of overall attendees were women.


Four main themes were observed during the 84 recruiting information system — none of which were inclusive or welcoming to women. First, the presentations and discussions often excluded women. According to the research, 84% of the meetings had men as the main presenters, while female company representatives were often marginalized or stayed silent. On multiple occasions, Wynn tells Poets&Quants on a phone call, the men stood at the front of the room and gave the main presentation while women were asked to hand out the SWAG. Only 22% of the recruiting sessions included women giving technical presentations. In one startup presentation, the three male software engineers asked participants to pass their raffle tickets down the the “lovely ladies,” which were the two female recruiters. Not surprisingly, this sort of environment led the majority of Q&A sessions to be dominated by the male students in the room.

Next, the researchers observed a “pervasive use and enforcement of gender stereotypes.” At best, some of the presenters had “fratty” talk and promoted a fraternity environment by cursing during the presentations and using overly-sexualized photos of women in the presentation. At worse, at least one presenter devolved the recruitment event into using “dirty” language that included multiple references to pornography and prostitution.

The last two themes included extremely technical language and jargon and an overall “geeky” culture. Previous research shows references to stereotypical geek culture like Star Trek, video games, and comics can alienate women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Nearly half (40%) of the sessions included some form of geek culture reference with the smaller and younger startups having more of the references compared to the more established multi-national tech firms.


Still, Wynn says, while somewhat disheartening, the research is meant to provide a guide on what companies can do better in the early phases of recruiting talent. Most of the larger companies were generally better with the use of gender-neutral language and actions than the younger startups. And of those, Wynn says, the majority of the alienating language and actions happened informally and when the recruiters were trying to relate to the students or make them laugh.

Positive behaviors were observed at about half of the presentations, the research says. Of those, some companies emphasized their firm’s positive impact on the world, others explained their companies in understandable terms, and some boasted of work-life balance. Of the 84 companies to present, 14 had women present technical content. Women asked questions in 65% of the sessions with positive behaviors compared to just 36% in sessions without positive behaviors.

Over all, the research says, companies can and should do better if they want to ultimately win the talent battles.

“While many company leaders point to the pipeline and related supply-side factors as their biggest constraint, our research suggests that companies may be partially responsible for the leaky pipeline carrying women into tech careers,” the report reads.


Another consideration specifically for this research is the timeframe in which the research was conducted. Buoyed by the growing #MeToo movement, companies and individuals are being forced to change into increased inclusivity. Either way, Wynn says the research provides a framework for companies to improve recruiting practices.

“On a practical level, our results suggest ways to create environments that are attractive to a diverse range of women and men,” the research reads. “Particularly in male-dominated fields, companies have an opportunity to increase the representation of women by being more mindful of the images they project in recruitment sessions, interviews, and the workplace more generally. By avoiding gender stereotypes, geek or fraternity culture icons, and other gendered references, company representatives may be able to increase the pipeline of women interested in tech jobs.”


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