Written by
August 15, 2017

Gender diversity has a substantial and measurable impact on organizational productivity. Every organization, whether private or public, regardless of industry, should strive towards creating a diverse workforce. There are solutions to help ensure this is achievable and lasting. The one thing that probably won’t help, paradoxically, is trying to create a meritocracy. In fact, it makes the goal of equality that’s based on merit harder to achieve.

This last year witnessed an increasing number of stories coming out of the tech world about the lack of gender diversity and the harassment endured by women. Stories like this, this, this, this, this, and of course this, are not only disheartening but directly undercut the tech industry’s self-aggrandizing story that it’s a meritocracy. But it’s this intent to create a meritocracy without putting in place safeguards that likely created such environments.

A common refrain from the leadership of most tech companies is they hire only the best and only the best of the best are promoted. It’s not about gender, color, or creed, it’s about the quality of code, the ability to execute, the initiative to organize one’s fellows to push a project forward, etc.

It’s difficult to argue with such a philosophy since it’s fairness incarnate. Those who are qualified and work hard will be hired and advance. Those who don’t, wont. This approach isn’t specific to the tech industry, most elite organizations try to operate by this standard. Universities are particularly famous for basing their brand on meritocratic selection (cough, Ivy league, cough).


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Unfortunately, the focus on ‘meritocracy’ creates unintended gender discrimination. A study done by MIT indicates that organizations that focus on meritocracy actually “show greater bias in favor of men over equally performing women in translating employee performance evaluations into rewards and other key career outcomes.” If companies only hire and promote based on merit, how can this be true? It’s certainly not because men are better educated.

As that MIT study indicates, the reason this is true is because meritocracy actually increases bias by giving people a ‘pass’ to make decisions informed by bias. Essentially, they believe they’re only rewarding the most deserving and as such they end up favoring certain candidates, despite, rather than because of, the actual merits of the person’s capability. As this effect compounds, it warps the system via a feedback loop – more men are hired, especially in engineering capacities, more men are given larger bonuses, more men are promoted, and so the feedback loop strengthens.


Who doesn’t love a good problem solving loop


Re-orienting this feedback loop is imperative if the organization is to achieve its full productivity potential. What that requires is a clear plan and some straightforward process implementation and measurement. The process should come together like any successful process does:

  1. Set the Goal
  2. Define the Problem
  3. Determine the Process Necessary to Solve the Problem
  •     3a – Root Cause Analysis – What’s Causing the Problem?
  •     3b – Key Assumption Check – Do We Have the Data To Verify This is Correct?
  •     3c – Identify and Build the Solution
  •     3d – Identify How to Measure the Solutions Effectiveness
  •     3e – Measure and Analyze the Solution’s Outcome
  •     3 f – Adjust the Solution Accordingly

4. Scale the Solution

There are a couple of things that will help with some of these steps. Before a job description is ever posted it should be checked to ensure it’s gender-neutral so bias doesn’t impact applicant interest before the process even begins. This is a good checklist to use when building job descriptions.

Ensuring the pipeline is drawing on sources of talent that include women is key. Using analytics to monitor and adjust that is obviously necessary. For internal roles, especially senior roles, applying the Rooney Rule can help address potential bias. This is NOT a quota. However, it IS a useful technique for ensuring women are being afforded the opportunity to compete, especially if the organization skews heavily male.

As the applicants respond and the hiring pipeline fills, it’s critical to hire based on capability and potential rather than using education and experience. This may seem counter-intuitive but it’s critical.

Diversifying (pun sort of intended) your sources of information and insight is also helpful. For instance, the work done by Freada Kapor Klein and her colleagues at Project Include is quite useful, as is her firm’s focus on supporting female (and minority) entrepreneurs.


           How’s that working out for ya?


Finally, this is not a problem that throwing money at will help. For example, despite pledging to spend $265 million on encouraging diversity hires, Google’s overall gender diversity has remained flat. That’s a lot of money for very little outcome. Instead, it needs to be thought through and constantly measured and analyzed, just like every other business process. And just like every other business problem, this too is solvable.

Aubrey Branch has done an outstanding job at creating a healthy gender diversity at Atlassian, a preeminent tech company. I highly recommend reading about some of her insights and suggestions, which can be found here.

In the meantime, although tech is the industry garnering the lion’s share of media attention on this at the moment, the truth is the challenges of gender diversity and harassment are endemic to ALL industries. As such it’s something we should ALL be actively aware of and taking steps to mitigate. It’s a solvable problem, and as with any problem, the sooner we start to work on it, the sooner we’ll solve it.