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Why Reaching Gender Parity in Tech Isn’t That Simple

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Very Engineering Team

November 21, 2019
8 min read

“Gender diversity is not just good for women; it’s good for anyone who wants results.”- Melinda Gates, philanthropist, businesswoman and author of “The Moment of Lift”

When I first joined Very in July of 2018, the company employed 30 men and three women. In fact, before I came on board, we had the same number of women on staff as we had guys named Daniel. And don’t get me wrong, all four of the Daniels were awesome, but it’s a known fact that diversity is good for business, and our employees were a little too alike.

Our leadership has made it a goal to hire more women, and that plan is definitely progressing. Currently, we employ 40 men and seven women, and the company is growing every week to meet client and project demand. So far, that’s a 6% increase in female representation at the company, for a total of 15%.

We’ve still got a ways to go, however, particularly when it comes to developer roles, where our women in tech representation is lower. What’s interesting is that Very is not unique in this struggle. Across the United States, there are still not enough women in tech roles.

According to a recent study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women only accounted for 25% of employees in computing and math occupations in the United States, compared to more than half in all professional occupations. That’s actually lower than the percentage of women in technology back in 1991 (37%), so the trend is headed in the wrong direction. The percentage of women of color in computing jobs, meanwhile, is in the single digits.

So what’s the problem? Why haven’t we made progress in gender parity for women in tech? Are we addressing the right issues?

Is Pipeline Causing the Gender Gap?

One reason behind declining gender equality in tech roles might be the pipeline designed to fill those roles. Are there enough women and other diverse STEM and computer science graduates ready to fill open tech jobs?

The answer is no, according to 2017 research of total STEM degrees, analyzed by state and gender.

The explanation behind this phenomenon could take up a whole other article, but includes a lack of STEM role models for women poised to enter the field, sexism in STEM departments, and even how women and girls are educated about STEM from a young age.

For organizations like Very, however, it’s not enough to blame the problem on pipeline and continue with the status quo. Focusing on this just one piece prevents us from doing the hard work of digging deeper to uncover and tackle more of the root issues driving the gap.

Is Bias in Hiring the Problem?

What about bias in hiring? It’s an oft-talked-about and studied topic, with a large body of research showing that implicit biases frequently place women at a disadvantage during the hiring process. We may even be unintentionally programming these ingrained biases into our AI, depending on the data we feed to our machine learning algorithms.

To combat this trend, many recruiters and hiring managers have attempted to make the hiring process gender-agnostic. Job ads can be tested to detect phrasing and vocabulary that signal gender. Companies can use tools during the actual interview process that modulate interviewee’s voices to obscure gender as well.

Research is emerging, though, that suggests gender masking in the interview process doesn’t always provide the desired results. At best, it’s a partial solution, and begs the question: is altogether avoiding gender really an answer? Whether we like it or not, gender makes up a significant portion of our own identities – how we see the world, and how the world sees us – and ignoring that it exists won’t remedy existing biases.

Is Workplace Culture Reducing Gender Parity?

Here’s a startling statistic: 56% of women in tech leave mid-career (after 10-20 years). This turnover rate is twice as high for women as it is for men, proving that the gender gap isn’t just a hiring issue; it’s a retention issue as well.

After they’ve made it through the hiring process, many women seem to feel the tech world, as it is now, is not a place they see themselves long-term. It was just a couple of years ago that a Google employee published an anti-diversity manifesto, with an alarming portion of the tech community expressing agreement with the post. We have to acknowledge that the tech industry is still not a welcoming place for women to work.

In 2017, Kapor Center for Social Impact conducted the Tech Leavers Study, which sampled over 2,000 people who left the tech industry in the previous three years.

Key findings included:

  • 1 in 10 women experienced unwanted sexual attention, while LGBT employees were most likely to be bullied and/or experience public humiliation.
  • 78% of employees reported experiencing some form of unfair behavior or treatment; Women from all backgrounds experienced/observed significantly more unfairness than men and unfairness was more pronounced in tech companies than non-tech companies.
  • Underrepresented men and women of color experienced stereotyping at twice the rate of White and Asian men and women; 30% of underrepresented women of color were passed over for promotion.

The study also found, however, that comprehensive diversity and inclusion initiatives (read: beyond band-aid solutions) have the power to improve workplace culture and reduce turnover.

The Myth of Meritocracy

Before we can talk about truly effective diversity and inclusion initiatives, we need to address a persistent idea that negatively affects many organizations’ efforts to eliminate bias and create a fair work environment.

That idea? Meritocracy, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.”

In truth, it sounds like a great idea that could solve all of the problems we’ve discussed above. Most people would probably agree that making hiring decisions and decisions about salaries, bonuses, and promotions based on skills and performance is the most equitable way to ensure that the best person gets the job and is rewarded appropriately for their work.

In fact, we don’t just believe that meritocracy is how the world should be – we also believe that it is the way the world works, whether or not this is actually true. Brookings Institute found in 2016 that about two-thirds of Americans agree with the statement that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” the highest percentage across 27 countries participating in the international survey.

Meritocracy has been the rallying cry for a lot of tech companies over the past few years, but if it’s working, why haven’t we solved gender parity?

Emilio J Castilla (MIT) & Stephen Benard (Indiana U) set out to examine this issue, and in 2010 they published their findings in an article called the Paradox of Meritocracy. The researchers’ goal was to test the hypothesis that simply stating meritocracy as a core value would cause companies instead to create an environment where unconscious bias goes unchecked.

The results of multiple tests showed that “bias can be triggered by attempts to reduce it,” and companies that explicitly emphasize meritocracy as a core value and state merit-based approaches run the risk of creating unintended negative consequences.

So, now what? If removing gender from the equation and hiring/promoting based on merit doesn’t work, what can we do?

Castilla and Benard note in their research that they don’t intend to abandon the idea of meritocracy. The goal is still admirable and an ideal to attain. The key is how it is implemented. They encouraged further study and stressed using company policies and procedures to increase transparency and accountability because these efforts have been shown to reduce the expression of individual bias.

Hiring Women in Tech for Culture Fit vs. Culture Add

Let’s talk now about one practice you can take away and start implementing in your organization today: hiring for culture fit versus culture add.

Hiring for culture fit is a common practice in recruitment, often thought of as the “beer test” – would I want to go get a beer with this person? But this way of thinking might be unintentionally excluding people who look, think, and act differently from the majority of your team. For example, think of the name of the beer test: not everyone drinks beer, and that shouldn’t exclude someone from a job opportunity (even in tech).

When you hire for culture fit, you could be weeding out employees who represent the values and needs of your clients, meaning you’ll miss out on possible revenue streams, and you might even code bias into your product.

Instead, consider hiring for culture add. This doesn’t mean that you hire someone who doesn’t align with your core values – rather, hire a person who might expand and deepen them by contributing their own unique views and experiences. Look for people who will embrace your processes and then add to them in a productive and complementary way.

This starts with clearly defining your own company values and culture. At Very, ours are autonomy, fairness, and balance.

Ask yourself and your senior leaders:

  • What’s important in your approach to business?
  • What drives your business and your employees?
  • Where you are headed in the future, and how you plan to get there?
  • What impact do you want to have – both locally and in the world?

What Have We Learned About Gender in Tech?

I hope it’s clear from this discussion that “hiring the best for the job,” although a worthwhile goal, is infinitely easier said than done.

There are lots of important pieces of information we need to consider:

  • Gender diversity in the tech industry is still lacking. Progress is slow and not always steady.
  • We need to keep the conversation going because it is a complex and deep-seated issue with many facets.
  • While the pipeline of young women entering tech and pursuing STEM degrees is one of the aspects that requires attention, that alone will not solve the dilemma.
  • And though we need to address unconscious bias in the recruitment process, ignoring and avoiding gender does not provide answers.
  • Turnover of women in tech illustrates a key obstacle pointing at the need to improve workplace culture.
  • A growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.
  • Making the tweak from hiring for culture fit to culture add acknowledges the need to actively seek out hires that will enhance cultures and challenge the status quo.

Most importantly, let’s continue making some form of progress. We can’t stop making attempts, studying the outcomes, talking about it and trying to do better.

To quote Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO, “We need to understand that if we all work on inclusion together, it’s going to be faster, broader, better, and more thorough than anything we can do on our own.”

Are you interested in working for a company that values inclusion? Very is hiring! Check out our open positions here.