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Widespread Sexual Harassment Allegations -- Time for the Tech Industry to Shape Up

By 3p Contributor

By Elizabeth Ames 

It’s been more than four months since engineer Susan Fowler’s account of unwanted sexual advances and gender discrimination at Uber went viral, sparking outrage around the world. Since then, each week seems to bring to light new sexual harassment scandals from high places in the tech industry and its venture capital firms. Rightfully, this flood of revelations has spurred renewed dialogue for major changes in “tech-bro” culture. 

The tech industry lives and dies by innovation and disruption, and it’s about time we applied the same philosophy to the culture as we do to the product. Addressing sexual harassment is the obvious part — it's illegal. Here’s the greater challenge: This industry that literally drives us into the future needs to move away from a culture that looks and acts so much like the past.

Recruiting a more diverse workforce is the most obvious first step, but hiring will never solve the problem alone. Why? Because women leave tech companies twice as quickly as their male counterparts, and the proportion of women technologists declines by 50% as women make their way from entry-level positions to the executive suite.

It is not a lack of ambition that holds women back. Rather, it’s pervasive bias that chips away at women and other underrepresented minorities. In our white paper “Advancing Women Technologists Into Positions of Leadership,” the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Computing (ABI) noted three types of bias. 

The likability bias: When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.

The leadership bias: Nearly half of American women in science, engineering, and tech careers believed that senior management more readily saw men as “leadership material,” and 44 percent believed that behaving “like a man” was beneficial to becoming a leader.

The performance review bias: Overall, 88 percent of performance reviews for women contained critical feedback, compared with only 59 percent of performance reviews for men.

What can we do? Innovate and disrupt, the way the tech industry is supposed to do. 

A growing number of companies use tech innovations to help hiring managers avoid biased behavior. Blendoor offers a blind recruiting app that mitigates unconscious bias using a Tinder-like interface, matching applicants to jobs based solely on merit. Textio helps recruiters write bias-free job descriptions, resulting in a higher number of diverse, well-qualified applicants. And Interviewing.io provides an anonymous hiring platform for technologists.

Still, technology can only take us so far. In the end, tech leaders need to understand that having more women in their companies’ ranks—across every level of the organization—isn’t just a social courtesy, it’s a business imperative. Study after study shows that gender diversity improves operational and financial performance, increases innovation, improves problem solving, and enhances company reputation.

At ABI, we developed a Gender Partnership program to help companies address gender bias. Our pilot partner, Thomson Reuters, who is committed to excellence in diversity and inclusion, chose 13 men and 12 women to participate in a 6-week training program around inclusion and its impact. Participants learned about the challenges of women in the technical workplace and devised solutions uniquely tailored to their company’s organizational structure and corporate culture. At the end of the pilot, teams pitched their ideas — many of which were implemented -- to an executive panel.

Several program participants also offered presentations to larger groups of Thomson Reuters employees to share what they’d learned and enlist their colleagues’  support to continue making Thomson Reuters a great place to work for all employees. Both men and women felt more knowledgeable and better equipped to take action and act as gender partners as a result of their participation. We applaud our pilot partner for taking these first steps, and look forward to working with many more companies who are looking to make measurable, positive change.

There are solutions to the tech industry’s pervasive gender bias. Of course sexual harassment needs to stop. But companies have an opportunity to go beyond simple matters of legality and demonstrate that they understand the true meaning of innovation.

Elizabeth Ames is Senior Vice President of Marketing, Alliances, and Programs at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Computing

Image credit: iStockPhoto/kieferpix

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