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Equality in Tech for International Women's Day 2020

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Happy International Women’s Day 2020! This year’s theme is “I Am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”. While, in the past years, women's rights have been a mainstream topic of discussion in the tech industry and the rest of the world, we have much farther to go toward equality for women. The UN Women statement for IWD 2020 makes it clear: 

Women and girls continue to be undervalued; they work more and earn less and have fewer choices; and experience multiple forms of violence at home and in public spaces. Furthermore, there is a significant threat of rollback on hard-won feminist gains.
Photo UN Women Pornvit VisitoranPhoto UN Women Pornvit VisitoranPhoto UN Women Pornvit Visitoran

This year, we’re looking at ways you can create that culture shift required for equality for women in tech and the larger community. In this article, I'll share strategies that organisations and individuals can use to push for women’s equality in tech. So whether you write the cheques or just cash them, read on. 

Gender Equality in Organisations

Organisations and businesses have big a role in gender inequality in the tech industry, and have a lot of power to create culture change, but according to researcher Alison Wynn, the tech industry’s approach to gender inequality isn’t working. Her work suggests that the strategies that organisations often use to address gender inequality, like unconscious bias training and mentorship programs, are usually ineffective and in some cases can actually worsen gender bias. 

Wynn says that focusing on the idea that the gender imbalance in an organisation is a result of individual failings—essentially, people’s unconscious beliefs about women’s suitability for tech work, or women’s lack of “assertiveness” in the workplace—“fails to do one important thing: hold the organisation responsible for the role it plays in causing inequality.”

Wynn offers suggestions for organisations looking to address gender inequality in the tech sector. Here's an overview of some strategies she identifies: 

Broaden Recruiting Efforts

For example, consider recruiting at historically Black colleges or at conferences that feature women and people of colour, rather than relying on traditional channels.

Implement Blind Hiring Strategies

Blind hiring strategies take the unconscious bias out of candidate screening. By removing criteria with no relation to job performance like name and gender, you can provide a fair chance to women and people of colour who are often passed over for interviews as a result of the often unconscious bias of recruiters.

Blind hiring has limitations: it is easiest at the resume stage, because once interviews start, it is no longer possible to mask the candidate’s identity, and the unconscious biases once again play a role. Companies like GapJumpers help to overcome this barrier using software to test candidates while masking their personal information, and the company claims that using their software increases the chance of minority and female applicants being offered a first-round interview by about 40%.

Clear, Transparent, and Measurable Criteria for Hiring

Ensure that you have clear, transparent, and measurable criteria for hiring and performance evaluation to help reduce unconscious bias. Since women and people of colour are often held to a higher standard, reducing ambiguous criteria—like having “high potential” or being a “team player”—and replacing it with measurable criteria helps to hold employees to consistent standards.

Accountability in Pay and Promotion

Transparency and accountability in pay, promotions, and project allocations can address gender and racial inequality by mitigating “performance-reward bias”, where women and underrepresented minorities receive less pay and fewer promotions than they deserve based on their performance.

One step to ensure pay transparency is to include the salary range in all your job postings. When it comes to less tangible examples of performance-reward bias, like project allocations, Wynn asks organisations to consider: “Is there a formal process to ensure projects are assigned fairly? What about whom to recognize for team success? Or whom to terminate during lay-offs? Even consider who gets the most airtime during meetings. Think broadly about how to ensure rewards, recognition, and influence are allocated fairly."

Evaluate Your Signals

If you don’t get many women applicants for job postings, you need to figure out why your organisation is not attractive to women. In an article on how to make organisations more attractive to women candidates, researchers Lori Mackenzie and company say, “If you don’t catch a fish, you don’t blame the fish. You change your technique.”

The authors suggest that signals like having women and people of colour in leadership roles in your organisation, avoiding aggressive language like “ninja coder” or geek culture references in job postings, and job descriptions that highlighting the learning experiences available tend to attract more women candidates. The authors note that looking closely at the signals your organisation sends out during the recruiting process makes it easier to emphasize the aspects of your workplace culture that will appeal to all candidates.

Individual Shifts for Equality

If you’re not a recruiter, manager, or CEO, don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. International Women’s Day began as a women’s labour movement, so today is about power to the people. Culture shift happens at all levels, and you don’t need to be a boss to Be a Boss when it comes to gender equality.

Tell Women How Much You Make

It is a reality across sectors that women are often paid less than men with equal or less experience. One way you can push back against inequality is by talking to women about how much you make.

TechGirls Canada founder Saaida Muzaffar says pushing for pay transparency is a “systems thing rather than just a personal thing,” but conversations with coworkers and others in her field has been rewarding, if at times uncomfortable, and “we were able to help each other negotiate better ways of presenting our cases for promotions,” and other perks. Muzaffar says she learned from a colleague that two male colleagues with equal and less experience than her were each making about 40% more money for the same work. This kind of information arms women with the data they need to get mad and get money.

So spill. Being transparent about your salary—with your coworkers, or over social media—can create an environment that supports culture change for women in tech and other sectors.

Take a Media Inventory and Listen to Women

Do women talk more than men? Despite archaic gender stereotypes about women talking a lot, in group business situations like meetings or public events like debates, men usually talk more than women.  

“In formal or public situations—business meetings, political debates, TV interviews—men nearly always talk more than women.” Part of the way that the gender imbalance in airtime perpetuates itself is in how we don’t notice women’s voices, ideas, and contributions being excluded from mainstream culture, because it is what we are used to.

One way to counter this imbalance is to take an inventory of the media you consume. Who do you follow on social media? Who are the authors of your favourite books? When was the last time you watched a film directed by a woman? How many of your Desert Island Albums were recorded by women?

When you consider what voices are you missing from your media world, do some hard data collection rather than taking a ballpark guess. Our perspective is distorted by the pervasive underrepresentation of women, which is likely why a bookshelf or workplace with only 17% women can look at first glance like an equitable gender balance if we don’t do the math to challenge our biases.

Over time, actively seeking out art, culture, media and conversations about tech led by women can shift our perception by exposing us to conversations we would otherwise miss. It can be a good exercise to spend a week or a month only consuming media—books, music, art, and movies—by women.

Signal Boost Women

Following the last idea, you can also elevate women’s voices by retweeting, sharing, and signal boosting women culture makers. The same gender bias that informs the media we consume is also at play in the voices we choose to amplify; in one study looking at the Twitter activity of 2,292 political journalists in Washington, D.C., research Nikki Usher found that “while there are only slightly more male reporters than female reporters [who are accredited to cover the US congress], men are far more likely to tweet more, retweet each other and, on average, have twice as many followers.”

If you have a platform, notice who you habitually amplify, and choose to use social media consciously to expand the reach of women making culture in the arts, journalism, politics, and tech. 


We’ve come a long way, but here in tech—like the rest of the world—we still have a long way to go. Culture shift takes commitment and courage. Changing tech culture takes commitment from organisations, and those changes are much more likely to happen when individuals both understand the issues at play and challenge the status quo. 

I hope this article has highlighted some resources you can use to work towards equality in the tech sector and beyond.

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