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Reduce your gender bias, the lean start-up way

Reduce your gender bias, the lean start-up way

When Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Facebook disclosed their woefully low levels of female employment in the summer of 2014, admitting that they had a lot of work to do to improve them, they signalled a shift for the technology industry. It’s remarkable that the sector is finally addressing the issue of diversity – and refreshing that the focus is on metrics rather than rhetoric.

If tech’s senior leaders are serious about gender diversity, they could be perfectly positioned to lead change. As they so often remind us, they’re out to change the world, with corporate mottos like; “Move fast and break things”. One thing I hope they’ll break is the “diversity industrial complex”: The standard approach of making token hires; setting up mentoring networks; introducing other incremental changes that focus on altering women’s behaviour. When an organisation lacks diversity, it’s not the employees who need fixing – it’s the business systems.

This article is intended to help tech companies – and others – fix those systems. It describes a new metrics-based approach that pulls from the lean start-up playbook: Collect detailed data about whether gender bias plays a role in daily workplace interactions; identify company-specific ways to measure its effect; create hypotheses about what “interrupters” might move those metrics; then throw some spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.


Some social science studies have begun to explore how to interrupt bias effectively. In one, researchers Andreas Leibbrandt and John List posted two versions of announcements for administrative assistant jobs in stereotypically masculine businesses – NASCAR, football and basketball. One version said nothing about salary; the other said “salary negotiable.” Leibbrandt and List wanted to investigate the well-documented phenomenon that women are less likely to negotiate their salaries than men, which contributes to the pay gap between the sexes. Could a simple two-word phrase interrupt that pattern?

It could. In fact, not only did the “salary negotiable” language close the negotiation gap between men and women, it closed the pay gap between the male and female hires by 45 per cent.

This experimental approach is a classic example of a bias interrupter: It changed the basic business system in a way that stopped a pattern of bias in its tracks.

While the evidence of the effectiveness of interrupters is growing in social science literature, the effort to systematically test them in companies is just beginning. Here’s the approach I’m using to help companies address diversity-related bias.


The first step is to find out whether women in your organisation are encountering one or more of the four patterns of gender bias:

PROVE-IT-AGAIN! Women often have to provide more evidence of competence than men do, to be seen as equally capable – a problem documented in scores of studies on double standards, attribution bias, leniency bias, recall bias and polarised evaluations.

TIGHTROPE. This is the kind of bias faced by female salary negotiators. High-status jobs are seen as requiring stereotypically masculine qualities, while women are expected to be modest, so women must walk a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be effective and too masculine to be likable.

MATERNAL WALL. Bias triggered by motherhood has dramatic effects. In one famous study, subjects evaluated pairs of equally qualified candidates, one of whom was a mother. The subjects received identical résumés, but the candidate who was a mother fared less well. The researchers found that mothers were 79 per cent less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance standards.

TUG-OF-WAR. Research shows that women who encounter discrimination early in their careers tend to distance themselves from other women, refuse to help them or even align themselves with men at other womens’ expense.

One organisation I’m working with has so few women that they all know one another – and already agree that there’s a problem. The idea that the women in their company already discuss these issues freely with one another often surprises male senior executives – and so do the focus group results.


Your internal research will often bring to light ways to measure the problem, which you can use to identify a baseline and track the results of changes. The right metrics will differ from organisation to organisation, but any firm undertaking this work should think carefully about four processes – how people are hired, how work is assigned, what happens during performance evaluations, and how compensation is determined.


Once you’ve assessed bias and identified key metrics, the next step is to interrupt the bias, see whether the metrics improve and then – if no improvement occurs – ratchet up to stronger interventions.

Where should companies begin experimenting? Again, by looking at the same core processes they examined in Step 2. Though research on and experiments with interrupters are relatively new, they suggest the following brief template:

HIRING. Develop job advertisement guidelines that advise steering clear of masculine gendered words like “competitive” and “assertive.” Track whether those guidelines are followed. To the extent possible, give hiring managers blinded résumés, so they can’t tell whether the applicant is a man or a woman.

ASSIGNMENTS. The gentlest interrupter is one that documents that men and women are getting different kinds of projects, and offers training on how the four patterns of bias commonly affect assignments. If that doesn’t work, more robust interventions are needed, up to and including a formal assignment system.

PERFORMANCE EVALUATIONS. Having someone who is trained in the literature on gender bias read through all performance evaluations can help if your analysis shows that bias is affecting them. Be sure to track whether praise differentially translates into high overall evaluations for men but not women.

PROMOTION AND COMPENSATION. Systems that require people to brag will push women out onto the tightrope – disliked but respected if they do, and liked but not respected if they don’t. Self-promotion should be confined to formal contexts in which both men and women are sent the message that everyone is expected to tout his or her accomplishments. Compensation systems based on objective metrics that are not easy to game offer a strong control on gender bias and give managers insight into who their most valuable players actually are.

The promise of bias interrupters is that they allow for institutional learning and build on a critical finding. Doing anything once will not change organisational culture forever. You need to continually interrupt bias. And you need to be empirical – keep throwing spaghetti at the wall until some sticks.



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