The struggle of women in the tech world is a well-documented, thoroughly debated topic in some circles.But that discussion hasn’t led to as much change as some would hope.When the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) began in 2004, just fewer than 25 percent of computing jobs were held by women. In 2013, the latest year for which NCWIT has data, it was 26 percent.The frustrating disconnect between the number of words written about women in tech and the number of tech jobs held by women was what motivated Karen Schoellkopf to create hiremorewomenintech.com in July, 2014, a compendium of studies, stories, best practices, and other resources dedicated to increasing diversity in tech companies.Schoellkopf, who has worked in the New York City tech world for six years, said she was tired of having conversations with company leaders who expressed concern that the people applying to their jobs were mostly men, but who didn’t take any steps to shift the balance.There is a sprawling constellation of activists and researchers identifying solutions to the lack of women in tech jobs, but Schoellkopf felt that too many of the people making hiring decisions weren’t aware of that research.“I’d had this conversation with numerous founders and CEOs and people in a position to hire people,’’ Schoellkopf said. “It was frustrating to me that people who needed to see it weren’t seeing it.’’Schoellkopf hopes the site, which she said has been visited 15,000 times since she created it, can serve as a primer on the research available on the barriers women in tech face.“All I had hoped was to make a website so that when people asked me personally – ‘Karen, what do we do?’ – I would send them to this site so I wouldn’t have to give the spiel all over again,’’ she said.Boston.com spoke with Dr. Catherine Ashcraft, who has a Ph.D. in education and is the senior research scientist with NCWIT at the University of Colorado Boulder, about what hiring managers can take away from resources like Schoellkopf’s website and other research.
Companies may not always be aware of how the language they use in job postings affects potential applicants, according to Ashcraft.A 2011 study published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’’ looked at “gendered’’ words in jobs postings. Stereotypically masculine words included “individualist’’ and “competitive,’’ while stereotypically female words included “compassionate’’ and “understanding.’’ The study found that job postings in male-dominated fields like computing contained more masculine words.The researchers also found masculine-worded job postings were a factor that kept women from entering those fields. “The results of these studies demonstrate that masculine wording in job advertisements leads to less anticipated belongingness and job interest among women, which, we propose, likely perpetuates gender inequality in male-dominated fields.’’ the study says.“If somebody says in their ad, we’re looking for an aggressive, hard-driving, risk taking [applicant], it’s not that women can’t be that way, or maybe even see themselves that way,’’ Ashcraft said in a phone interview. “But it can subtly communicate that this is an environment where people might not perceive me as a woman to be that way.’’A more informal look on Twitter at words in job postings that turn people off indicates many women, and men, are uncomfortable with words like “ninja,’’ “superhero’’ and “rock star’’ in job descriptions.“I think the goal is that your ad is engaging and appealing and it communicates a sense of belonging to the broadest group of people,’’ Ashcraft said.
Some people advocate for a simple “have women interview women’’ rule, so that female applicants have an easier time imagining themselves at work in a particular office, but Ashcraft said the really important thing is having a diverse interview team in general.“We have all kinds of research that shows diverse work teams – whether they’re interview teams or other work teams – make better decisions,’’ Ashcraft said. A study from researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management showed that just adding a diverse member to a team improved the team’s performance, even if that new member didn’t bring any fresh ideas. The study suggests that just being aware of other possible perspectives made people think more critically about their own decisions.
Aside from just bringing more women into technical jobs, Ashcraft said one of NCWIT’s main areas of concern is finding out what kind of work women are being asked to do once they have a job. Are they given the same opportunities to work on high-visibility projects as men? Are they able to innovate and are they given key decision-making responsibilities?Ashcraft encourages team managers to write down exactly what tasks they’ve given to which employees. She said sometimes managers can pigeonhole female employees into a certain type of role without even realizing it. Keeping hard data on project distribution will keep managers accountable to themselves.“It happens unconsciously,’’ Ashcraft said. “So kind of just keep track of who’s getting what assignments and see if you notice any patterns that you weren’t aware of.’’Ashcraft said one sign of progress in this area comes from the number of women patenting new information technologies, which indicates they have been given an opportunity to play a productive, innovative role in the office. Although the percentage of such patents filed by women is still low (about 7.5 percent from 2007-2012), it has been growing steadily since the 1980s.An NCWIT analysis also showed the percentage of patents filed by women varied widely among individual companies, indicating that office culture and good task assignment can make a difference.
In the same way unconscious biases can inform how tasks are assigned to male and female employees, Ashcraft said men and women often have very different experiences during performance reviews and other feedback sessions with their bosses.“We know from research that men’s performance evaluations tend to be longer and they tend to attribute success more to individual efforts,’’ Ashcraft said. “Whereas women’s professional performance evaluations tend to be shorter. They also tend to get feedback more on personality kinds of criticisms rather than constructive criticism on work skills.’’A somewhat informal study by a linguist at Fortune drew attention to how words like “abrasive’’ and “tone’’ pop up more often in reviews of women than of men. An NCWIT analysis of 300 letters of recommendation found that similar differences appeared even in those documents, where recommenders were focused on the positive traits of the candidates. Letter writers were more likely to focus on a man’s results or accomplishments, and more likely to focus on a woman’s teaching skills or “compassionate’’ approach.NCWIT includes a checklist for recommenders to consider, including a recommendation to focus on evaluating the applicant based on the job’s requirements and avoid focusing too much on the applicant’s personality and interpersonal skills.In general, Ashcraft said tech companies interested in cultivating a gender-diverse workforce need to encourage all employees to identify subconscious biases and take data-driven steps to counteract them.“Piecemeal approaches aren’t going to be enough,’’ Ashcraft said. “There need to be an ecosystem of change.’’