By Jessi Hempel of Wired
EACH AUTUMN, BUSINESSES flock to elite universities like Harvard and Stanford to recruit engineers for their first post-university jobs.
Curious students pile into classrooms to hear recruiters deliver their best pitches. These are the first moments when prospective employees size up a company’s culture, and assess whether they can see themselves reflected in its future.
More often than not, this is the moment when these companies screw up, according to new research.
Tech companies have employed a host of tactics to help lift the scant number of women and minorities who work within their ranks, like anti-bias training, affinity groups, and software that scans job postings for gendered language. Yet the numbers remain dire. Of men with science, technology engineering, or math (STEM) degrees, 40 percent work in technical careers; only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees do. That means that qualified women are turning away from the field before they even get started.
Some of the problems start in these preliminary recruiting sessions, which routinely discourage women from applying at all, according to a paper published in February by Alison Wynn, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and Stanford sociology professor Shelley Correll.
In 2012 and 2013, researchers attended 84 introductory sessions held by 66 companies at an elite West Coast university. (They never explicitly name Stanford, but…) Roughly a quarter of attendees at these one-hour sessions were women, on average. The researchers documented an unwelcoming environment for these women, including sexist jokes and imagery, geeky references, a competitive environment, and an absence of women engineers—all of which intimidated or alienated female recruits. “We hear from companies there’s a pipeline problem, that there just aren’t enough people applying for jobs. This is one area where they are able to influence that,” says Wynn. They just don’t.
The chilling effect, according to Wynn, starts with the people companies send to staff recruiting sessions. As students entered, women were often setting up refreshments or raffles and doling out the swag in the back; the presenters were often men, and they rarely introduced the recruiters. If the company sent a female engineer, according to the paper, she often had no speaking role; alternatively, her role was to speak about the company’s culture, while her male peer tackled the tech challenges. Of the sessions Wynn’s research team observed, only 22 percent featured female engineers talking about technical work. When those women did speak, according to the sessions observed, male presenters tended to interrupt them.
Similarly, the follow-up question-and-answer periods were often dominated by male students who commandeered the time, using it to show off their own deep technical know-how in a familiar one-upmanship. Rather than acting as a facilitator for these sessions, male presenters were often drawn into a competitive volley. Wynn and Correll describe one session in which men asked 19 questions and women asked none. Of the five presenters, the two men fielded all the questions while the two female engineers spoke very little; finally, a female recruiter jumped in at the end with application instructions. This clearly didn’t entice female attendees. Of the 51 men attending, only one left the room during the q&a. Four of the 15 women left.
The paper also describes recruiters using gender stereotypes. One online gaming company showed a slide of a woman wearing a red, skin-tight dress and holding a burning poker card to represent its product. Another company, which makes software to help construct computer graphics, only showed pictures of men—astronauts, computer technicians, soldiers. Presentations were often replete with pop-culture images intended to help them relate to students, but that furthered gender stereotypes. One internet startup, for example, showed an image of Gangnam style music videos that featured a male artist surrounded by scantily clad women.
In an attempt to appear approachable, presenters often made comments that disparaged women or depicted them as sexualized objects, rather than talented technical colleagues. For example, in one session, a man mentioned the “better gender ratio” at the company’s Los Angeles office compared with its Silicon Valley office. “I had no girlfriends at [University Name], but now I’m married,” he said, suggesting that the better odds had helped get him hitched.
This type of informal banter occasionally devolved into overtly sexualized comments. One presenter from a small startup mentioned porn a couple of times. Another, when talking about a project that would allow banking on ships, suggested that sailors needed access to cash for prostitutes.
The few sessions that featured women speaking on technical subjects had fewer such problems. When these women spoke on technical issues—and connected those issues to real-world impact—female students were much more engaged. In these sessions, female students asked questions 65 percent of the time, compared with 36 percent of the sessions without these features.
While the Stanford research looks explicitly at gender, its findings have broader implications. Namely: First impressions are everything. To attract a more diverse workforce, companies need to present themselves as diverse communities of professionals. Wynn says she’s presented this research to recruiters and people within tech firms. “They’re astonished. They often just don’t know what’s going on in their recruiting sessions,” she says. Knowing where your problems lie is the first step to eradicating them before they block your pipeline.
What do think tech companies could do better when recruiting women? Tell us about it in the comments below!