Letting Companies off the Hook: How Top Executives Explain Away Inequality

“The question I have is: do we really have a problem? Does [our company] have a problem? From the data I’ve seen, I don’t think so. I think the industry and this country potentially has a problem.”

This is what one high-level executive, Mike (pseudonyms used throughout), told me when I asked him about the causes of gender inequality in the technology industry.

In new research to be published in Gender & Society, I report on a year-long case study of a Silicon Valley technology company implementing a gender equality initiative. I explore how high-level executives’ explanations for inequality impact the change efforts they pursue. I find that executives tend to attribute responsibility to the broader society (as Mike does), or to individuals, rather than the organization.

Attributing inequality to societal explanations exclusively presumes broader cultural norms must change before gender inequality can be reduced. As demonstrated in Mike’s quote, these explanations often serve to exempt companies from responsibility for creating positive change.

Attributing inequality to individualistic explanations, also common among executives, points to unconscious biases in individuals. Executives might focus on men (e.g. making biased decisions when choosing whom to hire or promote), and/or women (e.g. failing to take risks or assert themselves.) Executives who hold these beliefs about inequality tend to pursue mitigation strategies such as unconscious bias trainings, mentorship programs, and developmental programs. While such efforts can be highly beneficial, if organizations stop there, they risk perpetuating structural forms of inequality that can be more difficult to eradicate. Research shows that without an organizational commitment to change, unconscious bias trainings can even exacerbate inequality.

In contrast, organizational approaches to reducing inequality would theoretically include efforts like changing recruiting procedures to access a wider array of candidates, using clear and specific evaluation criteria during hiring and performance evaluations, and ensuring pay and promotion decisions follow a fair process. However, executives rarely considered such approaches.

One intriguing question remains, beyond this study. Why do executives tend to favor individualistic and societal explanations for inequality? Why is it so hard for executives to see the organizational drivers of inequality?

Perhaps it is a symptom of broader cultural individualism, particularly in the U.S., and even more particularly in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps organizational incentives actively encourage and reward individualistic mindsets. Perhaps maintaining an individualistic view helps executives feel a sense of control in an otherwise disempowering situation. Providing executives with education about organizational strategies to reduce inequality might help them identify and improve organizational practices and procedures that contribute to inequality.

If executives can learn to identify problems in the way their organizations hire, sort, advance, and reward employees, they can hopefully begin to remedy important organizational sources of inequality.

Alison T. Wynn is a Research Associate with the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. She received a PhD in sociology from Stanford University and a BA in English from Duke University. Her research examines organizational policies and practices that may inadvertently create or reinforce inequality. In particular, she studies recruiting practices, perceptions of cultural fit, flexibility programs, and gender equality initiatives in industries such as technology, management consulting, and academic medicine. 

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