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. 

What Happens to Women When Their Company Goes Public?

By Ethel L. Mickey

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are more office politics here because we’re a public company. There’s more red tape, there’s more scrutiny. But at the same time… I’m my own boss… It’s pretty collaborative. It seems much more like a team.”

Heather, the white woman in her 20s quoted above, was one of 32 women I interviewed for my research on women’s experiences working in high-tech.  As her quote shows, I discovered an organization full of contradictions, with workers simultaneously navigating bureaucratic red tape while enjoying flexible work conditions.

When I set out to conduct an organizational case study of a high-tech company, I imagined a flexible firm with little hierarchy, cooperating teams, and a “cool” work environment. I had read about companies with fancy coffee bars, video games, meditation rooms, and beer on tap. I expected to find what sociologist Christine Williams has described as a “new” or neoliberal workplace, one that rewards flexibility and adaptability over loyalty, with workers required to network to locate career opportunities.

About the Company

I studied a company I call Data, Inc. (a pseudonym). It is a high-tech firm specializing in cloud software, headquartered in a large, northeast U.S. city. Data, Inc. had gone public prior to my study and restructured from a small startup, hiring hundreds of new employees, moving into a larger corporate office, and introducing bureaucratic features such as a formal hierarchy, narrow jobs, and standardized career ladders.

As a startup, Data, Inc. had embodied a fraternity-like “brogrammer” culture.  For example, one employee, Caitlin, a white engineer in her 30s, described her boss celebrating company milestones with “The Beer Fairy,” nominating women to cart beer around to desks.

Despite masculine cultural norms like participation in alcohol-infused team celebrations, women valued the career opportunities available through the startup’s flat structure, small size, and team approach. The women I talked to remembered they felt like valued organizational members with the potential for career growth, even with the company’s fraternity-like “work hard, play hard” culture.

But then Data Inc. went public.  It bureaucratized but still maintained and institutionalized some flexible features – resulting in two competing workplace cultures within one organization.  New formal policies and structures somewhat tamed the company’s fraternity-like social environment.   For example, after going public, the beer fridge endured the company’s move to its new office but was locked during the work day, with only some managers accessing the key.

Going public and organizational restructuring were not part of my original study. But in interviews, respondents – and women especially – kept mentioning the IPO and subsequent changes in their work experiences, continually referring to the company’s “growing pains.”   What I learned from my research is that going public is gendered, differentially affecting men and women workers.

What Women Revealed

Women at Data, Inc. were nostalgic for the “old,” or “pre-IPO” company. They lamented what they considered to be shifts in company culture as well as worker responsibilities. Women repeatedly described the “red tape” and “scrutiny” that emerged as the former, flexible startup became accountable to outside investors and regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Women’s emphasis on the new red tape signals that going public represents a partial organizational shift towards bureaucracy.   Because an IPO is an unpredictable, volatile moment of transition, organizations tend to adopt hierarchies, specialized roles and departments, and formal procedures to mitigate risks and signal stability to investors.

In my research, I describe how the workplace changed, or became inconsistent and conflicting.  This created a paradox for women employees: they are expected to “stay in their lane” and perform narrow job descriptions, but their structural locations in low-status roles limit their ability to meet informal expectations of worker visibility. Women in segregated, female-typed roles like marketing and human resources often engage in futile networking and self-promotion strategies, hitting a glass ceiling. Men, more likely to be working in high-status technical departments, take their visibility for granted and regularly advance.

Emily, a white woman marketing director, was one of the longest tenured employees and aspired to be a company vice president. Women like Emily perceived opportunities in the company’s former flat structure, small size, and team approach. She had worked her way to the director-level after starting as a customer support rep over ten years ago. She told me, “I started when we were a startup, so the opportunity was there… We always promote from within if we can, before we go outside. We like to invest in our people.”

However, Emily is now unconvinced that she will advance further in the public company: “I think I would probably have to get more exposure with the executive team, which has been challenging because a lot of the things I do are behind the scenes. Nobody really sees what I do, which is why it works.” Without the ability for networking with company executives, Emily believed she would remain invisible, passed up for promotion.

At Data, Inc., the effect of going public was that women were more likely to experience job insecurity and a glass ceiling while men were assumed to be ideal workers and advance.

Tech companies are quick to pop the champagne and celebrate an IPO, but as the confetti settles, organizations may face new problems as workers navigate conflicting workplace cultures that affect women and men quite differently. Organizational restructuring after going public exacerbates existing inequalities, so organizations should incorporate gender equity and diversity across moments of transition as jobs, expectations, and opportunities are disrupted.

Ethel L. Mickey is a visiting lecturer in sociology at Wellesley College. Her research interests include gender, work, organizations, and networks with a focus on technology settings. She is the co-editor, with Adia Harvey Wingfield, of Race, Identity and Work (2018). You can follow her on Twitter at @ethelmickey.

Thinking beyond gender: Why does sexuality and race matter in the tech industry?

By Lauren Alfrey  and France Winddance Twine

How do women negotiate male-dominated workplaces of the tech industry? In the February 2017 issue of Gender & Society, we address this question by building upon foundational work on occupational inequality. Inspired by Joan Acker’s concept of inequality regimes, we offer the first qualitative study and intersectional analysis of women tech workers from a wide range of backgrounds. We show how race, class privilege and gender expression shapes the occupational experiences of “geek girls.”alfrey_video_game

In our interviews with 50 men and women employed in a variety of positions in the San Francisco tech industry, we discovered that the gender-fluid, LGBTQ, White and Asian female workers reported a greater sense of belonging among male co-workers when compared to heterosexual women. In contrast to the gender conventional women in our sample, they were perceived as “one of the guys.” However, the gender-fluid Black LGBTQ women we interviewed did not experience the same inclusion or degree of belonging. Neither did conventionally heterosexual White and Asian women, who, like the Black women, also described routine micro-aggressions and sexist interactions that undermined their ability to be seen as competent equals in their workplace.

We argue that this represents a racialized and gendered spectrum of belonging—the dynamic forms of inclusion and exclusion that women experience according to their race, sexuality, and gender presentation. In occupational cultures where masculinity and hetero-normativity are the norm, fluid gender expression provides some women with conditional acceptance. Continue reading “Thinking beyond gender: Why does sexuality and race matter in the tech industry?”