Do Dedicated Hiring Quotas Close the Gender Gap in Tech?

By: Fullstack Staff

Women are severely underrepresented in America’s tech sector. That’s not surprising to anyone who has been following these industries. Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies are facing discrimination suits right now.

Lost in those stories, however, is just how staggering the gender gap is. Entelo’s data shows that women hold just 18 percent of tech roles in America today. That’s more than four men to every woman.

Many tech companies have announced their commitment to changing their hiring practices to close the gender gap, particularly through the implementation of hiring quotas.

Several European countries have already pioneered hiring quotas. For example, Norway introduced hiring quotas for publicly traded companies, mandating that women must make up at least 40 percent of total seats on those companies’ boards. Since then, Belgium, Germany and France have passed similar laws, The Economist reports.

But do these quotas actually close gender gaps, especially in industries like tech, where the gap is so wide? Or do they merely obscure more fundamental issues?

Hiring Quotas Have Never Been Enough

Harvard professor Frank Dobbin and Tel Aviv University professor Alexandra Kalev have spent years studying the efficacy of diversity-minded training and hiring practices. These are practices that seek to include greater numbers of women and people of color in companies. It’s useful to see in their research the commonalities across different groups of underrepresented people.

For those groups in general, Dobbin and Kalev have found that training and dedicated hiring practices such as quotas do little to raise these groups’ representation in American companies. In 1985, women comprised 22 percent of all managers in American companies with 100 employees or more. Today, nearly 35 years later, that number still hovers around 29 percent—an uptick, but only a small one, and not exactly a win for those companies’ hiring and training efforts.

Different groups have experienced similarly underwhelming results. Consider what the researchers found at US commercial banks. Between 2003 and 2014:

  • Latinx representation rose only slightly from 4.7 percent to 5.7 percent.
  • The percentage of black male employees dropped from 2.5 percent to 2.3 percent.
  • Women’s representation fell from 39 percent to 35 percent.

“Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better,” Dobbin and Kalev write in Harvard Business Review.

Hiring Quotas Obscure Bigger Problems in Organizations

It’s important to remember that there are real lives behind the numbers. Though the ultimate goal might be to hire and promote more women and people of color, diversity quotas may, in actuality, limit these hires’ chances of advancement within an organization.

Here’s how: There is a common (arguably misogynist and racist) misconception that diversity and competence are mutually exclusive. This flawed premise simply reinforces the system of white supremacy: Non-male, non-white candidates cannot ultimately be as competent as white male candidates (and certainly not more so), so it follows that those hires must be concessions. The company must have hired solely based on diversity, sacrificing issues of competency to fill quotas.

Thus, when a woman or person of color is perceived as a “diversity hire,” (or telegraphed as such by HR or executives) her worth is often undervalued by white male colleagues operating under the misconception described above. Being perceived as having been hired based solely on your race or gender, rather than being acknowledged for the actual skill set you bring to an organization, can be as frustrating as not getting hired in the first place.

In an article for Fortune, Jori Ford, senior director of content and SEO at G2 Crowd, identifies herself as a black Korean lesbian tech worker who—before finding her current values-driven organization—spent a good deal of her career as a token hire. That doesn’t mean she was unqualified for her job. It means she was often perceived that way, and that because of flawed hiring procedures, her career trajectory was dictated more by her identity than by her skill set.

Ford challenges companies to ditch hiring quotas if they’re only going to look at minorities as another check-box on their compliance sheet. Instead, she advocates for blind hiring, where companies don’t even know the name, gender, or race of a candidate until they’ve made it through the early stages of the hiring process and are coming through the door for an interview.

With aptitude and personality tests at the start of the application process and standard, open-format interview questions, it’s possible to reduce implicit bias and gut-based hiring decisions that are still pervasive in tech and other industries.

“Unless diversity quotas are truly an exercise in optics, I firmly believe that, in the best case, they’re a band-aid that fails to solve deep, underlying problems with hiring,” writes Aline Lerner, a former recruiter and current co-founder of Interviewing.io. “Instead of trying to manage outcomes by focusing on quotas, we should target root causes and create the kind of hiring process that will, by virtue of being fair and inclusive, bring about the diversity outcomes we want.”

Case Study: GoDaddy’s Rebrand

For years, GoDaddy was known for its raunchy Super Bowl commercials and bad hiring reputation in Silicon Valley. The company realized it would need a shift in hiring practices and a total rebrand if it wanted to grow and provide value to its customers. HR Open Source reports:

“Recruiting became laser-focused on recruiting women. [GoDaddy] initially did not put any formal rules or mandates in place... just focused on proactively expanding [their] pool of candidates to include more women.”

Not a traditional quota per say, but GoDaddy “insists that hiring managers begin with a diverse candidate slate: the interview process can’t proceed until there are at least two individuals who are female or minorities on the list,” according to Kate Tornone.

GoDaddy also changed its Super Bowl ads to show “What GoDaddy Does” in an effort to speak to and include the 58 percent of female customers who use the service.

But note that GoDaddy changing the focus of its ads doesn’t dispel the harm caused by years of ad campaigns that objectified and diminished women. Changing a company’s marketing and hiring practices in order to capitalize on a certain sector of the market (i.e. women, who have been shown to wield a lot of buying power and are more likely than men to share the negative consumer experiences they have) doesn’t necessarily address issues of company culture.

What is the culture like at a company where raunchy ads that sexualize women have been the norm since the company’s inception? Is it possible to quantify and measure company culture? Do the stats we can measure—like gender balance on hiring teams—say anything deeper about a company’s inclusivity, or will those companies continue to operate internally exactly as they have in the past?

GoDaddy claims that their new hiring practices do reflect a cultural shift—and that in addition to their HR initiatives, they’ve taken more substantive steps like changing the language they use to describe their company and its environs, forming resource groups for underrepresented employees, and sponsoring conferences for women in tech.

The results though, are underwhelming. Three years into this initiative, only roughly 25% of tech positions, leadership positions, and senior leadership positions are filled by women, and in the case of senior leaders that number is actually trending slightly downward.

Which brings us back to the question of efficacy. We know that company diversity doesn’t happen on its own. Teams need to be ready for the company to change at its core, and a simple hiring quota that doesn’t penetrate further than HR won’t improve company culture without daily leadership from the top. So what will?

A tech professional mansplaining to a coworker, illustrating the gender gap in tech.

Policies That Actually Help Women Succeed

In Dobbin and Kalev’s research, two tactics stood out as being especially useful in closing representation gaps among women and people of color.

The first is a tactic that any company can implement immediately: College recruiting with an emphasis on connecting with women and people of color. Dobbin and Kalev found that five years after a company implements such a policy, “the share of white women, black women, Hispanic women, and Asian-American women in its management rises by about 10%, on average.”

The second tactic is to create mentoring programs. This advice comes with a caveat, though: Companies must assign protégés to mentors. “[W]hite male executives don’t feel comfortable reaching out informally to young women and minority men,” Dobbin and Kalev report. “Yet they are eager to mentor assigned protégés, and women and minorities are often first to sign up for mentors.”

Lastly, companies that make good-faith, substantive efforts to change their cultures tend to see more women represented across all levels of the company. Sarah Kaplan, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, offers several steps that companies can take to realize these changes. These steps include:

  • Baking greater transparency into all of a company’s operations.
  • Holding managers accountable for results.
  • Removing gender-identifying data from the hiring process.

Below, we will see what happens when Kaplan’s advice is implemented.

4 Organizations That Took Meaningful Steps Toward Closing Their Gender Gaps

These four organizations have tried to level the playing field for women via substantive changes to their operations and cultures.

Verve Implements a Pay Transparency Policy

As mentioned above, a hiring quota can often be a band-aid for other toxic hiring practices, and companies need to address the more substantive factors that devalue the work of women and people of color.

Case in point: The UK-based advocacy marketing company Verve gives employees access to the pay rates of everyone in the organization. From the CEO down, no one is off limits. The goal is to earn greater trust among employees and to prove that the company is setting pay rates based on merit and job difficulty, rather than as a function of internal bias.

Founder and CEO Callum Negus-Fancey tells Forbes that this level of transparency promotes gender diversity in the workplace. “People join organizations based on what they do, not what they say,” she says. “They want to see tangible proof that your company encourages diversity.”

Today, almost 50 percent of Verve’s workforce is female.

Pinterest Holds Itself Publicly Accountable for Hiring

Since 2015, Pinterest has publicly worked to create a fair balance in its workforce. The company has set two goals to achieve this: Continue to grow the pipeline of employees from diverse backgrounds, and ensure the advancement of said employees.

Erin Spencer at Forbes reports reports that Pinterest has hired 26 percent more female engineers in 2017 than they did in 2016. And just four years ago, the overall hiring rate for female engineers was less than half of what it is now.

Along with setting internal goals and quotas, Pinterest is a success because it has been so public about its diversity goals. The company can now be held accountable by the public if it doesn’t take steps to increase diversity and grow the female presence throughout its ranks as it has promised to do.

A diverse team around a laptop, illustrating the gender gap in tech

The University of Adelaide Advertises Women-Only Positions

Earlier this year, the University of Adelaide in Australia advertised eight open STEM positions for female applicants. The goal was to first increase diversity levels within lower academic ranks to ultimately increase the chances that those women hired would advance to higher-level positions in the future.

Women are more likely to be offered sessional or contract work with lower pay rates than they are to be offered full-time professional jobs, researchers Joanne Pyke and Kate White note. This decreases their chances of growing as full-fledged employees within the universities where they teach.

By creating female-only positions, the University of Adelaide wants to make a more long-term commitment to gender diversity. With a more equal gender distribution at lower levels, the thinking goes, it’s more likely that the university’s top-level jobs will ultimately be filled by women who have been promoted up through the ranks.

This also undermines the myth of the “unqualified diversity hire” in senior leadership: All the lower-level hires were equally qualified to begin with, so are now on equal footing as they vie for top positions.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra Pioneered Blind Hiring—in the 1950s

We earlier heard blind hiring pitched as an alternative to setting hiring quotas, but is it effective? Just ask the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which introduced the concept all the way back in 1952, Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times reports.

Throughout the mid-20th century, white men made up the vast majority of symphony positions. “They were the only ones qualified,” many directors claimed. When two black men brought a discrimination case against the New York Philharmonic in 1969, this orchestra, too, implemented a blind audition policy. Performers play behind a screen and walk on carpet (so the conductor can’t extrapolate gender from the sound of a performer’s footwear). The directors hear only the music.

The results are staggering. When these practices were implemented across the country, women were 25 to 46 percent more likely to land an audition than before—and were even slightly more likely to be selected than men.

Blind auditions are seen as a way to even the playing field without tokenizing women and people of color.

Beyond Balance: The Case for Women in Leadership Positions

Taken together, these case studies prove that while hiring quotas can be somewhat helpful, they are a high-level metric that tells only part of the story. Pay rates, hiring practices as a whole, and inclusivity throughout an organization’s ranks all need to be addressed if any company wants to move the needle and build an inclusive, balanced team.

And while there are plenty of reasons for building this kind of team—better products and services, more enjoyable workplaces that reduce employee turnover, and healthier human beings within a healthier society—but let’s focus on this one for now: The strategic advantage of having women in leadership positions.

As HR specialist Michael Schneider points out, one major study suggests women tend to be better managers than men. The study, which looked into 40 years of research across 27 million employees, found that female managers rate more highly when it comes to employee engagement.

Participants under female management agreed that their work had been praised, that they had spoken with their managers about their progress, and that their professional development had been encouraged.

This isn’t meant to demonstrate that men are bad managers, but rather to bust the myth that women earn less because they can’t lead as competently as men can. According to this data, women tend to be more empathetic leaders and to care more about their employees, which are objectively just as important in a leader as any other qualities.

Unfortunately, these nurturing qualities are still viewed as weaknesses in some organizations, and are in fact often a reason women aren’t promoted, even though the data indicates that that practice is hurting organizations.

Until companies address the fundamental biases, fallacies, and prejudices that hold back many qualified employees, policies like pay transparency and blind hiring are necessary to propel us toward a world in which women and people of color aren’t rarities, but the norm, welcomed as the valued members of the tech community that they are.

The Grace Hopper Program, an all-women’s coding bootcamp, is trying to reduce the gender gap in tech by helping more women than ever before build both the technical and professional skills they need to succeed—like whiteboarding for technical interviews, salary negotiation strategies, and more. Explore the flagship program at www.gracehopper.com, or our Chicago campus at www.gracehopper.com/grace-hopper-chicago

Images by: Aleksandr Davydov/©123RF.com, dotshock/©123RF.com, dotshock/©123RF.com


Interested in learning more about coding?

Get our free Road to Code Guide & Course Syllabus