Is it even possible to overcome biases so ingrained that we’re seldom aware of them?
It’s hard to change people, but we can change processes and systems. And the tech industry needs wholesale structural change, from hiring and board representation to capital flows.
But we should be hopeful. There are many impressive behavioral design tools popping up to help curb biased decision-making and behaviors. Awareness of your unconscious biases is an important first step. But as anyone who’s made a New Years’ resolution knows, there’s an intention-action gap. We need to make it easier for people—and businesses—to live up to their virtuous intentions. Whether that’s using tools to remove gendered language in job descriptions, implementing hiring tools like Applied, or completely changing the way we do performance reviews.
Setting targets for diversity and inclusion, and measuring against them just as you would with any other business success metric is critical. Establish data baselines, as well as regular intervals for collecting and reviewing data, then use these figures to drive smarter business decision making. Investing in tools and resources to extend the employee tenure of women in your business, prevent them dropping off after periods of absence, and encourage them to return to work will reduce the resources required for searching, hiring, training and replacing staff that leave due to inadequate support.
In VC and investment decisions, it’s about intentionally widening your network to diversify your deal flow, making sure your LPs and your team look like the people you want to attract and fund, setting targets and, most-importantly, focusing on data. Too many investment decisions are based on a gut feel, which, at the end of the day, is biased decision-making.
What’s one concrete action leaders in business could take right now?
I’ll give you two. First, put your money where your mouth is and invest in women. Evaluate your procurement processes to establish a baseline dataset on how your company brings in suppliers. Stipulating that even 10 percent of your company’s suppliers must be women-founded businesses or adhere to diversity practices your company values (a gender-equal board, for example) could have an immense impact. A number of leading companies have stepped up, making financial commitments to support women entrepreneurs along these lines, including Walmart and Microsoft.
Secondly, work from the inside out to equalize parental leave in your organization. Normalize men taking just as much time off as women, and stop calling it maternity leave. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article cites the sliding scale of issues new mothers in high-income countries encounter the longer they are away from paid work: their probability of promotion decreases; they are less likely to move into management or receive a pay raise once their leave is over. New mothers are also at greater risk of being fired or demoted. Women who take longer leave are often unfairly judged to be less committed to their jobs than those that choose not to have children or take less time away from the workplace when they do. This is at odds with a key motivation for parental leave legislation: enabling women to pursue motherhood without sacrifice to their career success.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is 33 percent less than that of a man with the same experience. Extrapolate that impact for additional children and consider that setback in the context of a childcare system that is prohibitively expensive for many families and a job market where part-time work is hard to come by or undervalued. The combined lack of incentive to return to the workforce after leave means employers are missing out on a wealth of talent.
Are you optimistic that COVID-19 will inspire that sort of re-thinking—that it will be a “great leveler”?
We know that one of the single biggest things we can do for women in the workplace is normalizing flexible working, and of course that’s now happened for a lot of women in office roles. We have lots CEOs telling us they never thought this kind of flexibility was possible before, and now they’re realizing it is. That’s promising.
But we need to make sure that we fundamentally change the rules of work to make them work for women. It’s great that women can work from home, but it’s not necessarily a solution if they still aren’t in the key meetings, if they’re burdened with caring responsibilities, if they’re being left behind.
For leaders, it’s about looking at the future of work, not focusing on simple technological quick-fixes. And, crucially, as leaders look at the future, that they do so through a gender lens. How will these decisions affect women? Are women being included in this conversation?
What about investors—what’s one thing they can do immediately?
Revise your portfolio targets. Make the bold commitment that 50 percent of your firm’s venture capital investments must be made in women founders, or founding teams that include women. Set targets for one, three, five and ten years to create structure and reinforce accountability for delivering them.
Also, look at cap tables. Research conducted by #Angels, an investment collective of early Twitter employees, found that of the 6,000 companies they analyzed (with a combined total of nearly $45 billion in equity value), women made up 33 percent of the combined founder and employee workforce but held just 9 percent of the equity value. Women are largely removed from the wealth creation the industry boasts. This has a profound impact on the amount of capital a woman walks away with at exit, limiting her ability to fund the next generation of innovative new ideas, or indeed start a new company. Not only do diverse founding teams matter, but so does the composition of their share of the business. This single action could be transformational.
And be honest when you fail, ask why an initiative hasn’t worked and consult the data. Look beyond your own footprint. Finding ways to influence your broader ecosystem could help accelerate the delivery of your own gender diversity goals.
Meaghan Ramsey is a Partner in Brunswick's Business & Society practice. She previously led the global social impact work of the Dove brand.
Inez Bartram-Vilar is an Account Director. Both are based in London.
Photographs courtesy of accelerateHER.