Women aren’t the only ones appalled by the recent high-profile stories of rampant sexism, harassment, and retaliation at tech companies like Uber and Tesla and investment firms like 500 Startups and Binary Capital. Many men have approached us asking how they can personally help change Silicon Valley’s counter-productive culture and promote diversity and inclusion.
Your support has never been more critical. Women and minorities are the primary voices speaking out against discrimination and mistreatment, but Harvard Business Review reports that they’re often penalized for advocating for diversity while white males are not. Yet, a McKinsey study of 366 companies finds ethnically diverse and gender diverse companies to be 35% and 25% more likely to achieve financial success, respectively. Creating an inclusive environment not only gives you access to more talent, but also leads to superior products and profits.
Encouraged by your desire for action, we’ve compiled 6 steps that every man can take to support women in the tech industry, including women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, mothers, and other subgroups who face even greater obstacles. These suggestions are based on our own professional experiences as well as research on unconscious bias and attrition.
1. Seek Out & Promote The Technical Work Of Women
Just like their male counterparts, women who choose to work in tech are geeks, nerds, and tinkerers who enjoy building technology. Yet, even when reading identical scripts, male voices are perceived as more persuasive, fact-based, and logical than women’s voices, based on a study from Harvard, Wharton, and MIT.
Once you’re conscious of this bias, one way to counter is to actively seek out and promote the technical expertise of women, who are often less visible than comparably competent men. When you see a female coworker doing an awesome job, thank her in a way that is consistent with how men’s achievements are recognized at your company. When you’re at an industry event, ask women the same questions about technical projects or professional interests that you ask other men. Many female engineers are mistakenly assumed to be in marketing, HR, or junior roles when they’re actually seasoned technologists.
2. Focus On Sponsorship, Not Just Mentorship
A study of 4,000 high achievers found mentorship to be statistically linked to promotion for men, but not for women. In particular, mentors for men advocate for them in executive meetings, promote their work, and publically endorse their authority, while mentors for women often tell their mentees to change their personalities to succeed.
While feedback and advice are valuable, don’t just be a mentor, be a sponsor. Your mentees’ careers benefit more from direct and consistent advocacy and action. Sponsors build trust and respect over time and leverage their power and technical credibility to prepare, protect, and push junior talent to take on more visible and challenging roles.
3. Give Feedback With Specific And Consistent Rubrics
Sloppy interviewing practices disproportionately hurt women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates because lack of consistent processes and standards allows unconscious biases to play a larger role. Ironically, a Yale study found that perceiving yourself as objective is correlated with showing even greater bias. Consistent, predetermined, and specific criteria are essential for fairer and more successful interview outcomes.
Stripe engineer Julia Evans wrote an excellent blog post detailing how she created a rubric for evaluating candidates in phone interviews which was eventually adopted as a company-wide standard. Standardizing practices can also help reveal and mitigate mistakes such as optimizing for individual rockstars vs. well-oiled teams, using confidence as a proxy for competence, and hiring people because they think and act just like you.
Beyond interviews, other areas which benefit from consistency and standards include onboarding, performance reviews, and code reviews. Rather than tackling all of these at once, choose one area to focus on at a time.
4. Speak Up When You Encounter Interruptions Or Offensive Comments
Many studies have shown that women are interrupted more than men, despite men typically talking more in meetings. You can change this pattern by intercepting interruptions and asking for statements to be completed, i.e. “Bob, before you share your thought, I’d like to hear Sally finish her point.” Even if you work exclusively with other men, practicing considerate communication enables your entire team to benefit by enabling ideas to be shared freely and completely. These interpersonal skills and habits also transfer to new teams when you switch roles, departments, or companies.
Another common practice in male-dominated industries is to make degrading or inappropriate comments about female or non-white colleagues when they’re not present. Doing so has the effect of undermining their professional credibility by emphasizing personal aspects that are unrelated to technical competence and experience. You would not enjoy being publicly judged for having flabby abs or poor fashion sense, and especially wouldn’t appreciate having such comments negatively impact your colleague’s perception of your engineering work.
Call out such behavior with firm, simple phrases like “Not cool” or “We don’t do that here”. Speaking up in these scenarios may lead you to be made fun of, accused of having no sense of humor, or asked to chill out. This is quite tough, but also an experience that women and minorities face on a daily basis when they advocate for considerate workplace behavior. If you don’t speak up, your silence will be interpreted as tacit approval of disrespectful treatment.
5. Listen Empathetically To Stories Of Sexism And Harassment
Most of us care about minimizing racism and sexism, but simply aren’t aware of offending incidents. For every story of sexism publically shared, there are dozens suppressed. Katrina Lake of Stitchfix was coerced into signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) after reporting sexual harassment to Lightspeed Ventures. The use of NDA and non-disparagement clauses to silence victims is a prevalent practice. Women are threatened with lawsuits, illegal retaliation, and public shaming.
The professional and emotional costs to exposing discrimination are high. Women coming forward often need to be “perfect” to be believed, and even then are often accused of crying sexism for professional or financial gain. Many instances of harassment may also seem minor in isolation, but have destructive impact cumulatively over time.
Brave stories from technology leaders like Tracy Chou, Susan Fowler, Erica Joy, Julie Pagano, Cate Huston, Cheryl Yeoh, Kennedy Cooke-Garza, February Keeney, and many others are critical to changing this dynamic. Virtually every woman in tech has stories of explicit sexual harassment and dismissive gender-biased behavior, so practice listening with empathy rather than judgment and skepticism. A key skill in building a diverse and inclusive culture is understanding experiences that are different from your own.
6. Leverage Expert Resources For Diversity And Inclusion
If you want to accelerate culture change at your workplace, you can get help from experts with years of experience in increasing diversity and inclusion. Project Include, Code 2040, Paradigm, and Ally Skills Workshop are all excellent resources.
There are also many ways to discover diverse talent outside of your company and immediate network, including People of Color in Tech, Women in Machine Learning, and CodeNewbie, all of which feature a wide variety of professionals along with the substance of their work. Once you’re more aware of the incredible diversity of talent that exists in the industry, you’ll probably find it bizarre when tech conferences announce all-male speaker line-ups or articles about AI that feature 60 men yet no technical women.
You Can Start Fighting Sexism Today
Together, we can fight unintentional bias and harmful discrimination. While many of these actions can be personally and professionally challenging to commit to, taking them on a daily basis will result in noticeable culture changes that make the technology industry a more welcoming place for everyone.
- Seek out and promote the technical expertise of women
- Focus on sponsorship, not just mentorship
- Give feedback with specific and consistent rubrics
- Speak up when you encounter interruptions or offensive comments
- Listen empathetically to experiences with sexism and harassment
- Leverage expert resources for diversity and inclusion
Are there any suggestions that we should add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.