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Designing Away Discrimination

The latest chapter in our culture wars is still unfolding across social media following the firing of a male Google engineer over his authorship of a sexist memo.

Google is hardly alone in confronting sexism in tech. One day before the engineer in question was fired, reports came out that TIME Magazine was facing a lawsuit for gender discrimination against a high ranking female editor who says she was bullied by a younger male colleague. Last week, FOX’s Eric Bolling was suspended over accusations he sent lewd texts to colleagues less than a year after FOX’s top host and its CEO were ousted over sexism. And remember Uber, and the widespread allegations of sexual harassment there? That was only just last month, but already we’ve moved on to the backlash feared by many women in venture capital funding who took their stories to the media.

These abundant examples of gender discrimination are hopefully raising awareness of the many issues women are facing in the workplace, where few females make it to the C-suite. But the incidents and uproar beg the question: now what? Amidst the outrage on both sides, an opportunity remains overlooked to cut past the rhetoric and address the policies and factors enabling discrimination to persist. It’s something companies should be keenly aware of both to protect themselves, and to verify that they are running a truly inclusive workplace.

Research indicates that there is a solution: Managers can design away discrimination.

The Google memo argues that women aren’t biologically capable of succeeding equally as men at the company, and that they are overly anxious and less interested in high status positions because their value lies more in their “beauty.” What the author ignores are reams of research demonstrating that diverse groups are more creative, innovative and, in the case of companies with more female managers and board members, more profitable.

While many organizations give much more than lip service to equality and invest in expensive diversity training programs, these often don’t target the pervasive and subtle ways unconscious bias leads to discrimination. Societally we are all enmeshed in ingrained unconscious bias, with pronounced effects in the technology industry. Paul Gompers and Sophie Wang of the National Bureau of Economic Research used a data set of Harvard MBA students between 2013 -2016 to examine homophily, or the desire to associate with those similar to you, in entrepreneurial team formation. Their studies reveal that homophily in gender and ethnicity affect team formation by 25 percent and serve as a stronger motivator than either shared educational institutions or past working experience.

We can manage our way out of this problem by implementing systemic approaches to test and track solutions to the problem of assembling the highest performing, profit-making leadership teams.

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[Photo Credit: Creative Commons]
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