“I’d love to hire more women, but when I post a job, they don’t apply. They’re not interested.”
“There just aren’t enough qualified women to do the job.”
At the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Lab, where we work with leading companies to help them attract, retain, and advance a diverse pool of talent, we hear comments like these quite a bit. And every time we are reminded of the art of fishing: If you don’t catch a fish, you don’t blame the fish. You change your technique.
It’s time for leaders to stop blaming their companies’ lack of diversity on the lack of women applicants. They need to focus on why they’re not seeing more women applicants. They need to ask, “Why is my organization not attractive to women?”
Research from our Lab suggests that the answer might lie in the signals your company sends about its culture during the recruiting process.
In a recent study, we had researchers attend 84 information sessions held by technology companies at a West Coast college; they took notes about the presentations, the mix of presenters, and the language and images used. To measure attendees’ engagement, we noted positive responses when attendees actively participated and asked questions, and negative ones when they remained silent or even walked out of the room.
We found that women seemed less engaged when companies presented a culture in which women didn’t appear well-represented. For example, women asked fewer questions when presenters talked about a “work hard, play hard culture” that highlighted heavy drinking (e.g., fridges stocked with beer, beer pong games, social drink events) and favored working late into the night in the office. In many ways, this culture echoed stereotypes of a college fraternity culture.
Women’s engagement also dropped when the presentation slides featured primarily images of men in active roles (e.g. astronauts, computer technicians, soldiers, and even raising their hands to ask questions) or women in seductive poses (e.g. a woman wearing a red, skin-tight dress holding a burning poker card, or a woman looking over her shoulder suggestively).
Women attendees also appeared disengaged when the information sessions were led by men in technical roles, while women played purely supportive roles such as greeting people at the door, handing out t-shirts, or speaking about work-life balance — not the technology. Of the sessions we observed, less than a quarter featured women engineers presenting core technical content.
When you isolate these data points, it’s easy to see why women seemed less than enthusiastic about these presentations and the companies behind them. After all, if the experts leading the sessions are mostly male or if the imagery in their presentations are mostly of men or don’t present women professionally — what are the chances that women are viewed as being equally capable as men at that company? If the “fun” culture being promoted or bragged about is one in which women may be less likely to be able to participate, what are the chances that women are seen as “fitting in” the company?
These presentations sent signals that the companies — their workplaces and cultures — were male-advantaging. And women, consciously or not, picked up on them.
Women also picked up on signals that indicated a company had a culture where they were more likely to thrive. Women were much more engaged in presentations that showcased women experts speaking about technology; that described multiple ways of gaining and demonstrating technical mastery; and that focused on the company’s mission, not just the kind of technical issues the coders faced. At these sessions, women asked twice as many questions and were far more likely to stay. So were more men.
If companies broaden their idea of what makes someone successful, they can increase their chances of finding the right person for the job.
For example, Carnegie Mellon University discovered that when they made some key changes to their computer science (CS) program, their percentage of women declaring CS majors climbed from 7% to 42% in just 5 years. The university first focused on the signals they sent in their communications. They broadened their definition of success by moving away from the prevalent stereotype of a geeky, obsessive CS major to focus instead on the “real-world training.” They also opened up pathways to the major: they stopped requiring prior high school experience in CS, and they offered students a chance to pursue CS in concert with other fields.
The signals your company sends about its culture greatly influence whether you are able to attract — or alienate — women. And these signals go way beyond your website’s diversity and inclusion page. When deciding whether to join (or stay at) your company, candidates and employees may consciously or subconsciously pay attention to the following signals to gauge whether your workplace culture is one where they can thrive:
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