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More on Diversity and Merit in the Workplace

A couple of days ago, I posted about the practical discrimination in a hiring/raise/promotion system that requires people to ask/beg/demand to get ahead in their work. A number of people commented in response that this “is just the way business works.” There are a couple of problems with this.

The first problem is that, no, this isn’t just the way this works. Particularly for raises, many companies have systems of pay grades or bands and performance ratings that are designed to take bias out of the process. You’re in the middle of your pay band and you have an average performance rating? Great, your pay increase is roughly equal to inflation. It’s higher if you’re a higher performer. Lower portion of your pay band with the same performance? Another percent or two higher. Anywhere in the pay bands with a less than satisfactory rating? No increase, unless it’s required to stay within that inflation-adjusted pay band.

You get the idea. Nor is it new. I’ve worked at (mostly very large) companies receiving pay increases on this basis for the vast majority of my working life. It’s simple to understand and administer, and the system is built to inoculate a company against charges of discrimination.

Similarly, tying a portion of pay on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis to numeric performance measures is nothing new. It’s not necessarily a great way to be paid in a recession, but it’s great in a boom economy, and it still removes bias from the pay process.

In other words, there are ways to make this work. This is not a new field. None of these are new ideas. They simply–apparently–are among those topics that have to be discussed from scratch every single time they come up.

Eric Ries recently did a very good job of doing just that while talking about diversity in hiring and investing in tech startups:

What is true for aptitude is also true for interest. Some populations are more interested in science, in math, in business, and in taking risks than others. But all of the research I am aware of suggests that these differences are extremely small – not nearly big enough to explain what we’re observing in places like Y Combinator.

This is why I personally care about diversity: it’s the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be. And I believe that is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley.

Dominic Barton, Debra Lee, and Geena Davis made excellent points on the topic speaking to The Wall Street Journal‘s CEO Council:

There was a data point that men are promoted on potential, and women are promoted on performance, which I had never heard of before, but I thought was very interesting.

And so, one of the recommendations is that women should be promoted on potential. If you see a young woman who you know will go far at the company, she should be pushed along. Don’t wait for her to do something amazing, which is usually the way it happens with women.

There are corporate boards, which everyone agrees provide an amazing opportunity for women. CEOs should ensure there are women on their boards, but they also should recommend women within their company to serve on other boards.

Jamelle Bouie talks about how the lack of diversity in Apple’s development teams likely created the recent “Siri, where can I get an abortion?” debacle:

That Siri gives responses for blowjobs and strippers — but can’t return a query about birth control — has everything to do with the fact that Apple (and Silicon Valley writ large) is a place dominated by men and their preferences. In all likelihood, Siri was developed and optimized by a team of all dudes or mostly dudes. And while they made sure to include things that were gender-neutral (like mental health services), there was no effort to approach Siri from the perspective of a woman user. Indeed, reproductive health is a classic male blind spot — it’s women who are “supposed” carry the responsibility for contraceptives. Men, in general, get a pass. The problem with Siri isn’t that the programmers hate women, it’s that they weren’t even on the radar.

Given the extent to which women are underrepresented in the tech industry, you could almost say that this — or something like it — was bound to happen. What’s more, we can expect it to happen again.

Notice, in all of these posts, that no one is talking about treating any minority in a special way. This is all about finding ways to treat sexes, races, etc. equally. Nor are we to do it out of any general sense of fair play (except as we want to be treated fairly ourselves). The point is to support merit everywhere it is found, and to effectively put it to work for you.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    Stephanie, this was off to being a pretty nice weekend until you got me started on gender bias in technology.

    While I try to cool off, let me just say that I’ve been doing this for almost forty years, and the bias is so pervasive that trying to just do the most basic things to give junior women some of the breaks that less-qualified men get is like wading uphill through mud. People don’t even notice the differences in the way they treat women.

    I was about to start listing them, and realized that if I started I’d never do anything else today. I’m off to pet some cats for a while and cool down.

  2. julian says

    They simply–apparently–are among those topics that have to be discussed from scratch every single time they come up.

    *blushes*

    Yeah, I’m definitely guilty of being one of those guys who isn’t as informed (ok, is entirely ignorant) of this sort of stuff.

    If you could point me in the direction of any reading material relevant here, so I don’t look like a complete ass if this sort of topic comes up, I would be eternally grateful. (ok maybe not eternally but you get the picture.)

  3. jamessweet says

    Particularly for raises, many companies have systems of pay grades or bands and performance ratings that are designed to take bias out of the process.

    Except even in companies which employ this system, it doesn’t work that way across the board. Not even close. It probably helps somewhat to have pay bands like this, but believe me, there are extreme deviations from it, and negotiation plays a role.

    After more thinking about the other thread, I think the answer is open salary information. There is simply no way you are going to take negotiation completely out of the system, even with things like pay bands. But what you can do is make it impossible for one person to negotiate a significantly higher salary without everyone else finding out about it. This ought to have the effect of narrowing any discrepancies, and making sure that what discrepancies persist have a good justification.

  4. Staceyjw says

    Discrimination based on gender is rampant, especially if they think you might have kids! It’s a waste of our resources to have women not be fully utilized when they have superior talent. It’s so ingrained that women don’t even consider some jobs because of it!

    My industry (solar power) is about 1% women and most of those are in customer service. I have no idea why. It’s nonsensical, there is nothing about being a man that makes a difference in this field. I actually find being female is an advantage. Why aren’t more women attracted to the industry? it’s getting better, but not a lot.

    I was at a German company that purposely looked for women to hire (back at the home office fully 50% are female, including engineers), and we still only had 3 on the whole US solar team (of 30 or so, so we beat the 1% at least). There was also a handful concentrated in low paying customer service at HQ, but they covered other divisions as well. On my team, one woman was head of engineering (awesome) 2 were Regional managers (including me). One of the top guys told me few women even send resumes, and of the few that do, even less are even kind of qualified. And he hunts for them, and uses recruiters and many channels to find them. (he was from Germany, I have never seen an American do this.)

    But, I DO love negotiation and being demanding, because Im great at it, and it makes it easy for me to jump upwards without the advantage of education. But I am the exception, not the rule. Part of my success is because Im in Sales management where performance is vital, and numbers trump all. I know that I have made more than most of the men due to negotiation plus merit pay (you negotiate how much you can get for your hard work, percentage wise, plus salary and perks.). Women need to be taught the crucial skill of negotiating your worth, many people (men too) don’t know how and don’t make what they could.