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Getting beyond hiding your gender: Paths for women to work in tech

A Wall Street Journal column sparked outrage for suggesting that women trying to break into tech should use their initials. The author has since apologized, but how do we address gender equity at work?

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    Students work on a technology project at The Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria in Astoria, New York, in 2015. The all-girls STEM-focused public school was established in 2006.
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Women who want a career in tech should obscure their gender online, says a provocative Wall Street Journal column.

John Greathouse, an investor and serial entrepreneur who teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara, was writing about the power of online first impressions in hiring. He called many people in the business community “intellectually dishonest,” saying they do not embrace cultural and gender diversity as they claim to. The answer, he suggested, was for women to strip their online profiles of gender-identifying information, going photo-free and using initials instead of names.

The post sparked outrage from all quarters. Readers took to Twitter to decry his suggestions, which one described as an “online burka” and another suggested was “effectively telling all women, including impressionable young girls, to be ashamed of their gender online.”

Recommended: Why so few women in tech? Seven challenges and potential solutions.

The public response may have pushed the author to apologize for the post via Twitter on Thursday.

Criticism of having to hide who you are to get ahead is understandable — but does Greathouse’s advice open up conversations about better paths to progress?

The tech industry's gender equity problem is well-documented. The number of women graduating with computer science degrees has gone down dramatically as the tech industry has grown: While 37 percent of graduates were women in 1984, today they make up just 18 percent of the total. Just 4 percent of college freshmen are interested or involved in computing programs.

Some of these struggles are societal: Young girls may be taught that engineering isn’t for them, or an absence of role models may make a computing career seem too far out of reach.

Other issues are institutional. A study of open-source software-development website GitHub found that women are more likely to have their work accepted than men — but only if their gender is unknown.

Among tech industry leaders, diversity is slowly increasing — a 2015 study from the University of California-Davis found that women held 15.5 percent of the seats on corporate boards in the software industry. Coding clubs like Girls Who Code and mentorship schemes such as she++ help get women into tech and support them in the industry, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Karis Hustad reported in 2014.

Broader systemic change is needed, argued Cathy Belk, president of JumpStart, Inc., a Cleveland-based nonprofit that supports small businesses and encourages job creation. Writing in Fortune, she criticized Greathouse’s suggestion that women obscure their identities, saying that “the onus falls on the person or the institution responsible for the bias” to change their attitude. She pointed out that bringing women on-board enhances a company’s bottom line: According to Google For Entrepreneurs, “Women-led tech companies achieve 35% higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bring in 12% more revenue than male-owned tech companies.” If businesses see diversity as being in their best interest, it will happen over time, she wrote.

“The only thing smart, capable women need to do is keep doing what they’re doing. Keep working hard, keep innovating and keep coming up with new ideas. You don’t need to change. It’s the industry – which is supposed to be based on innovation – needs to change,” Belk concluded.

The imperative to forge a career means that women may not be able to wait for society or the industry to catch up. Greathouse briefly referenced the shift to “blind” orchestra auditions, which helped achieve near gender balance in a previously male-dominated sphere, suggesting that using initials was one way to achieve a similar effect. But, as Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio, an “advanced machine learning platform for writing” pointed out:

One answer? Interviewing.io, an online platform that lets companies interview job candidates entirely anonymously. The hiring process may begin with a test, like asking an applicant to solve a problem or write a line of code. Founder Aline Lerner told NPR:

“One of the things that came up was if you can hear somebody’s voice, it’s going to be, in most cases, very easy to tell what their gender is. So we were trying to think of how to get around that.”

Her solution: voice-masking software that can make women sound like men and men sound like women. So far, the interviewing platform has been used by tech companies Uber, Dropbox, and Twitch, among others.

Blendoor, which launched in beta at South by Southwest in March, is another "blind audition" company being tested by the likes of Twitter, Google, and Airbnb. In fact, there's a bumper crop of startups jockeying to be the go-to tool for making hiring more democratic, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

They may tackle the problem in many different ways, but the operating principle is the same: Making structural tweaks to the screening process for job candidates is a more effective way of ensuring a diverse workforce. Placing the onus on even the most well-intentioned hiring managers to overcome their own ingrained biases or, even more likely, avoid falling back on already-established social connections to make a hire, is less so.

...  “I don’t know if we should get rid of them entirely, but résumés as a first-pass filter should be completely done away with,” Aline Lerner, creator of Interviewing.io, tells the Monitor's Schuyler Velasco.

But Kaya Thomas, a junior at Dartmouth and “the only black woman studying computer science in the class of 2017,” told NPR she was concerned that, if a company uses the software, “the company will become complacent” and stop actively trying to create diversity. 

Focusing on the skills necessary for a job means companies with blind recruitment practices almost always end up with more diverse workforces, according to Azmat Mohammed, director general of the Institute of Recruiters.

"It's quite an exciting thing for a company to do, to completely rethink how it's going to hire based on the things it needs, because ultimately the business wants to do better," Mohammed told FastCompany. "That's the whole point of all this: to hire better people, the right people to make the business move forward."

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