Much of the debate about the paucity of women in technology focuses on the pipeline problem: how to get young schoolgirls interested in science and math. But what happens when girls do elect to study STEM fields? Why aren’t many women with technical qualifications moving into STEM-related careers?
New research suggests that how technology companies recruit candidates during on-campus information sessions might play a role in dissuading women from the jobs.
Researchers Shelley Correll, a professor by courtesy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and head of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and Alison Wynn, a postdoctoral researcher at the institute, focused their attention on these job information sessions to see how recruiters engage prospective employees on a West Coast college campus. The researchers sent a team of observers to 84 sessions where 66 companies recruited for technical roles, mainly as entry-level engineers.
While these sessions, common to all elite universities, welcome both men and women, the researchers found that companies missed opportunities to draw women in and often actually pushed them away instead. The result is that women who hold or are about to graduate with computer science, engineering, or other quantitative degrees can be deterred from tech jobs.
In the sessions, the researchers found, presenters often peppered their remarks with references to geek culture favorites like Star Trek and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, focused conversation on only the highly technical aspects of the job, or referred to high school coding experience. These topics often excluded women, who on average join the field after high school and can feel excluded from the images depicted in geek culture. Also, men overwhelmingly led the sessions, and when companies sent female employees, their roles most often consisted of discussing company culture or setting up food in the back of the room.
“Through gender-imbalanced presenter roles, geek culture references, overt use of gender stereotypes, and other gendered speech and actions, representatives may puncture the pipeline, lessening the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers,” the researchers write.
There were other red flags. At some of the recruiting sessions the researchers attended, they were surprised to hear presenters referencing subjects like pornography and prostitution in their remarks, often when joking. Unprepared presenters, particularly men, were more likely to make inappropriate jokes.
“A lot of the worst content came when the presenter was speaking off-the-cuff comments, trying to be relatable to students and funny,” Correll says. “You wouldn’t want to take a very talented woman who’s getting her degree in computer science and is coming to an info session for your company and do things like this. It’s just counterproductive.”
Both large and small companies showed the same patterns of lauding geeky, fraternity-house culture, although big firms’ sessions were less egregious. The researchers also noticed some improvement when company sessions included videos. Videos were more likely to be vetted for questionable content by companies of all sizes.
The overall effects of these patterns were noticeable: Female students tended to ask fewer questions than their male counterparts, and some left the sessions early.
There are ways for companies to fight this problem, the researchers say. Among their suggestions:
- Bring along female engineers as part of the recruiting team. Have them present core technical content during the event, not just set up the refreshments, pass out T-shirts, or speak about company culture.
- Feature the company’s technical work in a way that emphasizes its real-world impact, rather than describing the engineering staff as a group of people who sit in a darkened room all day. While some consider this the definition of hard-working tech-world glory, female students are less likely to feel this way.
- Present the technical work in an approachable way, showing that there are multiple successful pathways into a technical career. “Women often come to tech later than men and don’t always have the high school work, but this does not affect their success in the field,” Wynn says.
These tactics pay off. At presentations where companies incorporated these ideas, female attendees asked twice as many questions and showed greater engagement, the researchers found.
For executives, the paper offers a chance to consider whether their recruiting information sessions are having the intended effect or its opposite.
“We’re looking at a place where companies can actually have an impact,” Wynn says.