Use Technology To Better Understand Inequality In The Workplace
There have been many thoughts aired about technology and its potential future effects on inequality. They are inevitably speculative and most of what I have read is unexciting. But when it comes to inequality in the workplace, it is clear that data - for which technology is essential - is key. A recent piece in Harvard Business Review offers more - the use of sensors to show how men and women are treated in the workplace.
The authors - Stephan Turban, Laura Freeman and Ben Waber - conducted an experiment in a large multinational firm by asking men and women to wear sensors that record communication patterns: who talks with whom, where people communicate and who dominates conversations.
Read the piece for the detail. They write: "....as we analyzed our data, we found almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. We couldn’t see the types of projects they were working on, but we found that men and women had indistinguishable work patterns in the amount of time they spent online, in concentrated work, and in face-to-face conversation. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were."
"Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. ...Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior" say the authors.
I have shared this HBR piece across a number of social media platforms over the last few weeks and it has attracted attention. There will be many sceptics at the methodology, and those who scoff at the findings. Yet I am willing to believe that it will resonate with many, many women.
As the authors say, their data implies that gender differences lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions.
Those perceptions are surely coloured by the weight of history and past norms, such as who does the washing up and brings up small children. As those norms shift for a younger generation both liberated and burdened by technological innovation and workplace opportunities, it is critical to challenge the perceptions.
I originally started this blog around the UK government's drive in 2011 to get more female non-executive directors into FTSE 350 boardrooms. I attended a lot of high-profile public events, and listened to a lot of talk about the need for 'diversity.' It was also clear that the home truths were often uttered in the 'Ladies Room' in the breaks, and not at the event itself. It felt very much as if a jargon of solutions evolved to find another way of masking the reality - not a lack of diversity, but fundamental gender inequality. We even found a way to avoid saying 'bias', by adding 'unconscious' and immediately absolving all responsibility.
Now, all these years later, in 2018, the women's marches and the #MeToo and #TimesUp social media outpourings finally mark a sea-change of women finding a collective voice, rather than restricting their thoughts to the 'Ladies Room.' It also points to just how outdated the thinking in much of UK business was, only seven years ago.
There have been flurries of activity in that time in the UK around ethnic representation and race (all covered by me diligently on Forbes and without fail and in a mystifying way, always far and away the least read of my many posts) and the urgent need to do something to make the country at senior levels more representative of its people. Baroness McGregor-Smith's review made it very clear that the lack of data on ethnicity in race is a problem. If CEOs don't even know who works for them- implying they don't find it relevant enough to find out - where do we start ?
If we are serious about tackling inequality, then we need to be creative about the use of technology and open to its findings. It might be time to stop pouring endless resources into old-style diversity and inclusion programmes and start looking at innovative ways of putting a finger on the pulse of business. Get going, HR departments - continuous learning is the name of the game and it's time to talk to the tech experts.