Countering gender bias

Negotiation is everywhere. 

Though it can be subtle, how you negotiate in one area (like salary) immediately affects other areas (like long work hours, unpaid overtime, and possibilities for promotion). 

One arena where this is critical is the powerful, often unspoken, element of gender bias. For women and non-gender binary confirming individuals, “good” negotiation is a double bind. You sometimes have to play the game the way that men do, but you also face punishment for reasons that are difficult to call out (think Hilary Clinton being attacked for being “too aggressive” vs. criticism for being “a weak leader who cries in public”). 

It’s a very subtle line to walk, and there’s already a great deal of research into how gender bias works… 

The Ellen Pao suit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins from earlier this year illustrated how troubling that double bind truly is. If you pay close attention to workplace dynamics, many of the scenarios from that case, like preference in seating charts, will sound familiar (some of Pao’s testimony is here, and the full stack of court documents is here). 

And while hidden negotiations and bias have implications for people on the unequal side of a power balance, it also, as the HBR piece from above suggests, has an effect on everyone. Creativity, productivity, autonomous decision making, and quality of work all suffer when gender bias is at play. 

But how do we realistically and practically combat gender bias when it is hidden in so many cases? Here are a few insights from a recent email exchange I had a few months ago with two of the smartest folks I know who work in technology / startups… 

Preparation is the single most important factor in a negotiation

Samantha Estoesta is the community manager for Workplace One, a Toronto based incubator / work space for entrepreneurs and startups, and an M.A. candidate in Intercultural Communications. 

Aki Braun is a skilled front and backend developer who worked for Obama’s 2012 campaign, the Mozilla Foundation, and is now at Fight for the Future. 

For both Estoesta and Braun, salary and job responsibilities top the list when it comes to preparing for negotiating a new role. When Estoesta landed a new job in August the initial posting didn’t include salary, so she did significant research on range for similar roles:

“As soon as you see that a position doesn’t list the [salary] offer, you have to go expecting negotiations. By sending time researching the position, looking at industry standards, knowing your own skill sets, and knowing why the are filling the position (e.g. maternity leave, someone got promoted, etc.), you have to prepare yourself with three numbers: 
1. I walk away if it’s lower than this
2. What I would settle for
3. My pie-in-the-sky number
This way you know exactly what you want and what you are willing to settle for in the process. Additionally, if your salary is lower than your pie-in-the-sky number but higher than your I-walk-away number, try to talk about bonuses or incentives, or at least demonstrate how awesome you are that they need to sweeten the deal. I negotiated a salary that is $2K less than my settle number but with an incentives plan that makes up the difference and more. But, the reason why I was mentally able to do this is that I knew my worth, I knew the job’s worth, and I knew what my settling points were in the long run. If you go in prepared and confident, you’re halfway there.

Braun has a similar approach, she knows what she’s willing to walk away from, and looks for negotiating ground on things like vacation time and flexible work hours: 

When it comes to salary negotiation, it’s a little trickier. Gender bias still exists, even from people who think they’ve controlled for it. It sucks, but as a woman (or if I was a person of color of any gender) people will inherently respond more poorly to me negotiating. One thing I do is set myself an acceptable salary range in my head. If the potential employer comes in within that range, it usually can’t hurt to test the waters for a few percent more. If they come in below that range, I’m firm about my minimum salary. 
If I am absolutely convinced an organization can’t afford my salary range, but I genuinely want to work with or for them, I get creative.

Since salary is only one part of the negotiation process, I wanted to also share more detailed responses from both Braun and Estoesta, including ideas that are relevant to folks on both sides of the table. 

For hiring managers — recognize that bias is there + be honest about it

It may sound simple, Braun says, but being honest about bias is critical. Humans, and Americans specifically, all have unconscious biases — no matter how “objective” we think we are. (example: white people often get mad about being accused of doing/saying something racist: they don’t think of themselves as a racist person, so how could they do a racist thing?)

If you truly want to combat bias from the ground up, go out and find people instead of relying on the “no one showed up / applied etc.” mindset

Braun consults for both startups and corporates on how to build diverse representation, specifically with new hires & speaker lineups. Her first piece of advice is always: don’t wait for them to come to you — go to them. 

If you think your applicant pool will be majority-white, seek out groups like Meetups on historically Black campuses, or listservs of people of color in tech. This is, theoretically, easily extrapolated. The nitty gritty gets more complicated, but that’s always a good place to start.

Anonymize the front end of hiring / recruiting

Another key piece of advice she gives people is to anonymize everything on the front end. The first round of elimination of applicants for a staff position or speaker slots should have all trace of gender, race, or physical ability scrubbed by a third party. Hiring managers & selection committees should know them only by a number. If possible, applications should be corrected for things like spelling as well. Like many roles, programming requires good communication skills — not dictionary-perfect spelling.

Welcome, and encourage, negotiation on more than just salary

Both Braun and Estoesta pointed at the importance of negotiating beyond salary, and suggested that surfacing expectations helps setup a better environment and correct power imbalances, including through things like: 

  • Extra vacation time: carefully negotiating for and structuring minimum vacation time and extra time can give you flexibility on salary. Many tech companies and corporates / startups are setting up arrangements where they have “unlimited” vacation time. The reality though is that people on average end up taking less vacation time, because they don’t know when it’s appropriate to go, or lack good, top-down example setting. 
  • Flexible work hours: A growing body of evidence shows that flexible schedules not only make for more efficient staff, but more committed staff too. 
  • Conference budget: Braun works remotely, and loves it, but it does occasionally leave her feeling a little disconnected from peers. Conferences provide access to new technologies and fellow technologists. Having the freedom to research and attend the conferences she feels I’ll get the most out of is a huge draw for her.

Encourage data points (and context) in both directions

When Estoesta researched her current role, she looked for any available piece of background information. The last person in the position was a female, and she looked to see how the organization had structured their responsibilities. She also reads peoples' presence online and searches the hiring manager and interviewees extensively (if she can obtain their names). 

In this case she happened to know the positions of her interviewers and what schools they went to for their degrees. That information gave her just enough to go on so that when she was in the first few minutes of the meeting she was able to assess their motivations and style. 

“You can tell if someone is being honest or holding their cards close to their chest” she says, and when they asked about her Master’s studies, she took it as an opportunity to genuinely discuss her thesis (multiracial identity through spoken word), and talk about how it thesis is supplementing my training in conflict resolution as racial identity often falls in the realm of conflict. She’s been offered jobs before and turned them down because the hiring panel gave off the vibe that it would not be an inclusive environment, and a lot of that information came by researching and then seeing how that information matched the first few minutes of meeting a potential employer. 

Silence and making people spell out hidden sub-text are powerful tools

Another idea that both Braun and Estoesta touched on reinforces something I’ve seen across several years of project / product management: be prepared, but make sure hidden negotiation points surface. In other words, make sure any hidden biases are spelled out before you respond to them. 

Most people are familiar with the power of saying no. A lesser known corollary is that absence and open space matter too, because they frame relationships, power structures, and agreements.

This is particularly true if you’re not sure how you feel about something, or don’t have enough information and simply want to see what the other person(s) are willing to offer or how they might frame the situation.

It can be as simple as saying “I’d like to think about that some more” or “can you provide a bit more info on how you’re thinking about that.” The key is to quickly assess if you’re dealing with something that you either recognize is problematic, or that you’re unsure of the motivation for. Providing space and/or asking for clarification often forces the other side to reveal any hidden bias, which you can then make a better decision on, whether it’s salary, vacation time, or simply who’s responsible for the details of setting up a company outing (a la the female office manager role that often surfaces in Silicon Valley) 

Ultimately, much of gender bias is unconscious. That means that the people reinforcing it aren’t necessarily aware that it’s happening. Structuring agreements and conversations in both directions that surface that bias is what pulls the power out into the open where it can, as Ellen Pao found out, be discussed in detail.