Diversity Lessons from Men in Technology


Elissa Tucker's picture

Much press attention has been given to the experiences of women working in technology companies. Patricia Salgado Ph.D., a fellow at the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara California, has uniquely focused on the men working in the tech industry, conducting research into their experiences of gender diversity. Salgado’s findings shed light on how to improve the employment experience for both genders. Via email, I asked Salgado to describe her research and explain how employers and employees across industries can apply her findings. Read what she had to say and be sure to check out APQC’s diversity and inclusion resources.

Tell me about your research. What are you hoping to learn, why, and how?
Tech companies need more engineers, more innovation, and better functioning products if they are to lead the industry worldwide. Yet, between 1990 and 2013, the percentages of female engineers in computer engineering dropped dramatically. With recent immigration constraints, it is more important than ever to keep women engineers in the industry.

Media and academia have reported that male engineers and managers are creating an environment that women will no longer tolerate. Having worked in the computer industry in Silicon Valley for many years, my colleague Karin Bunnell and I were interested in the research of STEM diversity through the lens of gender. When reading Solving The Equation, a large study published in 2014 by the American Association of University Women, we noticed that the bibliography did not contain any studies on men in the tech industry. More than 300 published studies were listed and none had asked men why the tech environment is hostile to women.

It was our experience that not all men are threatened by women engineers nor do all men within the engineering domain treat women with hostility. Yet according to the AAUW research, women engineers have been sidelined and marginalized with sexual innuendos or harassment and most women describe the environment as hostile. Men own the engineering domain; yet none have been asked their opinions and views of the issue. We felt they would have answers and solutions to this problem.

Under the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University, we conducted a pilot project to research gender and diversity within the computer industry. We designed the pilot project to interview 20 white male engineers from one company, thus removing the complexities of race or ethnicity as well as differences in corporate culture. Our goal was to listen and not make recommendations to our participants. From the interviews, we could glean themes and data points.

What have you learned so far?

From the men we interviewed, we learned the following.

  • Fear—the men revealed their fear of speaking up when they recognized biased behavior among their male colleagues. Following closely was their fear of being labelled soft and of being excluded by male peers. The circle of male camaraderie and solidarity was important to them.
  • Loss—they feared loss of leadership,  good projects, or promotion—even job loss—should they be too vocal in attempting to level the playing field
  • Differences—their observation is that women think differently; most women think inclusively, less competitively. This advantage is being lost when women leave.
  • Cultural behaviors—they were aware that much of what men say or do goes unnoticed (by other men) because their behavior maps to traditional social behaviors and language.
  • Corporate behavior—the vision of leadership hampers companies; there is a need to change the cookie-cutter view to include women and people of color.

For the tech industry we learned that there is no quick fix and it is our observation that some large tech companies have rushed in without a systemic plan, leading to problems and creating backlash. To ‘right a wrong,’ unconscious bias training has been considered the cure-all and is sweeping through the corporate world. Unfortunately to some men, it feels like blame.

For all industries we learned that the effectiveness of diversity training must start ‘at the top’ with executive management. Assigning the responsibility of diversity-change to the HR organization removes the responsibility from upper management and places it firmly on the shoulders of the HR organization. Executive management must be held accountable for diversity change within their organization. Diversity efforts should be a line-item topic at each executive committee meeting.

At best, diversity training professionals should have responsibility for the training in corporate-wide effort but they cannot shoulder the success of such an important change effort. The effort and its success should be tied directly to each senior manager’s salary, bonuses, and stock rewards. Finally, corporate policies should reinforce the goal of diversity. Then change will begin.

Ultimately, there are no soundbite solutions, no ‘silver bullet’ and only 50 percent of us will change our attitudes.* This is a complex problem with multiple layers and dangerous intersections that will be encountered. Conflict is likely It requires an ongoing process and there will be risks involved.

* In preparation for this project, I researched cognitive change regarding bias. In any change effort, simple or complex, where 100 people take part, only 50 will recognize a long-held bias and try to change or not act on it. The other 50 people will cling to long-held perceptions. They will deny the perception is problematic. They intuitively feel their beliefs/perceptions to be accurate and no amount of training will shake their faith. Therefore, cognitive scientists labeled deep beliefs, ‘implicit bias’ or ‘unconscious bias’. 

How can diversity professionals use your research results? What tips or action items do you have for them based on your research?

The concept of a diverse workforce must be assimilated into the broader corporate culture. Most important is finding new ways and vocabulary to talk about diversity and to link diversity to economic success. There is research supporting the linkage.

As each corporation has its own unique culture, pre-work/research must uncover the peculiarities of each corporation. Avoid combining ethnicities. Segregate the groups. Then interview individuals. Honest conversations about diversity are difficult and uncomfortable. To get at the core feelings, we are asking individuals to reveal. Many will experience discomfort and conflict is often a result.

Tips for Diversity Professionals

  • Different tools are useful for casting light on an organization’s culture, including climate surveys and organizational gap-analyses. Whatever the nomenclature, input gathered from face-to-face interviews is critical to uncovering the deep belief systems that drive what organizations do.
  • To begin this effort, choose a sampling of employees—male and female—and interview each separately, face to face, if possible.
  • Pay attention to backlash. Some will push back and double down on their core beliefs when confronted with contrary facts. Diversity and inclusion feels like exclusion to some and it will be a bitter pill. Remember the 50 percent cognitive rule.*
  • Lighten up. Use humor when possible. Bias has a negative connotation currently and individuals do not like an implication or training suggesting that they are biased.
  • Try drama and comedy. Hire script writers and actors to create believable scenarios to show how bias seeps into everyday life and interactions.
  • Use on-line surveys only as a last effort to get to a broad base of employees.

How about employees? Does your research suggest any lessons, tips, or action items for them?

We all have personal preferences; we have certain things, people, beliefs and attitudes we like or dislike. Along the way in our development, mentally and emotionally, we develop these attitudes. Our immediate family and environment teach us in ways we cannot grasp consciously.

Cognitive scientists refer to these personal preferences as implicit biases and we all have them. We often seek others who affirm and share the same attitudes. Cognitive scientists refer to these as confirmation bias. We also look for availability heuristics to support our arguments. These are mental shortcuts that we stash away in our minds until we need them to evaluate a new idea or concept or decision.

Research shows that language is key in maintaining and reinforcing our attitudes. Changing our vocabulary and linking diversity to our personal and corporate success will help individuals break the grip of current language surrounding our differences.

Many take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) but debates about its validity are now raging in the popular press. The IAT—we think is not a test, but an assessment which can change from time to time, depending upon many emotional factors. This is where the debate enters. Regardless, implicit bias is real, but it does not forecast how people will behave. Consequently, if you take this online assessment, it may uncover an attitude that is uncomfortable to accept. It does not tell you how you must or will behave.

How can readers learn more?

The popular press (online and print media) now discusses diversity and unconscious bias almost daily. Two sources for this information are Time magazine and Psychology Today.  Many scholarly articles address these subjects—some are written clearly; others not so much. Read and keep abreast of the topic.

If you would like to discuss this research further or if you want your organization to participate in a similar research effort and unpack its corporate culture, contact me at pat@roanokeresearch.com. To better understand culture, you can read some of my writing: A New Incivility and Changing Organizational Culture from A Liability to an Asset.


Many thanks to Dr. Salgado for these thoughtful and practical responses. You can keep the conversation going by sharing your thoughts on twitter @ElissaTucker or LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/elissatucker.



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