If you’re a woman in engineering or any other field1 where women are a rarity, please raise your hand if you’ve heard this. For my part, I have been told this at least five times in the last two years alone. In this article, we take a closer look at the reasons behind this statement, the perceived unfairness of actively hiring more women in certain fields and give a couple of reasons why, in fact, it’s a practice that benefits everyone in the job market.

First of all, why do people say this? Well, tech companies are indeed looking to hire more women – that’s a fact. If two candidates, a male and a female, have “identical” profiles (assuming that such a thing exists), the argument goes that the company will hire the woman instead of the man because it aims to have more women at the workplace.

Therefore, from a pool of equally competent candidates, it does seem that women have it easier than men at securing a workplace. Moreover, since you can’t usually say which candidates have the exact same competencies, there is the natural suspicion that even women with inferior skills will tend to be preferred over male candidates.

Therefore, this phrase “You’re a woman, so you’ll get that job easily,” isn’t a simple statement that describes something that’s going on in the job market for some categories of women. It is also meant to highlight discontent which is rooted in at least three points2:

  • It is unfair for a competent woman to be preferred over a man with the same skills because her gender isn’t relevant for the job.
  • It is unfair for a woman with inferior skills to be preferred over a man with higher competencies because it’s as if her gender compensates for her inabilities. Moreover, having inferior employees will hurt the company in the long run.
  • The fact that women get jobs formerly occupied by men, means that more men are being discriminated against and left out of the job market.

I will explain why, although this behavior seems highly unfair, it actually makes sense from the point of view of the companies and why, in the end, everybody has to win out of this situation, not only women. And no, it’s not (only) because companies want to adopt a progressive attitude which strengthens their image, it also has to do with their well-being and profits.

Before we go deeper into this topic, it is important to realize why it matters. If both men and women think that more women are getting these jobs unjustly, it creates additional pressure on women, who will feel that they have to work harder to prove that they deserve the job. I have participated in events dedicated to women in tech, sexism, and similar topics and almost always someone raises this concern, so the issue does exist. This comes on top of the fact that women already bear this burden – a report by McKinsey shows that 31% of women feel that they have to provide additional proof of their competence compared to their peers, which is almost double the number of men that feel the same.

Therefore, let's take each of the concerns and look at them into more detail.

It is unfair for a competent woman to be preferred over a man with the same skills because her gender isn’t relevant for the job.

Let’s assume that between two candidates with the same skills, the company always favors the woman because it wants to reduce the gender gap. In practice, this probably doesn’t always happen, but let’s assume that it is true to have a stronger point. Why would companies do this?

There are studies which suggest that more diverse work environments lead to pleasant outcomes for the companies. One study in which 1,069 companies from 35 countries and 24 industries were analyzed found that gender diversity is related to more productive companies (by market value and revenue), but with a caveat. This happens only if gender diversity is widely regarded as important in that country. For instance, the market valuation of companies that are diversity-friendly is higher if the company is based in Western Europe, where such a characteristic is deemed valuable, than if the company is based in the Middle East or Japan.

We can obviously ask whether companies that are more successful naturally attract a more diverse group of people or if the diversity is instead the cause of their success. The same authors argue that by tracking performance before and after more women are hired, they can indeed say that diversity is a driver for their performance and not the other way around.

There are at least three hypotheses about why this might be the case. One of them is that a diverse environment leads to a more fruitful exchange of ideas. In the words of the study:

[...] Diversity is a valuable human resource that can increase productivity and help a firm make better strategic decisions. According to this value-in-diversity perspective, gender diversity increases the range of skills, perspectives, knowledge, and social networks available to a firm. These resources increase a firm’s creative capacity and breadth of knowledge, resulting in better decision making, more innovation, and higher productivity (Cox 1994; DiTomaso, Post, and Parks-Yancy 2007; Herring 2009).

The study also warns that this might not always be the case since in some situations people might form closer bonds to people from their in-group, which is the social group to which they identify psychologically. Therefore, in the larger group you will actually get division instead of cooperation. Taking into account the social context might offer clues as to which situation is more plausible in a given workspace.

Another hypothesis is that a diverse environment naturally attracts talented people from the same minority groups. If I am a smart woman and I am looking for a job, I will probably choose a place which has more women, as I view it as an indicator of less sexism in that place. Indeed, a study shows that as much as 86% of women and (!) also 74% of men take into account the employer’s policies on diversity when deciding whether to work for them3.

With women demanding equal pay, fair treatment at work, denouncing abuses and so on, it’s no wonder that companies like to be perceived as forward-looking and friendly with women and minorities. I would also be interested to see how much building a certain image helps companies without the data or the measures to back them. As a fun fact, I was recently browsing the website of a very big company in its field which takes pride in diversity being one of their core values. They also have sections with all the industries in which they are active and list on each page a couple of their experts in that field. Out of around 50 experts, there is exactly one woman. Please don’t blame me if I don’t take their claims seriously. Therefore, I’m curious to see to what extent this sort of campaigns helps them or, on the contrary, hurts them.

A third reason why women are valuable for companies points to the effect of appointing them in larger numbers in boards of directors, but this practice is still under debate. We can also look at the effects of women in leadership positions. A study found out that a higher proportion of of women in executive ranks is correlated with increased profits for the company: “For profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30 percent representation is associated with a 15 percent increase in the net revenue margin.”

There is still space for more thorough research on the matter, as these studies are by no means sufficient to form a flawless opinion on the impact of bringing more women in companies where they’re a minority. I would still argue that they do prompt us to re-evaluate our image of what a valuable employer for a company looks like. Nobody objects when a candidate’s coding skills are taken into account for a programming job. It is much harder to accept that the gender of a candidate brings comparable value into the job, yet these studies seem to suggest that it does, at least indirectly.

A natural question to ask is where does this stop? Should companies aim for a representativity of 50/50? Should they aim for the percentage of women who study in fields from which they are recruiting? It is hard to say. I suppose we will find out when we get closer to those numbers. Given the current statistics of women in tech, engineering, academia or general executive roles, we can hardly say that we are near that point.

It is unfair for a woman with inferior skills to be preferred over a man with higher competencies because it’s as if her gender compensates for her inabilities. Moreover, having inferior employees will hurt the company in the long run.

Here it is harder to argue that companies still have to earn from lower-qualified women, just because they are women. It may be that companies still want them because they want to create a diverse environment that will help attract more qualified women and men in the future, or because it helps their image. This may or may not be true. However, I would like to draw attention to two things regarding this issue.

First, if we are to judge a candidate’s skills solely by their experience, we might be unpleasantly surprised to discover that women’s experience might have been affected by sexism. To give you a few examples from data compiled from a presentation of Prof. Steven Stroessner that I attended a while ago:

  • Women are cited less (Caplar, Tacchella, & Birrer, 2017)
  • Women are less likely to be published as first or last author, especially in high impact journals (Shen, Webster, Shoda, & Fine, 2018)
  • Women receive lower startup funding by a third (Sege, Nykiel-Bub, & Sell, 2015)

Therefore, some of the instruments we use in order to judge performance may be corrupted by sexism at institutional levels.

Second, people frequently assume that technical skills and experience are all there is to a job. But there is also something like a “personal fit”: how well does the person match the team? Is he/she able to work well in a team? Soft skills can be even more important than hard skills, as you’ll frequently hear HR employees and managers say. In this case, when two candidates seem equally skilled, it seems obvious that the decision will be made based on the overall perception of the candidate. Throughout time, this has actually been in favor of men in fields where they have been the majority. A man may “look” more like an engineer, so perhaps he will be perceived as better for the job. This is becoming less the case as people become more aware of their own biases, but it shows how fragile this whole perception of a candidate can be. And it might be a reason why the balance is being deliberately pushed in favor of women, to account for such biases.

Therefore, if you think that a woman got a job that she didn’t deserve in favor of your male colleague, that had a ton of experience, I urge you to think twice about what made you believe in the first place that she was less qualified than him. You might be right about her, but it might also be that you were biased in forming this impression of her because of the factors above.

The fact that women get jobs formerly occupied by men, means that more men are being discriminated against and left out of the job market.

There seems to be a concern that, since more women are occupying positions previously held by men, there will be less space for men on the job market. In other words, they seem to be pushed out of the places that were theirs some time ago. Leaving aside the fact nobody should be entitled to a job, there is an economic counterargument to this belief.

The job market is not a fixed-size pie to be divided among individuals. On the contrary, if the companies go as well as data suggests by hiring women, then the pie will actually be expanding. Therefore, people who fear that women will steal their jobs should actually be grateful that the companies will hire more women because this means that more jobs are created in the end and more people can benefit from them.

More women in the job market also creates a more accommodating environment for both genders. Take just one example, the maternity/paternity leave. Women have been facing discrimination based on the prospect of them having children for a long time. In other words, companies don’t like when women go on maternity leave because it means that they will not work for a period of time and get disconnected from their tasks. Even when they return, managers may prevent women from handling important projects out of a fear that they will not be fully committed to their work. New mothers might be tempted to ask to work part-time after a birth in order to better take care of their babies in a critical period, but the company might not offer this option.

One solution to these issues might be to introduce or increase the time of the paternity leave. By enabling the husbands to take over a part of the workload involved in taking care of a baby, women will be able to better dedicate themselves to their jobs and might feel less pressure to work part-time. And this is a win-win situation for both women and men, assuming that men would indeed like to spend more time with their children.

Let's start a discussion

As always, I would really like to know what you think about this post. How do you feel about this practice of companies actively hiring more women in some fields? Have you ever been explicitly told to hire a woman instead of a man because of the diversity policies of the company? How did you feel about it?

If you're a woman, have you felt any backlash against you because of this practice?

If you're a man, are you frustrated with this process or do you consider it rational? Have you ever been affected by it?

I believe it's crucial to talk about this, otherwise grievance on both sides may lurk unresolved and affect everyone involved.

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1. I focus in this post on the field of engineering because that’s what I’m familiar with. If you’ve seen it happening in other fields where women are a minority or, on the contrary, you haven’t seen it happen, please let me know.

2. These are concerns that I identified from discussions with people who told me this: “You’re a woman, so you’ll get that job easily.” Obviously, the discussion didn’t end here and I tried to get as much information as I could about why they were unhappy about this.

3. I should note that I am aware of the fact that diversity does not comprise only women, but also different races, minorities, people with disabilities, etc. I deliberately chose to focus on women in this post, but the impact of the other underrepresented groups is equally important.

Header image by Igor Link from Pixabay