Vendavo’s recent internally focused Inspiration Day (ID) prompted me to write a recommendation for one of my clients. Let me explain the connection, but first some background information.
During ID, many ideas were presented and prototyped for internal improvements at Vendavo. Some ideas were product- and process-focused (included automating Vendavo Price Point upgrade scripts, implementing a traceability solution for cloud data across platforms, and Collaboration Tool Best Practices). Other ideas focused on people (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Women in Technology).
The Women in Technology (WIT) team pulled together some statistics on Vendavo’s gender ratio (70:30 men to women) and presented some external research on how more gender-balanced companies outperform their more homogenous peer groups. Although the team pulled together some interesting information, the outcome of their work felt hallow to me compared to some of the technical topics other teams had addressed.
Framing the question
The WIT team did try to build out a framework for how to attract and retain more women at Vendavo and to recognize their contributions to the company. But many of those activities feel like HR functions that can make glacial progress compared to automating a 3-hour job to 1 minute and 56 seconds. If you identify with any marginalized group in society or corporate culture, it’s easy to want some overnight improvements to topics like pay inequalities and day-to-day microaggressions. A question not posed by the WIT team is “Why does gender equality need to be justified in business returns, why not simply pursued based on a values judgment that it is the only ethical approach?”
It’s easy to get fired up about inequalities and very hard to fight centuries of institutional frameworks and systematic biases. Even as a woman, it’s often much more satisfying to work on technical problems with near-immediate resolution and gratification than to work on equity issues. My own ID team scaled back our vision, which would have included introducing an entirely new product to Vendavo to an incrementalism idea to make data visualizations into an action step in the pricing process.
Not wanting to attempt to boil the ocean, my team spent the majority of our discussion time narrowing down our broad array of ideas into something pat and simple we thought would demo well and be quickly understood by a range of internal constituencies. This is a diametrically opposed mindset to the WIT Team who seemed to live by the mantra that even the longest journeys begin with a single-step.
What would a team do if..?
So what would a team do if they were dedicatedly focused on increasing the proportion of women in their technology company as a long-term project rather than a one-day shakeup? One answer is what Amazon attempted, which was to design a machine learning approach to the resume review function in their hiring process. Yet even that wasn’t perfect the first time out.
Computers don’t have emotions or prejudices, so that sounds great, right? You could train a system to scan resumes for relevance to those skills and characteristics that had been successful to those employees currently or previously in the job functions you were seeking. The only problem is that the training data would reflect the historical bias toward hiring predominately men (the problem Amazon encountered), projecting the past patterns out into the future. (I encourage you to read The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values by Brian Christian or Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil for more depth on this topic).
Across organization whose goals are meritocratic, there are some successful examples of gender-blind hiring process adaptations, most notably the Boston Symphony orchestra, which started holding auditions from behind a screen and eventually had to also ask candidates to remove their shoes before walking on stage to remove auditory gender cues from the process as well as visual ones.
How do we push forward on equity and inclusion?
How, then, do these organizations continue to reward skills and contribution during the employee’s job tenure, once personal and demographic characteristics are inevitably known? Clearly routine pay audits, whether internally or externally prompted, can help, but again to my earlier complaint: those are largely HR functions. Given the frustrating failure of even the Amazon team, how can we as individuals push forward the changes we want to see on equity issues within our business communities?
I don’t have broad answers, but now I’m going to be on the lookout for opportunities to directly work on equity and inclusion issues. That’s including writing letters of recommendation when I see individuals contributing beyond their “pay grade” or job title.
I’ll leave you with the anonymized sample of one below, in the hope that you take the time to advocate for someone you see who might be overlooked for a promotion or underpaid for the work they are already doing.
Dear DEPARTING BUSINESS LEADER,
As you know YOUR DIRECT REPORT is an exceptional thinker and a hard worker. In early MONTH as we restarted the pricing software project and I first met you and STAR CONTRIBUTOR/FEMALE PRICING MANAGER , I mentioned right away to my Vendavo bosses that I thought the CLIENT ORG team was fantastic to work with. I immediately had concerns about data structures and matching strategic objectives to the software capabilities, which we have been systematically addressing and working through in more detail the last few weeks. FEMALE PRICING MANAGER has a clear picture of the complexities of the project and is helping to steer us clear of pitfalls we might otherwise have realized too late. She has been an essential contributor during my process of coming to understand a new industry while communicating the functional constraints of the Vendavo products. This process is never easy and always relies heavily on strong client engagement and strategic vision to be successful.
As you transition into a new role, I fully believe that ROCKSTAR EMPLOYEE/FEMALE PRICING MANAGER is capable of continuing to provide both a strategic vision for enhanced pricing capabilities as well as balancing near-term resource priorities. It is a pleasure to work with someone who has deep current-state systems, data, and business process understanding, as well as the conceptual vision of an improved future state. Working with FEMALE PRICING MANAGER, I can see that she commands the respect of other CLIENT ORG employees through her demonstrated competence and domain expertise.
Selfishly, for the success of our implementation, I hope that in your transition BADASS WOMAN/FEMALE PRICING MANAGER is deputized to take on project-level decisions and is given expanded responsibility. I am certain that her continued involvement will ensure a demonstrable return on investment from the pricing systems enhancements,and I very much look forward to working alongside her.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to have worked with you too, BOSS GUY, and wish you well in your next career chapter.
All the best, FELLOW WOMAN IN TECHNOLOGY