How do top executives believe gender inequality in their companies can change? This year-long case study took place at a Silicon Valley technology company implementing a gender equality initiative. After analyzing data from 50 in-depth interviews and observations from 80 executive meetings, the author found that the company’s high-level executives tended to use individualistic and societal explanations for gender inequality, rather than focusing on how their organization’s structure and culture contribute. In turn, their efforts for changing inequality focused on how individuals and external communities should change, instead of their organization. This finding shows how leaders’ beliefs about inequality can uphold it, limiting the potential impact of their efforts.
Scholars have suggested that diversity efforts in organizations are often ineffective when leaders do not support them, and when there is a lack of collective organizational commitment towards change. This study examined how leaders’ ideologies may affect their organization’s diversity efforts. The study investigated how leaders at a large technology company perceive and understand inequality, then looked at how these understandings led leaders to support or resist change.
The author conducted a year-long, in-depth case study of a Silicon Valley technology company that has more than 10,000 employees. The company was implementing a gender equality initiative and selected high-level executives from every department to be part of an Executive Council, through which they would complete gender-related goals for their department. The author observed 80 meetings relating to this initiative, such as subcommittee meetings, unconscious bias trainings, and development meetings, and conducted 50 interviews with 37 people, including the entire Executive Council.
The Executive Council explained gender inequality at their company through three different ideologies: individualistic, societal, and organizational. The author found that most executives (16 of 19) held primarily individualistic and societal views of inequality. Those who suggested organizational causes of inequality tended to combine this view with individualistic and societal ideologies. This meant that efforts for changing inequality focused mostly on individuals and external communities, and structural inequality within the organization was upheld.
Executives with the individualistic ideology suggested that inequality arises because individuals make biased decisions in gender-neutral contexts. They also showed beliefs that gender differences are inherent to individuals, e.g., women are less direct in communication style than men. In turn, those with individualistic ideologies focused on solving gender equality by changing individuals, such as by implementing training and developmental programs. For example, one woman executive said more women would advance in the company if they thought like men. Another executive said that men need to be educated about correcting their biases when hiring.
Executives also commonly held a societal explanation of inequality, focused on childhood socialization. They perceived that boys and girls are socialized differently, leading to gender inequality in adulthood. For example, girls are socialized away from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at a young age, and thus are unlikely to pursue these careers. Since executives with this view did not focus on how socialization in adulthood can also create inequality, they saw inequality as rooted outside the company, removing their organization from responsibility. Executives with this view focused their efforts on increasing girls’ and young women’s interest in STEM, such as by partnering with non-profit organizations to create mentorship opportunities. Other executives with this view made little effort to change inequality at all.
The organizational ideology of inequality suggests that gender inequality and bias are built into hiring, performance management, workplace culture, and other organizational processes and procedures. None of the executives used this as a predominant explanation for gender inequality in their company. Some noted organizational issues, such as that it is a problem to recruit from their personal networks, but they combined this explanation with individualistic or societal views, such as that managers just need to be aware of bias when hiring from their networks. Ultimately, they often rejected changing organizational procedures in favour of individualized solutions.
Diversity initiatives would benefit from educating leaders about how organizations themselves perpetuate inequality – The executives in this study tended towards individualistic or societal explanations for gender inequality even as some recognized flawed organizational procedures. This gap justifies and maintains inequality because it removes the organization from responsibility and limits potential for change. Diversity initiatives that directly focus on the problems within organizational procedures and policies would help lead to structural change.
Organizations can address all three ideologies to tackle inequality from different sources – Leaders can aim to transform unequal organizational procedures and policies in combination with individualized solutions such as unconscious bias training, as well as societal approaches such as mentorship for girls and women outside the organization. This holistic approach would tackle gender inequality from different sources and ultimately may be more effective.
Research brief prepared by:
Pathways toward Change: Ideologies and Gender Equality in a Silicon Valley Technology Company
Alison T. Wynn
Gender & Society