Equal access to business data gives women in tech an edge
This column is part of a series called “Voices of Women in Tech,” created in collaboration with AnitaB.org, a global enterprise that supports women in technical fields, as well as the organizations that employ them and the academic institutions training the next generation.
When it comes to women in technology, there’s a lot of data out there. Whether it’s the fact that women still hold less than a quarter of technical roles, or the studies that show — time and again — that diversity can help improve a company’s bottom line, it’s easy to see how data can help illuminate some of our industry’s darkest problems and drive change.
But even with the best analysis, gender bias is often unconscious and unintentional. Recently, I spoke with a prominent woman in tech who leads an engineering team about one example. She shared that some companies, when made aware of the biases of some words disproportionately used to describe female leadership — such as “abrasive” and “aggressive” — have responded by banning managers from using those words when reviewing women’s performance. But then, predictably, other words sneak in to replace the forbidden phrases; consider the rise of the word “intense.” It begins to feel like a game of Whac-a-Mole, trying to unravel these biases through training.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to try. But we also need to explore what else we can do to jumpstart the change in culture that we, as women leaders in technology, would love to see.
Personally, I think it starts with data — and not just data about how women are treated, or paid, or promoted. We also need access to data so that everyone in the company gets an equal opportunity to understand how their business is doing.
“Those in positions of power often maintain their status by holding closely onto information that others can’t access.”
Early in my career, when I was a product marketing manager at Google, I remember being told that we made all decisions based on data. Sounds good, right? But the reality at that time was that only some people could get their hands on the data they needed to make those decisions. Certainly, no product manager or engineer wanted to spend time helping a young product marketer measure her campaign performance or understand the impact of updating her product webpage. Just like most companies, Google was divided into two camps: “data-haves” and “data-have-nots.” This disparity inevitably leads to quieting voices and reducing diversity, because leaders only value the voices of those who have all the information.
At many companies, it’s often the CEO and leadership team who have a team of hardworking analysts delivering important data about the business. Meanwhile, the rest of the employees have to wait in a long queue of requests to get data access or analysis in order to make informed decisions. This dynamic of scarcity supports the traditional opportunity cycle within an organization: Those in positions of power often maintain their status by holding closely onto information that others can’t access. And, traditionally, those in power come from the old guard of leadership — not the most diverse set of people.
Of course, many entrepreneurial spirits are frustrated by finding themselves on the “have-not” side of the table and will scrounge for data to start doing their own analysis. And although I love this “get-stuff-done” ethos — these are the people I always want to hire — initiative and determination won’t truly fix this problem, especially if everyone relies on different sets of data, or different metrics. And that obscurity around data leads to highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) ruling the decision-making process. It’s also part of the reason why the loudest people often succeed in getting their opinions pushed through: Without data to bring people together, discourse favors those that are able to get their voices heard. And, once again, people with the megaphone tend to be the same types of people who have always held power.
But the solution is simple: Everyone — every employee — needs access to a unified view of a company’s business data. By giving everyone an equal view, companies can begin to increase the diversity of ideas and opportunities. Every contributor can help diagnose the organization’s challenges and share their ideas for solving them. Women and members of underrepresented groups, who are rarely afforded the opportunity to be the loudest voices or the HiPPO, are better able to get ideas across backed by data-validated, agreed-upon facts.
The debate can then return to using that consensus to drive decision-making, and to bring the focus back to where it needs to be: Making the business more successful.