It’s not about free speech. Why gender stereotypes hurt everyone.

“Girls don’t study engineering.”, boldly declared my colleague in the same dramatic fashion I was used to seeing Steve Jobs announce a new Apple product.

It was at the height of the tech boom, the first tech boom at the end of last century that is, and technology industry was reeling from shortage in the workforce. Like most companies in the industry, we were struggling to fill vacant positions and were coming in short every quarter on our recruiting goals; thus, faced the challenge of coming up with alternative and creative solutions.

In an industry where people are lured by the latest and the hippest companies offering chef catered meals and access to gym with indoor swimming pools, we were well aware that our company that operated on a more traditional business culture could not compete. We had to look at different, untapped recruiting sources that may have been overlooked in the past. We decided focusing on and actively seeking female graduates and candidates was the way to go.

Again, this was at the end of 20th century, and talking about diversity, gender or otherwise, wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. Then, hiring more women wasn’t about meeting a diversity goal but about meeting the staffing needs. Although we couldn’t have fathom technology industry would grow and become the mammoth that it is today, we knew that as a growing multinational firm, our company would not survive if we could not properly staffed the organization.

From the get go, it became apparent that enforcing a recruiting strategy to hire more women, 15% more to be exact, was going to be a challenge. It meant reshaping the culture of the company in an industry that was dominated by men. My colleagues as well as some of the management didn’t hesitate to share their opinion and tell me how ludicrous it was to implement a goal “to hire women”.

Especially as a woman of color overseeing recruiting in predominantly white European countries, some of the recruiters reacted to the new strategy as if it was a scheme to overthrow the government.

I was told that it was yet another “politically correct” measure from the headquarters in the U.S. to propagate American hegemony into the European workforce. A manager told me point blank that recruiting and hiring more women was bad for business, as ultimately, “You girls get pregnant.” And some of my colleagues continued to perpetuate their theory that “Girls don’t study engineering” because they aren’t interested in fields that apply math and science, which in their opinion, women weren’t good at.

Therefore, they were convinced, or tried to convince me that we would not find enough female candidates to meet our goal, and considering that their annual bonuses depended on meeting the recruiting goals, they felt that I was setting them up to fail. However, the recruiting strategy went into effect, and we began actively seeking and recruiting female graduates from top universities in Europe.

On the contrary to my colleagues’ belief, we found out that many women study and major in engineering. According to Harvard Business Review, women make up 20% of engineering graduates. However, nearly 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either quit or never enter the profession.

Despite the increased interest in engineering among women, there are still a number of challenges that are contributing to the continued gender inequality. One barrier that is often pointed to is the lack of female role models in the field. Because the number of women in the field is low, there are also few female leaders in engineering, which can make it difficult for new generations of female engineers to find mentors whom they feel they can relate to. This catch-22 is a hard one to resolve, as the best way to increase female leadership in engineering is by encouraging more women to enter the field.

I remember going to recruiting events at renowned technical universities, where I was one of the few if not the only female recruiter. Often, I was approached by female students who were intimated to talk to other recruiters or have been ignored by them. They had outstanding resumes and grades, some better than most of the male candidates we interviewed, but they were overlooked as Engineers. Instead, the recruiters would recommend that they apply for administrative positions.

Not surprisingly, we met and in some cases superseded our recruiting goals that year.

Overlooking women as Engineers and viable workforce especially in the tech industry where there’s ever increasing demand for labor is not only shortsighted but also can have detrimental impact on company’s bottom line. In a recent blog post describing a partnership with Code2040, Slack Engineering Chief of Staff Nolan Caudill acknowledged, “Like almost every tech company, our own upbringings, biases and life experiences result in referral networks that are very homogeneous, and we know we are missing out on great candidates based on these shortcomings.” And failing to attract and hire diverse employees leads companies to miss out on incredible talent.

It’s not about merely addressing and fixing an –ism. I believe that in order for an organization to better represent their customers, attract new users and successfully gain market share, it needs to cultivate a diverse work environment. It is unsurprising that there’s a strong correlation between diverse organizations and positive financial outcomes, and in a 2011 study of diversity in the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, researchers found “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.”

Throughout my career, I’ve heard many criticisms when it comes to implementing diversity initiatives. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that diverse workforce leads to positive business outcomes. Many, if not all of these arguments against diversity regurgitates the same misconceptions about women (and to some degree men) that has been propagated throughout the ages in all industries. However, as with all stereotypes, perpetuating gender stereotypes not only disparage and discriminate against women but hurt our society and economy as a whole.


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