Gender, promotions, and the stratosphere

Several years ago, my oldest son was in an engineering class at his high school. His teacher knew I worked in venture capital, and asked if I’d speak to the class about my work. With my son’s permission, I agreed. As much fun as I had – the kids asked great questions – it was depressing to see that in an engineering classroom of 30+ students at this public high school, the chairs in the room were filled by 90% boys. I’ve written before about my focus on gender equity, and it was frustrating to see some of the same dynamics laid out so plainly in an entirely different setting.

My wife and I set out to do something about it; we met with the school district, and asked if they’d be open to partnering with us to address the gender balance in high school STEM classes. This post isn’t about that work – that deserves its own post (or two!). But during an annual update call with the school district today where they presented their progress and invited feedback, I was reminded of an episode in Google’s history that I’m always surprised more people aren’t aware of.

The gist of the issue (from a 2014 Washington Post interview with Laszlo Bock, then Google’s SVP / People Operations):

Four years ago, Google was confronted with a troubling stat: Its male engineers were raising their hands for promotions at higher rates than women. Google couldn’t understand why women weren’t going for better titles and higher pay when it had a system where anyone could apply for a promotion.

Laszlo and his team were aware of compelling research on gender inequity that surfaced two relevant facts:

1) Girls don’t raise their hands as often as boys when answering math problems, even though they have a higher rate of accuracy when they do.

2) Women don’t offer up their ideas as often as men in business meetings, even though observers say their thoughts are often better than the many offered by their male colleagues.

So they tried a nudge to see if they could improve the top of the promotion funnel problem:

Bock tried an experiment. Alan Eustace, one of the heads of engineering, sent an e-mail to his staff describing the two studies and then reminding them it was time to apply for promotions. Immediately, the application rate for women soared and the rate of women who received promotions rose higher than that for male engineers. Every time Eustace sent the same e-mail reminder, female promotion rates climbed.

There’s a lot more in the interview that’s worth reading (including the explicit acknowledgement that Google’s record on gender equity was mixed – at best).

By the way: that fall, the same Alan Eustace took a sabbatical, and set a world record in the process.

Alan’s spacesuit.
photo by: Balon Greyjoy, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

While on sabbatical, Alan didn’t send that email. You can guess what happened to promotion rates. In subsequent years, Google formalized this communication, and while I wasn’t always privy to the nudges the people ops team used – I was at Google Ventures, which was not actually part of Google, but a sister company that was part of Google’s parent, Alphabet – I heard from them on occasion about ongoing efforts to use data to drive decisions with the goal of driving outcomes they could be proud of.

This approach – look at the data, understand the circumstances that produced the data, create thoughtful goals that reflect the outcomes you want, then get creative about what you can do to make those outcomes more likely – is completely portable to any number of other situations. Laszlo’s book – Work Rules! – is excellent if you want to dig in further.

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