A briefing paper prepared by Koji Chavez, Indiana University, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

In 2014, leading high technology companies in Silicon Valley began releasing the gender breakdowns of their technical and leadership positions. First Google, then LinkedIn, and then Yahoo, and so on. The numbers revealed what we all expected: Women are vastly underrepresented in many of these organizations’ technical and leadership roles. But focusing on the gender composition of employees or among new hires is just the first step in understanding how gender “works” at work and how to address it. Here I want to highlight a few nuanced ways in which gender plays out in the hiring process.

What do we already know about gender and hiring?

First, we need to appreciate how few women enter the software engineering profession in the first place. In school, stereotypes that women are not as good as men in math and science discourage women from following a technical career path. Women, for instance, underestimate their own technical ability compared to men and have less confidence that they could be successful engineers, both of which lead women away from the software engineering profession. In 2015, only 12.9 percent of engineers were women.

These “supply side” problems, however, do not mean that employers and organizations who hire men and women are off the hook. Research shows that employers and recruiters sort men and women into gendered roles and penalize women, especially mothers, at least in the initial screening stages. Higher socioeconomic status and education do not seem to advantage women seeking entry into elite fields as much as they do men.

Gender also influences hiring in even more subtle ways, as I have learned in my study of software engineering hiring at a midsized high technology firm. At this firm, I find no gender difference in the probability of receiving a job offer once applicants pass the recruiter phone screen. Pretty good, right? But if we look more closely at the process by which men and women get through the initial screening, and the reasons they are hired after they do, we find that gender still skews the hiring process in important ways.

Outsourcing bias.

For one thing, gender bias does not always originate within the bounds of an organization. It may originate in other organizations on which the firm relies. To wit: a common practice is for firms to contract contingency recruitment firms to supplement their applicant pool. This inter-firm reliance can introduce what I call “outsourced bias”: A firm itself may not be gendered biased per se, but by relying on another biased firm, gender bias seeps into the hiring process, often unbeknownst (or at least conveniently unbeknownst) to the firm. When bias originates in another organization on which a firm relies, employers may contribute to gender inequality in hiring without knowing that they are doing it, and without taking responsibility for addressing it.

Even when a firm does attract female candidates and hires them at the same rate as men, another even more subtle bias often creeps in. My research suggests that decision makers tend to hire male engineers more for their perceived technical skills and female engineers more for their perceived “people” skills. In other words, gender stereotypes inform the very reasons men and women are hired for the same position. The main point is this: Gender influences not only who gets hired but what they get hired for – with potential long-term consequences for people’s careers. If men and women are hired for the same job, but men are seen as good at the technical aspects of that job and women good at the social aspects, no wonder we see women getting funneled into more “people” focused positions and men into more technical (typically higher paying) ones once in the organization.

In sociology, we think of gender as a fundamental structure of inequality, meaning that it frames how we think about others and ourselves, how we structure our institutions and lives, and how we interact with one another. Gender permeates the social world. It is no surprise that in a fundamentally social process like hiring we find gender exerting its influence in subtle and surprising ways. So, if we are serious about attacking women’s underrepresentation in tech, it is important for academics and employers alike to understand the nuanced ways that gender influences who gets hire and why.


Koji Chavez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University, kochavez@indiana.edu. Professor Chavez is author with Adia Harvey Wingfield of “Racializing Gendered Interactions” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.