#TimesUp: Tackling bias in business

Read time 19min 30sec
Lesley Donna Williams, Tshimologong. Photo by Karolina Komendera
Lesley Donna Williams, Tshimologong. Photo by Karolina Komendera

From being passed over for promotion and raises, to being the only woman in a room of men, to falling prey to prejudice when pregnant and earning less for doing the same job, women still face many injustices in the workplace today.

The pattern seems particularly pronounced in the technology field, which has very little in the way of gender diversity.

Much of our society is based around the idea of meritocracy, or, if you work hard, you'll rightfully reap the benefits. This, of course, doesn't take into account structural inequalities that are arguably more important in determining where someone ends up. Not studying science, technology, engineering and maths is often blamed, but there are other factors at play, such as bias and discriminatory hiring practices, which only serve to entrench gender inequality in the technology field.

Brainstorm spoke to a number of women working in different areas of technology about their experiences, and many echoed one another, saying there was a stark shortage of female role models and mentors. Many said there were too few women in purely technical roles, and that hiring and networking opportunities were still largely geared towards men.

A number of studies have been carried out in the United States and Europe, but there is precious little in the way of stats about women in technology in South Africa.

Anecdotally, the women who spoke to Brainstorm said that while there may be fractionally more women in the workforce at a graduate or trainee level (or in certain jobs, such as marketing), this dropped to about 20% in middle management, and to low single figures among the C-suite. We are now standing at a crossroads: technology is increasingly touching more facets of our lives and is becoming more pervasive across many industries.

At the same time, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are being embedded - in some cases invisibly - into our platforms, processes and infrastructures. These technologies will manage tasks too complex or judged too mundane for humans.

Many studies have shown that representative teams build better software, and diverse companies, too, are more profitable. It's no longer a case of waiting for our gender diversity in tech to improve. We're building the infrastructure of the future, and we're out of time.

Punctured pipeline

Much is made of the 'pipeline', and how few women actually reach the tech workplace.

Lynette Hundermark has worked in the technology field for over 20 years, and first started off as a software developer. She now heads up a mobile consultancy called Useful & Beautiful in Cape Town, of which she is a co-founder.

She recalls attending a women-only technology recruitment event in Cape Town recently, and was shocked to hear that equal pay (to that of a male developer) was being touted as a benefit by three out of six companies at the event. Hundermark says while she's pleased there's now more awareness about the gender imbalance, too often a company is just attempting to address its gender mix by 'ticking a box'.

It doesn't work like that, she says. At many recruitment sessions, here and internationally, there are also very few women presenters, and the ones who do present will more than likely speak about the organisation's culture instead of the technology.

Lynette Hundermark, Useful & Beautiful
Lynette Hundermark, Useful & Beautiful

Even the language used by South African IT recruitment firms is revealing. Take a job advertisement from June this year looking to recruit a supply chain analyst for R335 000 per annum. It says 'she' must have extensive experience in transport management systems, among other factors. Another ad, this time for a process engineer (at R440 000 per annum), says, 'He will need an established track record of improving service quality within the business'.

This is more common than one would think. A study by PwC earlier this year examined 20 job ads looking for data scientists and analysts, and found 85% of them to be masculine-coded, ten percent feminine-coded, while the balance was neutral.

The report also mentions an anecdote from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, which, unsurprisingly, has no shortage of the quintessential 'Davos man'.

Last year, only 20% of the audience was composed of women, and just over 21% at this year's conference. Female leaders at past conferences also reported being asked, 'Are you a spouse?' so often that the WEF redesigned badges for delegates and spouses to clearly differentiate the two.

The PwC report says that if the gender gap in South Africa is closed by the conservative figure of ten percent, across most industries, there would be an estimated countrywide growth rate of 3.2% in GDP, and a 6.5% reduction in job seekers. In South Africa, says the WEF, the gender pay gap is estimated, on average, to be between 15% and 17%, meaning that a woman would need to work two extra months to earn the same as a man.

Investment gap

Using data from the WEF Global Gender Gap Report from last year, Code for Africa calculates that, on average, South African men earn about R 6 600 more than women per month across all sectors. The report also says that part of the reason for the gap is that women are more likely to work in lower paying industries. And the pay gap is widening, it says. A recent survey by the US-based Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that women entrepreneurs received a lot less startup capital - averaging about $1 million - than men.

But even with this disparity, women run or co-founded startups perform better, and are better financial investments. It said for every funded dollar, women-run startups generated 78 cents, while menrun businesses managed 31 cents.

Women-run startups also performed better over time, with the BCG data showing that they generated ten percent more in cumulative revenue over five years ($730 000 versus $662 000). BCG said women founders were more likely to be asked if they understood the basic technical knowledge on which they were basing their pitch.

The report cites the example of a woman who co-founded a business with a male partner, and when they were pitching together, 'they always assume he knows the technology' and so the man was asked all the technical questions.

It also appears that men will market themselves more effectively by playing up their - as yet untested - potential. This is in contrast to female applicants, who, according to Janice Le, the chief marketing officer at global networking company Aruba, will market themselves on what they've actually done.

Men, says Le, will ask for a raise, 'all day long, every day. Women won't ask. They just wait for it' "We think if we do the work, we'll get recognised, and it's not always the case when you've got people screaming louder and more frequently...and mostly, it's men."

Put another way, from the BCG survey, men tend to 'overpitch and oversell'.

Hundermark says she's often in meetings with high-profile executives, and even though there is usually a senior female executive in the room, 'it's always the men who are talking and they seem to want to be in control'.

Hundermark also draws attention to networking events run by vendors, many of which lay on whiskey and cigars. "I attend a lot of networking events, anafterwards there's always a networking session, and that's basically what happens... men smoking. I also don't play golf, and I believe there's a lot of networking that happens on the golf course. I haven't attended any of those."

Pregnancy bias

Compared to men, women, on average, are more risk-averse, according to one of the PwC report's authors, economist Maura Feddersen.

She cites the well-known study by US researchers Brad Barber and Terrance Odean, in which it was found that in finance, men are more overconfident than women, and will thus trade more. Consequently, men's performance will be hurt more than women's performance.

This also explains why men are more keen to invest in the risky world of cryptocurrencies, which by some measures, is over three-quarters male.

Even if a woman does overcome all these biases and makes it through the pipeline and into a company, there is another barrier to equal pay: pregnancy. A recent New York Times investigation concluded that pregnancy discrimination was widespread in the country's biggest companies. It quoted an analysis by a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, which showed each time a woman has a child, she loses four percent of her hourly earnings. Men who become parents, on the other hand, don't see any such decrease.

Janice Le, Aruba
Janice Le, Aruba

According to another recent PwC survey of 3 600 professional women, 42% reported feeling nervous about the effect starting a family would have on their careers, and almost half of new mothers said they'd felt overlooked for promotions or special projects upon their return to work.

Hundermark says when she returned to work after having children, the atmosphere in the workplace was a lot 'different and at times felt a bit colder'.

She also says many companies schedule events for early in the morning, which makes it hard for working parents to attend. Aruba's Le says the pay decline after having a child is due to a 'time gap'. When a woman returns to the workforce after having children, her peers will have spent that time in the office, and are being compensated that much more. A woman with children, says Le, will carry that pay gap for the rest of her career.

Rooting out bias

How Aruba has dealt with this is not to ask a woman returning to work how much her last pay cheque was. Le says her company includes women on every interview panel, both to ensure the panel has diverse views and to signal to the candidate that a woman will be a key decision-maker in his or her hiring.

Hiring managers, she says, will typically interview candidates who show up and apply, but won't deliberately ask if the company is hiring enough women. "If I'm not getting enough women, I'm going to wait," says Le, adding that Aruba waited six months to fill a business development role until it found the right female candidate.

By one measure, women hold less than 20% of leadership positions in the artificial intelligence field, which, as Robin Hauser, director of the documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, explains, is entrenching bias into our society. Humans are already programming bias into AI, she told a crowd at Dell Technologies World earlier this year, through malicious intent, carelessness and sloppiness, by using skewed data and by including their own biases.


These biases, 'slip right into the algorithms they write and into the data they use', she said, going on to mention the well-known example of the misadventures of Microsoft AI bot Tay, which lasted about 16 hours before being removed from Twitter for parroting offensive tweets.

Hauser said she was concerned that at present, there wasn't any governance over the input of data to ensure it was fair and accurate. AI, at least in the US, is also making use of predictive algorithms to decide in some cases who gets a bank loan, job interview and opportunity for tertiary education, or even who goes to jail. "We have to figure out how to debias these systems, and we have to figure it out soon, because once bias works its way into deep learning machines, it's very difficult to get it out," she said.

What can be done?

Feddersen suggests quotas may be one way to redress the gender imbalance. "You would want to make sure (the hire) was viewed as fair in terms of merit. There has to be some link to meritocracy, which also links to seeing female leaders." She says a quota could be in place for 'a while', and that once some balance has been created, 'maybe you don't need it anymore and it will self-sustain'. "For me, it's the combination of trying to even things out while still making it meritbased."

Quoting from a book by Iris Bohnet - a public policy professor at Harvard - called What Works: Gender Equality By Design, Feddersen says the shortlist must be generated based on merit, 'and then you pick the woman'.

PwC in the UK recently banned all-male shortlists for jobs. The South African operation does not have a formal policy on shortlists, perhaps because it has a female staff complement of 56%.

Aruba's Le suggests organisations should 'take more risks in women'.

"A lot of the time, there's a confidence issue with women when you're in a maledominated industry." Women, she says, should be empowered with 'a louder voice, a bigger megaphone and more exposure to opportunities without waiting for them to ask - because women will not ask'.

She believes this should continue until women get to a place in the IT workforce where they've built up the same level of confidence as men.

"And the lack of confidence is just due to the sheer numbers. I walk into a meeting and, normally, I'm the only woman out of ten to 15 people. "Men in tech view everybody as the same and their expectation is that everybody behaves the same. It's not the fact that you're a woman. For men to interact with you, they have to know that you're on the same playing field. Unfortunately, you have to speak loudly, because everybody else does. You have to be assertive, because everybody else is."

Feddersen believes much can be achieved through debiasing, as well as creating awareness.

"There are men out there who are so surprised and shocked when they learn about these things, and suddenly they see it (gender imbalance) all around them, and they become advocates for women.

"A lot of this is unconscious and they didn't mean to entrench anything, says Feddersen"

"It certainly makes a difference to me to see women confident in a senior role. Otherwise you're always questioning yourself, 'should I be here?'"

Hundermark was recently nominated for Businesswoman of the Year by the Businesswomen's Association of South Africa, something that she says 'is totally out of her comfort zone'.

She says she was humbled, and surprised, by the number of women who had approached and congratulated her, 'because I'm apparently giving them hope that one day they could start their own thing'.

"A lot of women have been reaching out to me, and it seems they're craving someone to actually speak to and have a conversation with. It's not like we need special treatment or someone to hold your hand, but we need someone who's empathetic and understands the challenges."

'I bring discomfort'

Lesley Donna Williams is the CEO of Tshimologong, Wits University's digital precinct. The 38-year-old has been in the job for a little over a year, and the place is teeming with students and entrepreneurs. Williams has a unique view of the technology pipeline: she spends a lot of time building partnerships with embassies and corporates, as well as with young entrepreneurs at the precinct.

Williams was born in Eldorado Park, south of Johannesburg, and before Tshimologong, worked as an entrepreneur for a decade. The digital innovation precinct opened its doors on Juta Street in Braamfontein in late 2016 after years of hard work and fundraising by Professor Barry Dwolatzky, the director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering. IBM also has one of its 12 global research labs in the precinct.

Williams says she's never had a focused pro-women's agenda, and feels that leading feminist voices in the country don't entirely represent her views. She says there is a nuanced, or in some cases a not-so-nuanced, 'anti-men' narrative at many feminist events she's attended. "That language doesn't sit well with me. I believe in collaboration and diversity; all voices are required at the table." She says she's not naturally loud, but: "I'll have my say, and get my point of view across. It's more conversational."

That said, she's had to be a 'bit more bullish in this job'.

She says they have about a 50/50 gender split on the senior management team, which 'has been designed for diversity'.

Speak your truth

What about hiring? Will she wait to fill a position with a woman even if there's a suitable male candidate? "We won't wait because we're overwhelmed with the work that needs to be done. We do, however, target people to invite them to apply for positions if we believe they can contribute to diversity in the team. "I don't want to say I'm slow to hire, but we need to hire people who have the right skills as well as fitting the organisational culture."

Tshimologong is still busy defining its culture, and at a recent team meeting, says Williams, 'two things came up: #speakyourtruth, or say what you need to say, and #ownyourshit, and that speaks to being accountable'.

She says there's still a massive shortage of women among entrepreneurs in Tshimologong, and in the wider industry - less than a third are women - but there's more diversity among those, typically younger people, enrolled in the precinct's Digital Skills Academy.

Williams says she thinks 'speak your truth' is going to become a theme in Tshimologong. It has also held a series of events (to which both sexes are invited) that aim to celebrate women in the digital sector. Here, participants asked themselves some hardquestions. Stories about tough mentors were also shared, which she says is different to being 'pampered' by a 'handholding' mentor.

"You need to expect to be pushed. It's about stepping beyond your comfort zone and sitting at the table. I'm not saying you have to demand to be heard, but you need to find different ways to be heard. If one way's not working, find a different angle.

"Women don't speak confidently about their work while men speak about ideas as though they are materialised projects."

She believes that neither men nor women show up as their 'whole selves' in organisations, 'because everyone has to wear a mask'. But men have been playing this game for longer than women, she says. "I love showing up as my authentic self in every place I'm in, but in business, it's not always a safe place.

"At the same time, whether I'm at Tshimologong, or at one of my previous companies as a consultant, I have attracted business because people trust my authenticity. When corporates come here, they let their guard down because they feel safe. I'll see the same people at other networking events, and they have their armour, but they still come and tend to speak to me because they know they can just be themselves.

"Men are looking for these spaces where they can be vulnerable as well."

All aboard

Does she think it's more important to have diversity in tech more than in other industries?

Williams says she believes in 'designing diversity' in the foundation of the organisation, and it will then happen organically. How do you balance meritocracy and diversity? "When I joined Tshimologong, there were a lot of white consultants. And a lot of them brought great value, which is why they were here, and we still use them.

"But the organisation is growing and we need new skills, so with new hires, we have an emphasis on bringing in more (primarily racial) diversity.

"I think there's this flawed understanding that diversity means that people who are in spaces need to lose their jobs. In the tech industry, there is an opportunity to do things differently. We need everyone on board. Everyone. The tech pie needs to grow. And I'm seeing such amazing, awesome things around the world, but we need to pull together.

"I make sure I invite diversity. And diversity is not at the exclusion of men. I'm not only inviting women to this conversation, because we will never create that bridge if we only have women in the dialogue. "I'm a big believer in meritocracy, but men shout louder, that's just how they are. I shout louder when there's merit, when there's something to speak about. I also believe in rational, logical thinking. Everything I do as far as possible is backed by logic.

"Sometimes men feel like I'm showing them up in certain spaces. I bring discomfort. I'm a short, Coloured person with an afro in a primarily white, male space. There are multiple levels of discomfort there. When I speak, it needs to be based on merit and logic. I can't afford to shoot from the hip."

She has also recently been selected as a member of the inaugural class of former US president Barack Obama's Africa leadership programme. Williams says there's something to be said about having visible role models that support different kinds of aspirations.

With her role of CEO, as well being part of the Obama programme, men and women have told her: "You're representing us, you're our voice."

See also