Gender Diversity in Tech: Encourage Teamwork, Not Competition
This is the second part in a three-part series about Gender Diversity in Tech written collaboratively by engineers Ruchi Jain, Claire Lynch, and Luna An.
A common misconception is that companies make “diversity hires” not only to increase diversity, but also to enhance their reputation and shore up their stats. This is a problematic misconception because it leads some to believe that standards and baseline requirements are lowered in order to open up hiring to people of underrepresented backgrounds. It’s important to note that no one stands to benefit from this approach to hiring; companies suffer losses in quality while engineers hired without skill level in mind can suffer from internal and external barriers to growth. These barriers include self-doubt and fear of failure or outright resentment and even hostility from coworkers.
Companies should instead focus on creating more accepting and nourishing work environments. An ideal work environment is one where everyone feels free to be themselves, empowered to reach their full potential, and able to be successful in reaching individual and company goals. If you have a great work environment more people will want to work for you, including talented engineers from diverse backgrounds such as women and people of color.
Part of fostering a personalized, growth-driven work environment is to encourage teamwork over competition, i.e., promote collaboration so that engineers have the opportunity to learn from each other as well as educate one another. As opposed to creating a pressurized work environment where engineers compete for growth, this approach is more humanizing in that it achieves growth through compassion for your teammates. Moreover, not all growth is created equal, and there are any number of metrics demonstrating that growth achieved through careful decision-making and collaborative exchange brings more value to companies.
Competition as a Barrier
Company traditions and expectations surrounding competition can work to reinforce gender imbalances. Studies have shown that those who identify as male tend to prefer tasks with a competitive facet while also exhibiting overconfidence and risk affinity. Many companies reward this competitive spirit even though it is not necessarily associated with better performance. For example, men consistently apply to jobs for which they meet only 60% of the qualifications, whereas women don’t apply unless they meet 100%. This undermines company goals because such overconfidence is inversely correlated to true competence, and because valuable female teammates are not empowered to reach their potential. Former Uber employee, Susan Fowler, showed that a single-minded emphasis on competition and ‘high performers’ operated to the acute detriment of workplace culture at Uber. This example goes to show that such attitudes are destructive not only to individual employees, but also thwart company success.
It’s important to recognize that environmental factors influence gender preferences for competitiveness. Contrary to assertions that competitiveness is a biological trait inherent to men, culture is significant in influencing competitive behavior. Studies also show that women thrive and improve performance by competing against themselves, and that competition can be productive for males and females alike when working together on teams. This gives insight into ways that the gender gap in competition can be ameliorated. Ultimately, in order for everyone to succeed in the workplace, competition need not be totally replaced as a motivating force, but should be channeled in a manner that’s inclusive and actually facilitates positive growth.
Care Personally, Challenge Directly
At Prolific, we have just announced our five new core values, which include “Care personally, challenge directly.” We interpret this value in the vein of Amy Scott’s Radical Candor, which promotes thoughtful feedback and constructive criticism delivered with candor in order to see your teammates grow and succeed in their roles. It’s as simple as this: care personally about your teammates and make it your responsibility to hold them accountable to a set of standards. Develop a rapport and give each other constructive feedback without making the other feel disheartened or insecure. This is as opposed to ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, or obnoxious aggression, all of which have the potential to stifle growth and create a hostile work environment.
It’s easy to see why this value encourages inclusivity: teammates and management should feel more enabled to discuss performance and expectations regardless of one another’s background or identity. This is vital for the growth of engineers from backgrounds that are less commonly represented in tech. At the same time, it’s important that feedback is delivered with empathy and responsible rhetoric so as to not weaken anyone on the team. Of course, delivering constructive criticism with radical candor is not simple to implement (and requires a lot of practice), but having “care personally, challenge directly,” as one of our core values is a significant step toward creating a work environment that encourages individual growth for everybody.
Teamwork in Development
Software development processes create many opportunities for collaboration. The best example of “care personally, challenge directly” is in our code review process. On each team, all engineers on a codebase are made reviewers of each pull request, so that everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas on how best to improve code quality. At the same time, we have the opportunity to learn about different techniques or approaches to development. For example, by reviewing each other’s pull requests, engineers gain insight on how best to use new libraries or implement alternative architectures.
Engineers are also encouraged to pair on programming tasks to solve problems together or to plan out the best design for a new feature. It’s a simple and efficient way for engineers to share their knowledge, and it has an added humanistic component. Pair programming is especially effective for newer developers to pick up skills from experienced engineers. For example, just by pairing with a more seasoned coder, a new developer can learn several useful keyboard shortcuts for an IDE or many cool tools and plugins for the Terminal application. As opposed to a pressurized and competitive environment where every man or woman is left to fend for themselves, pair programming and code review encourages everyone to take each other’s growth more personally.
Competition can operate to the detriment of workplace culture by exerting pressure which rewards grandstanding and individual conquests instead of the compassionate, collaborative pursuit of company goals. There is ample, concrete evidence demonstrating that competition does not facilitate the type of growth that truly adds value. Female employees are particularly liable to feel sidelined by competitive dynamics at work. By fostering systems that encourage collaboration and inspire employees to feel invested in each other’s success, companies can at once cultivate diversity, functional teamwork, and meaningful organizational progress. Here on the engineering team Prolific, we are proud to support each other by caring personally and challenging directly every day we code together. And we know that our team will continue to grow in a more diverse, inclusive way as a result.