Recently, executives at the Silicon Valley-based internet giant Google noticed a disturbing trend: the company was having difficulty hiring and retaining female employees, from engineers to senior executives, Claire Cain Miller writes in the August 22 issue of the New York Times. Women were dropping out during the job interview process and were not being promoted at the same rate as men. In addition, women have lost ground in top leadership positions since Larry Page took over as the company’s CEO in 2011. The issue at Google reflects a larger trend, as the percentage of women working in professional computing jobs fell from 25% in 2011 to 16% in 2010. In many cases, women have been leaving large computer companies for jobs in the public sector or with start-ups.
In typical fashion, Google set out to tackle the problem by creating algorithms designed to pinpoint when, exactly, it had lost women and to help identify how to retain them, writes Cain Miller. The results were illuminating. First, Google determined that some women job applicants failed to advance beyond an initial phone interview because they did not speak up about their achievements, which caused interviewers to view them as unaccomplished. Similarly, women employees were less likely than their male counterparts to nominate themselves for promotions – a significant problem, given that employees must self-nominate at Google to be promoted.
These discoveries mirror the results of negotiation research by professor Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University and her colleagues, who found in one study that men initiate negotiations to advance their interests four times more often than women do. As we explain in the June 2008 article, “What Happens When Women Don’t Ask,” in the Negotiation newsletter:
Babcock and her colleagues found that only 12.5% of women graduating with master’s degrees from the Heinz School (of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon) in 2002 had negotiated their starting salaries, as compared with 51.5% of male graduates. Babcock calculated that students who did not negotiate their starting salaries would forfeit at least $1 million in income over their lifetimes.
Google also found in its research that the attrition rate for women who had recently had babies was twice that of other employees. The company had used its research results to tailor personnel practices in ways that are already showing signs of success. Job interviewers are now asked to report candidates’ answers in greater detail, and the company makes sure that women applicants meet other women during the hiring process, writes Cain Miller. These changes have increased the number of women hired, according to Google.
In addition, senior women at Google now host workshops aimed at encouraging women to nominate themselves for promotions, a change that Google says has erased the promotion gap between male and female employees. To retain women with families, Google has expanded its maternity leave from three months at partial pay to five months at full pay, a move that has decreased post-partum attrition by 50%.
The role of negotiation in gender inequities in the workforce is a complicated issue. Though it has more work to do, Google can be commended for identifying internal negotiations as a critical area where women were losing ground and for attempting to level the playing field.