Do women who work in the IT industry face gender bias in promotions? Do performance improvements affect promotions differently for women than they do for men? Are there mechanisms that women can use to climb the organizational ladder faster, or even at the same rate as men? These are the questions that Nishtha Langer addresses in this opinion piece, based on her research with co-authors Ram Gopal and Ravi Bapna. Langer is a professor of business analytics at the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“The U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) made history on Sunday by clinching an unprecedented fourth World Cup title.” – Newsweek 2019.

As the USWNT were crowned the World Cup soccer champions in France on July 7, 2019, the crowds started chanting “Equal Pay!” That was not surprising to anyone following the fortunes of the women’s team vis-à-vis the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT). Arguably, the USWNT has had a better record than the USMNT: The former has won four world cups and is the top rated team by FIFA, whereas the latter did not even qualify for the 2018 world cup. Yet, the compensation for USWNT ranges from 34% to 89% of the USMNT, according to the Washington Post. Even as I rejoiced in their win, I could not help but think of how underrepresented women really are in the world of professional sports, the biases they face, and how much their world is similar to that of the Information Technology (IT) industry. The IT industry, like many of its STEM counterparts, is quintessentially male-dominated. Women are glaringly underrepresented in IT, and they often contend with similar biases as they seek growth in their chosen careers.

Unfortunately, not only do women make up less than 25% of the IT industry, their ratio continues to dwindle. The reasons are not far to seek. Various socio-cultural norms prevent women from becoming part of the IT industry when programming and IT are largely perceived to be masculine vocations. Moreover, the demands of IT jobs with their often-grueling deadlines may not be in tune with their desired work-life balance. Women often also may lack the influential mentor network that is necessary for promotions and career growth. But, beyond these factors that affect women’s choice to be in the industry in the first place, what affects the professional growth of women who choose to be in IT?

Gender Bias?

In a paper forthcoming at Information Systems Research, my co-authors (Ram Gopal and Ravi Bapna) and I ask whether there is a gender bias in promotions in the IT industry, whether performance improvements affect promotions differently for women versus men, and whether there are mechanisms that women can use to climb the organizational ladder faster, or even at the same rate as men. We focus on the lower levels of the organizational hierarchy as differences in promotions rates here have long-term implications for career growth.

Our research found that much to our surprise, women were more likely to be promoted, at least at the lower organizational levels that we analyzed. It is possible that women are more likely to be promoted because they are, regrettably, paid substantially less than men, and hence deemed the low-cost option for the senior level jobs. Alternately, it could be that they are more likely to be promoted because they are perceived as better managers, communicators, and boundary spanners and hence better able to take on more responsible roles.

This is the good news, but we also have bad news: We found that there are important differences between women and men when it came to reaping rewards for performance improvements.

Performance is one of the critical elements deciding an employee’s promotional fate. Media is rife with stories on how compared to men, women are evaluated unfairly in almost all spheres and perhaps more so in IT. However, as they say, the times, they are a-changing; and organizations are implementing multi-faceted evaluation processes that seek to mitigate such biases. Yet, even as organizations become more conscious about preventing blatant biases against women in IT, the fundamental issue is not just whether women and men are evaluated fairly, but whether due credit is given to women when their performance is comparable to that of men. Our results show that women get fewer benefits from performance improvements compared to men. Thus, in order to improve their promotion chances by the same amount, they need to perform much better than men.

“The fundamental issue is not just whether women and men are evaluated fairly, but whether due credit is given to women when their performance is comparable to that of men.”

Archetypal Out-group

Typical tasks IT employees perform – programming, analysis and design, project management activities – are often seen as masculine tasks. Women are thus the archetypal out-group whose motivations and participation are suspect. Women may thus be crucified for bad performance because of their assumed negative qualities or perceived lack of ability, but not given enough credit for their capabilities when they do perform well. In other words, we find that subtle biases – such as getting fitting recognition for their performance or having to perform better than their male counterparts to get similar laurels and appreciation – persist.

Our research also showed that compared to men, women benefit more from training in increasing their promotion likelihood. This is true even when both men and women undertook similar amounts of training. Why does this happen? Women may have less time to garner the support of powerful mentors within the organization as they pursue the elusive work-life balance in their IT careers. In such a scenario, we conjecture that training may help women thwart any prevalent, structural biases in the organization and serve as a credible signal of ability.

What can we do to help women succeed in the IT workplace? While workplace policies may themselves prohibit overt discrimination against women in IT, it may well be that entrenched prejudices covertly affect managerial decision making. In addition to ensuring that women benefit from influential mentoring at the same rate as men, bringing in more parity in performance evaluation (as we see at the focal firm), we recommend training as an alternative mechanism for women in tech to indicate to the powers that be that they are ready and able to take on more senior roles.

Now, of course, it is up to the IT industry to deliver on their promise of encouragement and support to the remarkable women in IT. With any luck, the world will celebrate their stellar achievements just like that of the women who won the World Cup.