Interview courtesy of NBC News and The Maria Shriver Project

Over the course of the summer, the tech industry titans released their diversity statistics, and the gender gap in the numbers was stark. At Google, Apple, and Facebook, women account for less than a third of the workforce, and the tally for women in leadership and technical roles is worse. The act of disclosure itself, however, signaled an important step: the industry taking ownership of the problem.

As gender intelligence experts, Barbara Annis and Keith Merron have worked on the front lines of this issue, counseling companies who are struggling to achieve a better balance in their workforce. What they see in the tech sector is “enlightened denial”: companies expending a great deal of effort trying to recruit women but less effort trying to understand why the culture itself might not work for them.

Here, Annis and Merron discuss flawed diversity strategies, intellectual cowboy culture, why women feel “cleverly dismissed,” and why gender balance will only be achieved when men and women understand and embrace each other’s differences.

The lack of diversity in tech has been getting a lot of attention recently. Can you talk about how you became aware of the depth and breadth of challenges in this sector?

Barbara: It was about five or six years. I was meeting with the Chief Diversity Officer of a large, innovative technology company — a great, smart woman — and she said, “We’re doing great. We don’t have any issues. We’re out there recruiting women. And we have diversity teams.” They had created this enlightened denial, which is this idea that because you’re super smart, and because you’re super innovative, that equates to being gender intelligent. So I decided we should do some research on this. We looked at five tech companies and we discovered some interesting things: there was a massive focus on recruitment and there was a massive focus on initiatives.

There was one technology company that was very proud of the fact that they had over 30 different women’s initiatives inside the company. So, companies fall into this initiative frenzy, window-dressing, and this recruitment push, with the assumption that if they just go out there and recruit more women, time will take care of it.

And although those look like positive steps, they don’t address systemic, cultural, issues. Why have they settled on that strategy?

Keith: Most of the people who gravitate towards the tech sector are very smart and they tend to tackle problems from an engineering mindset. When you engineer something, you break down the problem into its component parts. You then look to solve those component parts with the belief that in so doing you solve the whole. So, what happens is you get a lot of people in leadership positions who are brilliant engineers, brilliant at technical solutions, and what they’ll see is a symptom: not enough women in X positions or women leaving. And then they’ll engineer a solution by attacking it with different strategies, none of which look at the fundamental issue, because the engineering mind can’t see itself as the problem.

Can you talk about another blind spot: when you surveyed men and women in tech you found that when men and women were asked if they would want their son to work at their company, they said yes in equal measure; when asked about a daughter, the women’s responses dropped, the men’s stayed the same.

Barbara: It is fascinating. Men tend to look at this through intention, so it’s, “Of course I want my daughter to work here,” because they look at their own comfort zone and they think: “This is a good place to work because I’m comfortable here.” They’re often blind to the fact that the women aren’t.

Keith: This is one of the hardest things to help men see, which is that when you’re growing up as a boy in male culture, and a lot of the systems are designed to support men, it feels very natural to compete, to analyze, to break down problems into parts, to engineer solutions; that’s what’s often taught in schools. Collaboration and looking at things holistically and from different paradigms, is not taught well in schools.

And then you get into business and business is mostly designed in a male model. It all feels natural, and what’s the problem here? This all works just fine. You get promoted and you think: I deserve it. What’s the problem? You look around you and you see primarily men the higher up you go, and you don’t even see that this is a problem.

Women on the other hand, are experiencing business designed more for men, and so they think: I don’t feel quite so comfortable here; I have this constant feeling of this being not quite designed in the shape of who I am; and the higher up I go the more I have this feeling. Because the higher up you go, the more it’s male dominant and the more painfully aware you become that it doesn’t quite fit the shape of who you are. And so then when you’re asked the question: Would you want your daughter to work here? You would say, “I’m not so sure. It sure as hell is hard for me.” And the man says, “Would I want my daughter to work here? Sure! This is a great place to work! Why wouldn’t I want her to work here?” He wouldn’t necessarily put himself in the shoes of a woman, so it becomes this huge blind spot in seeing the culture itself as a problem.

A lot of your work focuses on how differences in male and female brains impacts how men and women think and interact in the workplace. Are those differences brought into especially sharp contrast in the tech world?

Keith: Absolutely. Sometimes I call software engineers and software developers intellectual cowboys; they get very excited about mentally defeating others; they get very competitive. It’s about the person that can pull out the bullet and rapidly attack with conviction and intelligence the flaws in another’s person’s problem. Instead of the competition being on the football field, the techies get the competition on the software battle field where it’s about coding and designing the solution.

It’s about who’s smarter and faster at articulating a very complex set of variables; who can parse through those and find a solution. Whoever wins the battle becomes the uber techie, and often becomes the manager, and then the manager of the manager becomes the uber techie at that level. And so you can see the favoring of the analytic, the favoring of breaking things down into their parts, the favoring of thought versus feeling, and women will tend to look at problems in a more holistic manner. They’ll look at not just the goal but the journey to get there. They’ll look at the feeling state and the experience of the work itself as being important variables. So women tend to be much better at creating a more healthy team condition, and they don’t necessarily want to battle it out on that mental battle field.

Do women feel empowered by the brain science because it puts difference in the context of something other than approach or personality?

Barbara: I had a woman at a technology company who, when she saw the science, just blurted out, “I thought there was something wrong with me! I hired a coach and for three years he’s been trying to help me fit into the team here, because I thought I needed fixing, and now I see that I’m just wired differently.” I asked the women in the audience, “How many of you can relate to that?” And every single hand went up. And of course, women are wired for worry and self-scrutiny, so really understanding the science, kind of frees us up to give ourselves a break here and just be ourselves and bring our whole selves to work.

Research shows women share negative experiences far more widely than men. Does that have an impact on diversity? Do women start avoiding certain companies because they are well informed about the culture?

Barbara: Absolutely. There were two technology companies which had this enormous turnover, and we actually tracked where the women went. And again, these companies had this huge focus on recruiting women but the culture wasn’t inclusive or gender intelligent, and so the women would end up leaving.

When we tracked down where they went, what we found is that they went to smaller or mid-sized companies, or some of them just left the sector. They would say, “I do not even want to be in technology anymore.” So here we have these amazing women with STEM degrees, and they’re shelving that education and going off to do something else.

What’s one of the most common frustrations you hear from women in the tech sector?

Barbara: One female engineer described it as a drip-drip-drip: it’s not just one thing that happens once. She calls it being “cleverly dismissed.” So, she’ll bring up a concern or something, and it gets cleverly dismissed. If you have these drip-drip experiences of feeling excluded and dismissed over years and years, this is where women don’t feel valued for their intellect, for their ideas, or for the different way of thinking they bring, which is so useful and so important.

Often the leaders in this field are young men with progressive politics who are highly educated and would consider themselves to be very evolved. Many people find that hard to square with a sector which has such a diversity issue.

Barbara: They’re very evolved, and I have a son who is a CEO of a technology company. He’s very evolved and really deeply committed to transforming the world. And I’ve spoken at some large global tech events where you meet some amazing men committed to this.

It’s a systemic issue and if you don’t look at it systemically, you’re going to do what everybody else does, which is throw money at it; I had a CEO who actually called it guilt money. They say, “Let’s do some women’s networks, let’s do a bunch of women’s initiatives, and let’s do some recruitment, and all will be good.” You can be uber smart, but you’re not going to change the culture until you understand that the cultural norms aren’t working.

Do you see frustrations in male leaders in the industry in terms of how intractable this issue is proving?

Keith: Among tech leaders, not so much. I think it’s so deeply embedded in the culture: the value of the intellectual cowboy. They will acknowledge it as an issue because many of them are socially, politically good people and they’re not trying to create conditions that are outcasting women in any way. However, they’ll treat it as, “Well, this is a problem and we acknowledge it.” But they won’t necessarily be convinced that it’s hurting them economically, and their evidence is the success of Apple and Google and others.

Women are huge consumers of tech however, so that does suggest that there is a business imperative here.

Keith: Well, I think you could see that, and I could see that, but I’m not sure they can. So, let’s put ourselves in their shoes of the leaders in the industry for a moment. They look around and they think: We’re a leader in this industry and we’ve become a leader in spite of this; what’s our evidence that there’s a problem? We look around at the other leaders in the industry, and they also became leaders in spite of the fact that they didn’t have women. So, what’s our motivation to change? We have none. We have evidence that says being male-dominant has not got in the way of our success, so at best we might be socially motivated to want to do something, because we’re good people.

I think that’s how a leader of a business would probably feel, but they won’t admit they feel that because that would be socially inappropriate. But they are starting to put out the numbers publicly and acknowledge that there’s an issue there and I think in so doing, they’re questioning their own pattern in some way, which I think is good news.

There have been several instances of extremely sexist behavior by men in the tech sector in the press, but when it comes to solving cultural issues how helpful is it to focus on these extreme examples?

Barbara: It’s not helpful. If you make it about the extreme examples, you’re not going to get there. We need to include men. That’s really important. It’s not about blaming men.

Men will come into workshops and be quite defensive. We draw a line on a piece of paper and we say: underneath the line is intention and on top of the line is behavior. I always say, “Would you agree that you have the best intentions of wanting men and women to work and win together?” And they say, “Yes, of course.”

Sometimes there’s just incongruence between one’s intention and one’s behavior. So, it’s very easy to work on creating that congruence when the intentions are there and they’re good and they’re authentic. Because it’s just about blind spots. This stuff is very fixable once you have the aha moment, and you see that.
So much of the focus on the tech sector right now is negative when it comes to gender balance, but a sector defined by ingenuity and innovation seems primed to solve this issue.

Keith: These are good people and they don’t want to create conditions where women are left out. They don’t want to create conditions that are unfair and in fact they pride themselves or believing that the organization is quite fair. They’ll say: “We have competencies, we measure people against those competencies, and we hire and promote people based on a fair set of criteria.” It’s hard for them to see that the system itself is unfair because it’s set up based on the assumption that men and women are the same, which does create an unfairness unintentionally.

Barbara: The technology sector can fix this if they put their mind to it. They’re young. They’re innovative, they’re smart, and they’re committed to making a difference. They’re not steeped in 150 years of tradition like some of the banks and other industries. They’re not just led by the bottom line; making a difference is in the DNA of their values. If you say, “We intend to be a gender intelligent company,” you will get there; you just need to look at it in a different way than you’re looking at it.

This interview has been edited.
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