Marion Barraud for HBR
Silicon Valley companies are making news these days for their efforts to fix the underrepresentation of women in tech. Many are focused on increasing the pipeline of women studying STEM in high school and college. But pipeline factors are not the only reason for the low numbers of women: Companies are failing to retain the female employees they have. A study by Jennifer Glass and coauthors in 2013 found that women leave STEM fields at dramatically higher rates than women in other occupations. After 12 years, 50% of technical women, predominately in engineering and computer science, had switched to other fields; 20% of other women professionals had done the same.
The highest-profile losses in tech are those at the senior level. These women often are less satisfied with their careers, perceive that they are unlikely to advance at their current organizations, or believe they must change jobs in order to reach the next level. As one technology executive has explained to us, “We have some very capable women in the middle management and junior VP levels, but they leave our firm to advance their careers as they continually get passed over for promotion.”
What can companies do to stop the departure of senior women? One critical but overlooked strategy: Make sure that women have the right kind of visibility within the organization.
In 2007 and 2008 the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Anita Borg Institute conducted research on approximately 1,800 tech workers in seven high-tech companies, finding that women reported being less likely than their male counterparts to be assigned to high-visibility projects.
Earlier this year we led a thought exercise for 240 senior leaders of a Silicon Valley technology company. We asked them to identify the most-critical factors for success at their level. The group agreed on track record and skills-based factors: a history of delivering results, technical depth of expertise, and the ability to manage a technical team.
We then asked them to name the most-critical factors for promotion to their level. A new top criterion emerged, eclipsing all others: visibility. More than technical competence, business results, or team leadership ability — these leaders agreed — visibility is the most important factor for advancement.
We later observed 36 hours of performance calibration reviews in three companies. In these conversations, senior leaders discussed their up-and-coming employees in order to align their performance ratings across the organization. These ratings determine a person’s access to salary increases, promotions, and recognition. We also conducted six focus groups with midlevel and senior leaders to understand how they perceive opportunities for advancement at their companies.
Each study validated the importance of visibility in assessing an employee’s performance and potential. In our observations, visibility is a complex interaction of perceived skills (particularly technical and leadership ones), access to stretch assignments, and being known — and liked — by influential senior leaders within informal networks. All three are necessary for advancement.
Across each of these categories, however, we observed gendered dynamics that systematically disadvantaged women in achieving visibility, potentially limiting their opportunities for promotion and keeping them from the senior levels of their organizations.
Visibility of Valued Skills
The visibility of one’s technical skills influenced how valuable specific employees were perceived to be. This presented a conundrum for women. Since women were less likely to be represented on high-visibility technical projects, they were also less likely to be seen as having the kind of skill set most valued by leaders. And because women were less likely to been seen as owning those highly valued technical skills, they were less likely to be picked for highly visible groups. For example, women were not always invited to contribute to “blue sky” teams, the groups that companies ask to do the biggest, boldest thinking about new technologies and businesses. As one male manager explained, these high-visibility opportunities were not offered to everyone: “People get hand-picked by senior folks to think about this stuff.”
The same pattern happened for leadership skills. During performance reviews, we found that the highest marks were given to employees who fit a narrow definition of leadership that tended to reflect a highly visible style. Terms such as “crushes it” and “kills it” were used to describe top performers. While these highly visible behaviors benefited senior men, senior women were often criticized when exhibiting this approach. Comments such as “she is abrasive and runs over people” were given to women. Because women are more likely to be described as having a collaborative, less visible leadership style, they were less likely to win recognition with these narrow definitions. On the other hand, both men and women were criticized for being understated. One review noted, “He is the most conflict-averse person I have met…this will be a limiter.”
Visibility in Assignments
As Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD points out, in order to advance women, companies should focus less on mentorship programs and more on putting women into stretch assignments that build both skills and organizational visibility. Our research suggests that women are less able to access these assignments.
Some of the women in our focus groups described being turned away when they requested big, new opportunities. One explained, “There are times where you are discouraged from taking on a stretch assignment. The manager says, ‘This will require extra hours, and you have to think about your family. This is not something for you.’ I have had that happen to me, and these were experiences needed for a promotion.”
Women also commented on how their “likeability” affected their ability to land choice assignments. They recognized that a penalty could come from being perceived as too “aggressive” at work. “A lot of characteristics for the men are seen as assets but are not liked in women,” said one focus group participant. For example, “He is a driver; she is demanding and bossy. He is quick; she is agitated.”
Our observations of managers discussing employee performance evaluations revealed clearly gendered patterns: Women were labeled as “aggressive,” and criticized for their “communication style.” We heard comments like “She’s rude” or “She’s good, but she’s really pushy and has to learn to tone it down.” For men, similar “aggressive” behaviors, when noted, were reframed in a positive way. For instance, a male leader called out for having “an ego” was reframed by another manager: “I wouldn’t say he has an ego, but he’s super confident.” Or these behaviors were brushed aside. One leader commented about a male candidate, “The style stuff doesn’t matter. He is great, and it is irrelevant.”
Visibility in Networks
In addition to being visible for the right skills and the right projects, employees also need to be visible to the right people if they want to advance into senior leadership. In one company where we analyzed a sample of performance evaluations, women were half as likely to be talked about in terms of being known to leaders, and twice as likely to be told they needed to increase their visibility to leadership.
Because we tend to network more easily with those we perceive as similar to us, and because women are underrepresented in positions of power, women are less likely to have the network connections — with high-visibility leaders — that lead to promotion. One senior woman who was highly visible called these connections the “secret sauce of promotions” and said that these connections are built over informal networks: “There is a little club that goes out drinking, and there is a poker group where women don’t get invited. A lot of decision making happens there.” Another woman noted, “In one of my reviews, I received written feedback: ‘[Name] needs to network more with visible leaders.’ Verbally, I was told it means, ‘You need to go have drinks with [this person].’”
Closing the Visibility Gap
How can companies ensure women and men have equal opportunities to build their visibility (and promotability) within the organization? We suggest these steps:
- Question what is valued. Examine your promotion criteria and ask: “Are we defining leadership too narrowly and according to an aggressive management style?”
- Equalize access to assignments. Bring more awareness and transparency around the allocation of high-visibility stretch assignments.
- Open up networks. Create more opportunities for women to connect with senior leaders through high-visibility working groups, Q&A sessions, and inclusive networking events.
By clarifying criteria, making the promotion process more transparent, distributing meaningful assignments equitably, and opening up the right networks for women, we can keep women in tech and build a diverse, talented cohort of leaders.
Shelley Correll is professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford University and the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
Lori Mackenzie is Executive Director of the Clayman Institute at Stanford University and co-founder of Stanford’s Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership.