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How Diversity Training Programs Fail to Support Women in Tech

Sarah Rickerd
Mar 07, 2021
3 min read

The data doesn’t lie: despite the enormous uptake of diversity training programs, women in tech still face widespread discrimination, sexual harassment, and structural barriers.

In 2015, Google committed to investing $150 million in diversity programs. Yet in 2017, the US Department of Labor accused the company of “extreme” and “systematic” pay discrimination toward women. In 2018, it was hit by allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. And in 2020, it was forced to defend cuts to its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Google may be more well-known than most tech companies, but it’s not the only one to struggle with diversity training programs. In fact, even though the industry has invested billions in diversity training, progress isn’t just stalling: it seems to be going backward.

Even before COVID-19, the percentage of tech roles filled by women has been declining for decades. In a 2020 survey, nearly half of female tech workers experienced harassment – compared to 11% of men. The data, according to the survey’s writers, got worse between 2017 and 2020.

Traditional diversity training programs are failing women in tech. Here are a few reasons why:

Diversity Training Programs are Often Reactionary

Often, tech companies implement diversity training programs only after something goes wrong: a female employee complains, or perhaps the company realizes that women are underrepresented in the general workforce or paid less on average than their male counterparts.

These are excellent reasons to introduce diversity training programs and other inclusion-oriented initiatives. However, if diversity training only ever seeks to solve a problem, then it will never be good enough. Or to put it in tech terms, patches are essential, but they’re no replacement for clean and concise coding.

It is impossible to create a meaningful impact with sporadic training sessions that are dropped when complaints “go away” or hiring data looks more gender-balanced. To be effective, diversity training needs to be a consistent, long-term initiative that aims to make the workplace as inclusive as it can possibly be – not just “acceptable.” 

Outdated Diversity Training Programs Cause Kickback

Decades of studies into diversity training programs show that when done poorly, they not only fail to reduce discrimination and prejudice but actively make it worse. Despite that, many companies continue to rely on disproven techniques.

Mandatory diversity training programs inspire anger and resistance. Often, they result in increased animosity toward women and minorities. This is especially likely when they adopt a ‘stick’ rather than a ‘carrot’ approach to encourage inclusive behavior, highlighting legal requirements and potential disciplinary action.

Bias training continues to be a go-to option for tech companies looking to attract and retain women. However, studies have shown that its impact usually only lasts a few days, and it fails to significantly reduce bullying and harassment. By 2016, Intel had spent over a decade investing in bias training, and despite that, women made up just 17.6% of its senior leadership team. 

Diversity training programs can be effective. Yet when handled poorly, they don’t just fail to evoke change. They increase antagonism toward women in tech. To truly support women, companies need to introduce data-supported training: voluntary attendance, a focus on the positive effects of diversity and inclusion, and a move away from implicit bias training to intervention training instead.

Structural Barriers are Not Addressed in Diversity Training Programs

Prejudice, sexual harassment, and a ‘boys’ club’ culture are real issues facing women in the tech industry, yet the barriers preventing women from thriving in the workplace lie often outside of the office.

Women are far more likely than men to be carers, whether they’re looking after young children, elderly parents, or family members with disabilities. Flexible hours and paid parental leave can help them balance household responsibilities with their career. In fact, when Google increased paid maternity leave to 18 weeks, the number of new mothers who quit fell by 50%. (Meanwhile, Patagonia built an on-site child-care center, and now no new mothers quit.)

However, it takes informed and understanding HR and line managers to introduce these changes, as well as ensuring that important meetings are scheduled during school hours, that parents of young children are not penalized for turning down business travel, and that requesting parental leave isn’t overly bureaucratic. After all, it’s not like kids give five days’ notice before catching the latest stomach bug. 

Diversity training programs need to build awareness of these issues, especially among managers, while company policies need to facilitate parents’ and carers’ participation in the workforce.

These are not the only structural barriers that diversity training needs to take on. Women – and especially BIPOC women, LGBTQ women, and women with disabilities – can struggle to attract mentors and sponsors, attend training events, or be awarded project leadership opportunities.

In a 2017 global survey of women in tech, “lack of mentors” was the most commonly cited barrier to career success, while more than one in three women mentioned “unequal growth opportunities compared to men.” 

All this adds up to a less impressive résumé, meaning that when compared like-to-like with men, women may struggle to justify their worth as project leaders and managers. Simply put, a lack of opportunities in the past may stand in the way of them accessing opportunities now.

Diversity training programs that focus solely on treating men and women as equally competent will fail to drive real change because women are not always operating on an equal playing field. Instead, training programs need to spark conversations about mentorship, access to training, and projects and promotions are awarded.

Ideally, this training will be backed up by mentorship programs, in-company technical training sessions, and more. (See our article on crafting a diversity training program that promotes true inclusion for more.)

Ultimately, it’s clear that traditional diversity programs have failed to support women in tech. It’s time to stop relying on these outdated and reactionary programs, and instead focus on the diversity and inclusion programs that have been proven to better meet women’s needs.