MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

High tech's shifting glass ceiling

The current lawsuit in Silicon Valley by Ellen Pao against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is drawing more attention to hot button issues in high tech, namely the very real and varied gender gap that continues to plague the industry.

According to the Forbes article, "Women in tech are losing, from top to bottom," only 9% of all CIOs are women. Why is the technology career path a tough road for women, and why do their numbers dwindle as they climb up the ranks? A recent study from MIT shows that women already inside the technology industry are experiencing what is known as a shifting glass ceiling, and it starts with the recruitment process.

Internal promotion vs external recruitment

In his paper, "Gender Sorting and the Glass Ceiling in High Tech," Roberto Fernandez, Professor of Organizational Studies at MIT Sloan, challenges the popular assumption that the prominent glass ceiling in the high tech industry is the result of disparities in the internal promotion processes. Instead, Fernandez claims that glass ceilings can also be the result of external recruitment.

"There is a glass ceiling pattern where the proportion of female applicants in the candidate pool declines as one looks up the four levels of the organization’s hierarchy," writes Fernandez and coauthor Santiago Campero. "Females tend to apply to lower level jobs than do males, and part of this difference is explained by observed human capital factors of education, work, and management experience."

The role of networks and demand-side screening in the high tech glass ceiling

Furthermore, Fernandez's research reveals that networks do play a role, but do not account for the overall pattern. Male network referrals apply to higher-level jobs than do female network referrals, but even among non-referred applicants, females apply to lower-level jobs than do males. Although they may qualify for the higher-level role, women are consistently underestimating their abilities and applying for the lower level role—a message that is reinforced during the referral process of recruitment.

The study of high-tech firms also reveals that demand-side screening processes contribute to the glass ceiling pattern. With the exception of the executive jobs, "Females are less likely than males to be offered jobs as one goes up the firm's hierarchy." The study found that females were more likely than males to receive job offers for lower-level jobs, and that the pattern reversed for higher-level jobs. When a woman does have the confidence to throw her hat in the ring for the higher-level job, she finds that the jobs have already been offered to her male counterparts. This has the effect of reinforcing the message that she should apply to lower-level jobs.

While most agree that, as a nation, we should make efforts to funnel more young women into technology careers from an early age, it’s important to note that we also need to focus on what happens to these women once they do pursue a career in technology. We are losing prime opportunities to attract and retain top female tech talent.

Women already immersed in a technology career should investigate the hiring practices of their organization. If they see a shifting glass-ceiling pattern, they will need to exhibit more effort into lobbying for their own advancement than their male counterparts. As for referrals, it would be wise to seek recommendations from senior partners inside and outside their networks—male or female—who can speak to her ability to perform the senior-level job.

But unfortunately, as testimony in the Silicon Valley lawsuit shows, both men and women are not referring women for senior positions. After all, as Newsweek reports, during testimony Ellen Pao was asked if she had ever recruited a woman to a Kleiner portfolio company’s board. “I don’t believe so,” was Pao’s answer. Addressing this shifting glass ceiling and the gap of senior female technology executives is the responsibility of all—not just the men at the top.

Related faculty and courses

Roberto Fernandez is a Professor of Organizational Studies at MIT Sloan and teaches in Creating High Velocity Organizations, Leading Change in Complex Organizations, the Global Executive Academy, the Executive Program in General Management, and the Advanced Management Program at MIT Sloan Executive Education.


This entry was posted in Work and Employment on Sat Mar 21, 2015 by MIT Sloan Executive Education


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