Google’s Glass Ceiling: A Case Study of Why Organisations Lose Innovative Women

Google's Glass CeilingBy Zuleyka Zevallos

Last month, The New York Times gave a disheartening insight into Google’s Executive hiring practices. Google is predominantly staffed with young men,* and they have trouble hiring and retaining women. Google turned to its “famous algorithms” to work out why this was the case, developing spreadsheets to help address the matter. In Google Executive land, it seems, engineers and computer scientists are characterised as “guys” who are proactive in advancing their careers, while women are seen as failed “business” people who don’t ask for promotions. Google has taken some measures to address their hiring practices, but its Executives seem to accept that their gender imbalance (30% women to 70% men) is unlikely to change much. While I focus on Google as a case study, my analysis deconstructs the flaws in the gender logic that large companies have about workplace inequality. Studies find that it is not the fact that women do not ask for promotions that impede their career progression; nor is it simply the decision to exit the workplace to have children. Instead, empirical data show that when employers are faced with equally qualified and experienced candidates who put in the same amount of work and who have the same outcomes, they are more likely to hire, promote and remunerate men over women. I argue that there is a resistance in workplaces to understand how their organisational practices are structured in ways that impede women from thriving professionally.

Gender imbalance and inequality are not inevitable. These are the outcome of daily interactions, organisational practices, policies, and unexamined norms and values. Sociology can help workplaces address gender inequalities by taking an organisational approach to gender. Such a framework makes gender biases visible and involves everyone in addressing inequality – not just women, but people of all genders, as well as the Executives who hold ultimate power in organisational change.

Case study: Gender imbalance amongst Google Executives 

Google office in Zurich, Switzerland, 2009. Via ArchiCentral

Google prides itself on celebrating and supporting difference and it sees itself as an “equal opportunity workplace and is an affirmative action employer.” Google is frequently cited as the best place to work. It topped Fortune’s 2012 List, with New York employees raving about the culture, mission and perks of their job, which include great food, “bocce courts, a bowling alley, eyebrow shaping (for a fee).” Google also featured as the top employer in Australia according to Business Review Weekly’s list in 2011, which surveyed 207 companies and 55,400 employees. Google sits in the third spot for 2012. Google may well be a sweet gig – but it seems to be less advantages for women employees.

Journalist Claire Caine Miller, reporting for The New York Times, finds that only one third of Google’s 34,300 employees are women. CEO Larry Page has removed the already-noticeably-few women Executives from his “inner circle.” The previous CEO, Eric E. Schmidt, had an Exec committee of 15 people, four of whom were women. Page has an Exec of 11, only one of whom is a woman – Susan Wojcicki, who leads Google’s advertising. Gender bias had no influence in the Exec reshuffle, says Laszlo Bock, head of people operations at Google: “Larry focused on certain products, and the people who happened to lead those products and became his direct reports were men.” So, gender did not influence this decision, it just so happens that the work women were leading in the company was not valued. According to Google Executives, Page is simply more comfortable around Engineering people “like himself”, which actually translates to engineering “men.” The Times writes:

…the dearth of women at the top of Google reflects what is, over all, a male-driven engineering culture. Mr. Page values product people like himself over business people, they say, and at Google, as at many technology companies, product engineers tend to be men.  “Part of the issue is who Larry wants around him, and those are the guys he’s most comfortable with because he knows their whole engineering and computer science background,” said a former longtime senior Google employee. Another former Google executive said, “I don’t think there’s a gender bias per se, but I think the c-suite at Google is going to belong to product owners, not business people. People witness it as a demotion of women. I don’t view it as that. I view it as a demotion of business.”

Google launched algorithms and spreadsheets to find that its recruitment process is discriminatory and its attrition of women is woeful due to female staff leaving to have children or to forge their careers in smaller companies. Google is taking steps to rectify the situation: it has found that women applicants go further if they are interviewed by other women for positions within the company. It is also offering information to women staff about how to ask for promotions. Individual and interpersonal dynamics are seen as the source of the hiring bias. At first glance, it would seem that women can’t get past Google’s “glass ceiling” because of their individual circumstance and personal ambition: their family responsibilities or personalities supposedly make them reticent to ask for promotions. Sociology would shift this focus away from individuals and put Google’s organisational culture into critical evaluation.

All individuals make decisions about their family and career paths, but sociology shows how life opportunities are constrained by social forces. In Google World, “guys” get promoted because they ask for it and women aren’t assertive enough and instead they take time off to have children and then suffer the consequences. How can we view Google’s organisational culture into broader sociological context?

Social construction of engineering as “guy’s” work

In the aforementioned New York Times article, the Google Executives quoted seem to accept as fact that its company gender ratio will never be equal. One Exec tells The Times that even though only a minority of Goggle’s employees are women, he argues this is better than the American average. Average of what? Hard to say as no actual statistics are cited.  Alan Eustace, senior vice president for knowledge says:

We get incredible women into the company, and we work hard at getting incredible women… I wish we could say we’re amazingly successful and closing in on 50 percent women, but it’s not true.

Dr. Frances Bauer featured in Popular Electronics, April 1955, which proclaimed: “Giant computers solve industry’s toughest problems and open new, lucrative field for women interested in mathematics.” Via JobPostings.

The body of research known as the sociology of knowledge shows how science and knowledge are valued according to historical and cultural interests of elite groups. While Google is trying to address its gender gap, its organisation is structured around a gendered construction of science: “guys” produce the type of science that fits in comfortably with its upper management chain. Engineering and computer science are male dominated fields – doesn’t it stand to reason therefore that more men would be hired? The reality is that women don’t simply leave these professions of their own accord. Women are not inferior scientists; they do not produce less innovative products than men. Instead, in male dominated fields, men’s knowledge and research outputs are rewarded while women’s scientific endeavours are not.

An American sociology study published last year showed that women tend not to finish their engineering degrees because they lack “self confidence” in their professional abilities. At first glance, this finding might be seen to support the idea that women are not exhibiting the personal qualities and drive expected of engineers – but this is misleading. The lead researcher says that this lack of confidence is due to the fact that engineering careers are not communicated to students as something that fits in with women’s lives or knowledge:

Women engineering students go to the same classes, take the same tests, and get the same GPAs as men, sometimes even higher… But, what we found is that the women in our study developed less confidence in their engineering expertise than men did and they also developed less confidence that engineering is the career that fits them best, even though they went through the same preparation process as men… [This] stems from very subtle differences in the way that men and women are treated in engineering programs and from cultural ideologies about what it means to be a competent engineer… Often, competence in engineering is associated in people’s minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity. So, there are these micro-biases that happen, and when they add up, they result in women being less confident in their expertise and their career fit.

A big part of the problem is that engineering programs do not demonstrate how women might navigate their engineering careers. There are not enough women engineers being brought into their classroom to demonstrate that women can be successful in this field. Providing women engineering students with internships would help them gain practical skills to bolster their career planning. For the past few years, I have been advocating that people of all genders gain such practical experience during their degrees, including sociology students. The issue in engineering is that there is a mutually reinforcing set of gender biases related to the way in which this discipline is taught and practised. Student placements within industry are more likely to go to men than women. Perhaps this fits in with the logic of common sense – if there are more male engineer students, doesn’t it stand to reason that there would be more placements going to male engineering students? Only if you’re a technical organisation that accepts the established gender order. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, hired only men for his first round of interns at his new start-up, Square. Like Google, Dorsey is seemingly oblivious to the fact that more than a handful of capable, ingenious women engineers exist. Science is not always the meritocracy it should be; instead, many scientific fields have gender tunnel vision.

What about the idea that ladies don’t do well in prestigious tech companies because they are too shy to put themselves forward for a promotion? This explanation is blind to the structural forces limiting women’s career progression. Otherwise known as good old fashioned sexism at work.

Why the “women don’t get promoted because they don’t ask for it” theory is sexist nonsense

“Bitch if you do, broke if you don’t” – A cartoon about women’s work promotion opportunities, by Barry Deutsch. Via Ampersand.

Studies find that women scientists don’t get paid as much as men, irrespective of the amount of time and effort they put into their jobs. For example, see the Journal of American Medical Association, which finds that male physician researchers receive $12,200 more than their women counterparts, even when other factors are taken into consideration, including “speciality, institutional characteristics, academic productivity, academic rank, work hours, and other factors. A recent experiment finds that academic faculty members are more likely to hire men over women even when their credentials are identical. They are also more likely to give men a higher starting wage than women who have the same qualifications. We are supposed to celebrate the women who find this sexism “motivating” to try harder to succeed. If promotions are based on merit, and men and women are producing at the same level, why should it be a special case of triumph for women to be rewarded for their work when they achieve the same as men?  Ilana Yurkiewicz argues in Scientific American that this experiment shows a deep-seated cultural bias against women that is not necessarily conscious. Scientists are unlikely to openly support sexism. In this study, they rationalised that women are simply not as “competent” as men, even when their skills, experience and qualifications are identical. Yurkiewicz argues: “We are not talking about equality of outcomes here; this result shows bias thwarts equality of opportunity.”

So the idea that women are not paid and promoted as highly as men because they are too meek in asking for a raise does not wash. Professional advancement is not simply about women not being as “aggressive” or convincing as men when they negotiate pay increases. It is not that women are not as committed to their careers; it is not that they put in less time; it is not that they are less capable. The problem lies with the cultural biases that organisations allow to be perpetuated in their offices, by not recognising the practices, language and erroneous assumptions about gender that prevent women from fulfilling their professional potential.

So what about those working mums leaving to have babies? No wonder they aren’t paid the same, their priorities are different. Right? Wrong. Social policies determine the type of leave parents of both genders take. Progressive policies facilitate men and women taking equal time off and improve their rate of return. Poor policies narrow the work-life choices that families make. In English-speaking Western contexts, women’s career progression tends to suffer, but in Scandinavian countries, women’s career paths are better supported.

Parental leave and gender equality in cultural context

Via Home Design Furniture

According to the New York Times, Google offers women up to five months off for maternity leave and seven weeks for men. Offering parental leave is an important step towards gender equality, but what are the informal and formal mechanisms that determine what this time off means to the careers of men and women? Parental leave has been a strong driver for progressive family policies in Scandanavian countries, but the outcomes are mediated by cultural expectations of femininity, masculinity and care giving. That is, whether men or women decide to take time off, and whether they return to the same job, is a response to the social policies and social norms in any given society and workplace. In Sweden, offering paternal leave as a “reserve” of time off is more likely to encourage men to take paternal leave than offering them cash bonuses. This supports women’s transition back to work, as parental leave is shared more equitably between parents. The number of children a family has also impacts on this process, as does the level of education of parents and the type of work they do. One study finds that Swedish and Norwegian women are more likely to return to work if they have only one or two children, but they are less likely to return if they have more than two children. Another study finds that in Germany, men are more likely to take paternal leave if their partner is more educated, older or if they work in the public service.

Even as societies generally accept that men and women should be equal in the workplace and take equal responsibility as caregivers, they tend to not apply this logic to their individual circumstance. In Estonia, a study finds that fathers support gender equality and recognise that society advocates this equality, but they find in practice that they are stigmatised for wanting to take time off to look after their children. Compounding the problem is that men still ultimately believe that women are “natural” caregivers, whereas men have to work harder to develop their parenting skills. Such ideas about parenting are social constructions, but the consequences are concrete: women are more likely to sacrifice their career progression while men sacrifice spending as much time with their children as they’d ideally like. Social pressure and gendered ideas about paid and unpaid work shape the decision about which parent takes time off to look after young children. What seems like a personal choice made by individual women or between couples is actually affected by organisations and social forces.

Sociological questions about Google’s “glass ceiling” that its algorithms can’t answer

Black Girls Code is a not-for-profit group in the USA that teaches young girls of colour computer programming skills. Via Colorlines.

An organisation that is serious about addressing gender inequality in the workplace would ensure that productive employees are not penalised for their gender and family choices. What are the management dynamics in a given workplace that might facilitate and reward men’s careers over women’s professional advancement? What is expected of Executives that makes women more likely to step away from higher positions of power in big companies in favour of smaller firms? Despite the ideals that societies hold about gender equality, policies and social practices in particular organisations ensure that parents who take parental leave have their careers penalised. This need not be the case.

Instead of acknowledging and addressing sexism, it is easier to view men as “more competent” than women, even when the evidence shows that they are similarly matched. Seeing women’s lack of advancement as an individual deficit (too meek in asking for a promotion) or as an individual choice (leaves to have babies and never returns) ensures that institutional practices go unexamined. Scientists and other professionals in many countries support the ideal of gender inequality, but they are not always aware of how their gender biases affect how they judge men and women’s professionalism. Women who study and work in science-dominated fields such as engineering require institutional support to further their careers. Google found that when they started to invite women into the interviewing panel, women applicants were more likely to progress into employment than previously, when men made hiring decisions. Inequality of opportunity is ensured through workplace policies that limit women’s choices.

Algorithms and spreadsheets have identified patterns that Google is attempting to address. Google and other organisations need sociology, not just algorithms, to address the underlying values, practices and unspoken rules that guide patterns of inequality. Google prides itself on diversity, creativity and affirmative action. It is clearly interested in gender equality because they are putting new programs in place to hire women. Providing individual mentors for women is positive but it does not go far enough. Google Executive’ comments suggest that gender and power remain unexamined. Their CEO is not biased against women; he just happened to demote all but one of his top female Execs because their work wasn’t up to scratch. Their CEO is simply more comfortable with “guys”  like himself – men, not women. Google hopes that by having women help to recruit and mentor women, women will fare better in navigating their way upwards. How far will these women get if the organisation pretends that gender issues in the workplace involve particular individuals (women specifically), rather than the entire corporation and its leaders?

Google stands as a microcosm of a broader pattern of workplace inequality that stems from the way engineering is taught and practised. Beyond, other fields of science are not immune to gender bias, as academic researchers are more likely to hire men over women and men are also paid more than women even when they do the same work. Sociology shows that these patterns are not simply about individual choices that can be addressed at the interpersonal level. Workplaces need to open up dialogue that makes employees aware of how their gender assumptions and practices limit innovation. This process needs to involve workers of all genders and at all levels of management.

Often, competence in engineering is associated in people’s minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity. So, there are these micro-biases that happen, and when they add up, they result in women being less confident in their expertise and their career fit.

Micro-biases in engineering – Erin Cech


* Patricia Barnes reports that in January 2012 Google was battling a lawsuit from a former employee who said he was forced out of his job because of his age (54 years at the time of dismissal). The lawsuit states that his Google colleagues routinely made derogatory comments about his age (“slow,” “sluggish,” “lethargic,” “an old fuddy-duddy” who “lacked energy”). This lawsuit suggests that Google’s culture may not simply about a male engineers, but perhaps about young, male engineers.

Top image adapted from The Bush Center, via Flickr, CC 2.0

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  • Black Girls Code encourages girls of colour to become involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Read more from Colorlines.

10 thoughts on “Google’s Glass Ceiling: A Case Study of Why Organisations Lose Innovative Women

    • Hi Charlotte,
      I think we’ve talked before on Twitter. It’s great to hear from you and thanks for your interest in my work. No, this post has not been published anywhere else. It would be sensational to have you translate my post into French, so please go ahead and thanks for seeking my permission. If you republish your translation of my work externally, I’d love if you could please send me a link, but otherwise feel free to translate my article for your project. Good luck with your studies!
      Best wishes, Zuleyka.


      • Hi! It is for an academic work, so I’m not sure whether my teachers will accept a text that was not peer-reviewed. But even if they refuse I saw you had some papers published on multiculturalism that look great:)
        I’ll let you know if I am to translate your work.
        Best regards


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