'Living In A Sexist And Patriarchal Society Has Certainly Been Harmful'

We talk to Gina Helfrich, co-founder of recruitHER


Gina is the co-founder of recruitHER, a women-owned recruiting & consulting firm connecting diverse talent with opportunities in the tech industry. Gina is the former Director of the Harvard College Women’s Center at Harvard University and earned her doctorate in philosophy and women's studies from Emory University. She has taught at the university level on diversity and inclusion, including an applied ethics seminar at Harvard, 'Gender, Race, and Ethics in the 21st Century.' Gina is also the founder of Feminist Hack ATX, a community organization for people of all genders to work together towards a more women-friendly technology scene in Austin.

We sat down with her ahead of her presentation at the Women In Enterprise Summit, taking place in Boston this October 25-26.

How did you get started in your role at recruitHER?

My business partner, Ashley Doyal, and I launched recruitHER in late summer 2015 to tackle the diversity gap in technology. Women have been stuck at about one-quarter of tech jobs for years, which actually represents a significant drop since the 1970s. Most of these women are white: black and Latina/o professionals in tech are in the single-digit percentiles. The numbers of women and people of color are even lower in leadership roles and technical roles.

In 2014, there was a big push (led predominantly by women of color like Erica Baker, then at Google, and Tracy Chou, then at Pinterest) for tech companies to release their workforce demographic data on race, gender, and pay. Major tech players like Facebook, Google, and Intel stepped forward to release their internal statistics and admit they had a diversity problem. By early 2015 we had seen the lack of diversity in tech become a national conversation, and everyone was looking for solutions. Ashley and I decided to seize the opportunity and work together on developing a services business to support tech companies in becoming more inclusive.

What challenges do you feel you’ve faced as a result of being a woman?

All of the evidence points to our society having a huge struggle with sexism, misogyny, and violence against women. As a professional, I tend to be hyper-aware that I come off as a fairly diminutive and young-looking woman; I have to think very carefully about what I wear and how I present myself in order to project the same level of authority that can come easily to a man just for being tall or having a deep voice. While I’ve never let being a woman stop me from doing anything I wanted, I’ve definitely noticed ways in which my gender was held against me or viewed as a weakness. I’ve always viewed other people’s underestimation of me as a point of strength, but living in a sexist and patriarchal society has certainly been harmful.

Do you think it is up to companies to solve the gender gap in STEM, or do the issues run deeper than that - back to experiences in early life and education, and the negative impact of prevalent stereotypes that sciences and engineering are for boys, and humanities are for girls?

Children as young as 3 begin adopting gender-stereotypical behaviors, so there’s no doubt that this is a far-reaching and systemic problem. The 'leaky pipeline' that pushes girls and young women out of science and math is 100% real but also 100% fixable. Important research by the AAUW has confirmed that most of our “pipeline problem” for educating girls in STEM is simply related to stereotypes that are both inaccurate and harmful - it has nothing to do with intrinsic aptitude or inclination. For example, exposing STEM students to examples of prominent women who have been STEM pioneers increases the likelihood that girls will persist. (Can you name one famous woman in science, math, or engineering besides Marie Curie?)

On the other hand, companies are not off the hook. More than 50% of women leave tech by mid-career, largely due to unfriendly or downright hostile workplaces. It has nothing to do with having babies, although more generous paid parental leave would certainly help to retain more women in tech. Companies need to implement the types of benefits and workplace policies that are friendly to women and create productive teams, such as salary transparency and flexible work hours. Companies also need to make it standard that all hiring, promotion, and advancement processes are insulated against unconscious bias, which has a huge negative effect on women’s representation in the industry.

What impact on workplace diversity do you will think will come from changes to the nature of employment? Will more people working remotely in the future improve things, or does it hamper innovation?

I believe that the transition to embracing remote teams will actually engender more innovation. It’s so much easier to attract outstanding talent when you don’t have the constraints of co-location. Remote work tends to promote over-communication, so successful teams will have the benefit of both clear communication practices and strong individual contributors. I really welcome the day that the working world finally lets go of a workday designed for the industrial revolution. The information economy is powered by knowledge-workers, and the research clearly shows that old-school 9-to-5 is not well-suited to supporting this type of work. I think that greater gender equality will both drive and result from changes to the norm for working adults in this country—shorter hours and more flexibility for workers in terms of when and where they work will only to lead to increased productivity and innovation.

What will you be discussing in your presentation?

I will be discussing the impact of psychological research on the future of working life in corporate America. In the coming years, the most competitive companies will design their workplaces around psychological phenomena like stereotype threat, expectation effects, unconscious bias, psychological safety, and growth mindset. There’s a revolution brewing in HR that is all based around leveraging our increased understanding of how the brain works. One of the topics I’m especially excited to discuss is the incredibly powerful effect that expectation has for performance. It’s both very frightening and incredibly inspiring once you realize how much of an impact our expectations have on behavior, and gendered expectations are obviously a huge part of that.

You can hear more from Gina, along with other leading women in enterprise, at the Women In Enterprise Summit. To register, click here.


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