Hidden misogyny in hiring: cultural-fit edition

Systemic sexism is sneaky: you don't always recognize it when you see it, and unless you've had cause to be sensitized by it, you may not recognize when you see it until much after the fact. I had a moment of that when I read this blog-comment on a post covering swag at the Grace Hopper conference. The key quote:

But more seriously, I feel that one of the messages we give girls loud and clear in engineering is that they belong so long as they don't do anything obviously labelled as feminine -- the following things are not done by engineers: wear pink, wearing nail polish, caring about fashion, high heels, carrying a mirror in your purse, sewing things, worrying about walking in the dark.

But its ok for engineers of both genders to do all the things previously labelled as masculine, including: wearing blue, being a fan of men's football and hockey (where grown men beat each other up), drinking beer (and getting drunk), taking a group to play lasertag or paintball (i.e. simulated war), buying big electronics for our offices (beats conserving energy), loving cars and fighter jets, wearing male-sized Tshirts and so on. Now we just relabel all of this as gender-neutral and then on average men have to do nothing at all to fit into the mold of an engineer.

What this triggered was a crystallizing of an idea I had back after the LISA 2011 Women in Tech panel. Which I apparently didn't blog about here, which surprises me (have a link or two elsewhere). During that very excellent panel, one of the topics that got brought up was fitting into a very masculine office-culture. There are a variety ways to do that if you're not of the masculine persuasion, used strategies included embracing your exceptionalism ("I am the only Woman here, and this makes me special"), consciously excluding girly things to better fit in ("I'm just one of the guys, no need to panic"), and stone-headedly ignoring it all together ("I am me, deal with it."). Each of these has their own side-effects when the second and third woman shows up, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

How this blog comment ties into that observation from last year is the message employers give when:

  • Their job-posting (or company web-site) proudly claims that good cultural fit is just as important as ability to do the work.
  • When the interviewee gets to the interview, finds out the office is entirely male. Or maybe has a single woman in the office.

The message being given to prospective employees, and prospective employees good enough to at least get past the phone interview stage, is  you will have to fit into a very masculine culture if you want to work here, and fit in well. To someone who hasn't picked the I'm-just-one-of-the-guys survival strategy, this is off-putting. Meanwhile, the company in question wonders why they can't attract more female technical staff.

That LISA 2011 panel spent a lot of time on ways employers make the hiring process sexist, and this particular method didn't come up. I really should have noticed it earlier as I have friends who have complained about getting to the later stages of an interesting job interview process before realizing that the corporate culture was going to be too much effort to put up with.

The take-away here is:

Advertising good cultural fit as just as important as (or more important than) technical ability tells prospective employees, we like the cultural mix we have now and are looking for similar people. When that culture contains nothing but a single group (straight, westernized men, for instance), this is an exclusive hiring practice.


The pink part is a bit of a complicated issue.

One one hand a woman (or man), should be allowed to wear pink or purple or yellow, or any other type of color. That is of course unless its a really formal environment (e.g. bank) of thing where bright colors should be muted.

On the other hand, society tends to feminize products by "shrinking and pinking," and I know several women in technology that are offended by that.