Men and women’s brains are wired differently…Really?


Looking at the website of Women in the City, an organisation that promotes women in financial professions, I was surprised to read about their latest venture, Project Diamond. In their own words, Project Diamond, launched in Google’s offices, is designed to explain the differences between male and female approaches to business. The handbook which they launched for the occasion explains “the science behind the theory of why the way male and female brains are wired makes for differences in behaviours (we’re just different)” (quote taken from the Women in the City website; emphasis added).

Whilst I can understand that it suits Women in the City to perpetuate the myth that men and women are wired differently, I am amazed that an organisation like Google supports this philosophy!

So I thought it would be useful to outline our philosophy and approach to women in the workplace and women in technical professions:

  • We do not believe that women and men are fundamentally different in their brain. They are not “wired differently”, women are not by definition left-brain oriented, nor or men automatically right-brain oriented. We feel that such stereotypical thinking is not helpful, and damages women’s opportunities.
  • We do however firmly believe that through generations of cultural stereotyping, both men and women tend to have an unconscious bias against women’s ability for STEM subjects, and against women in senior positions in the workplace. People can “suffer” from unconscious bias in various degrees, and in some cases not at all. Women themselves can make choices and judgements based on their own unconscious bias, which can lead to a lack of confidence in one’s own ability, a preference to leave the workplace and conform to the stereotypical role model, or in some cases even bullying against other women.
  • We do believe that women can overcome their bias and become more confident in their own ability through coaching, mentoring and training. We also believe that women’s networks can lead to increased performance.
  • Yet we don’t believe in segregation. We don’t believe that mentoring for women by women, conferences for women by women and the like are the solution to greater gender equality. We need to get the balance right between supporting women and educating men. The debate needs to be open to both genders.
  • We do believe in choice. Not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder; some men and women will genuinely prefer to work part time, not at all, or in roles below their ability. We do believe though that if given real choice, more women would take the chance to develop fulfilling careers.
  • We do not like linking the debate about women in the workplace to flexible work, life/work balance etc. We believe that the debate around a more flexible approach to working hours is for everyone, men and women alike. When we live in a truly equal society every household should be able to make their own individual choices about career, working hours and balance. In some instances men will work flexible hours, sometimes women, often both. We need to promote a culture which supports choice regardless of gender, or we will continue to be stereotyped.

 I don’t expect everyone to agree with our approach to gender equality. We challenge our own thinking constantly and would love you do to the same!

It’s Wimbledon: Strawberries & Cream & Equality for Women Players

Strawberries & Cream
Six years ago, Wimbledon, as the last of the Grand Slam tournaments, granted equal pay to women players. A little late, perhaps, but with that decision Wimbledon finally entered the 21st Century where men and women are equal.

And yet, there are still some commentators who question the rightness of that decision. They ignore the fact that prize money covers a player’s expenses. Women pay the same for their coaches and support network, they train just as hard and the materials are just as expensive, hotels are not cheaper for the female sex…

Instead, they highlight the fact that women only play the best of three sets, versus five sets for the men. Women work less hard for the money, and should therefore earn less. Women players do not choose to play fewer sets. A lot of players have publicly spoken out that they are ready to play five sets. I am not an expert on women’s physiology, but I doubt that women would fatally injure themselves or jeopardise their health if they were to play five sets. It has been done before, and they all survived!

The implication however is clear: women are frail, weaker, physically not the equal of men, not as impressive as athletes and should be protected. A very Victorian concept, yet one that stubbornly survives in society. How often do we question the fact that women have access to fewer physical opportunities than men? As an example, Jessica Ennis had to compete in the heptathlon during the Olympics, with men competing in the decathlon.

These imposed sporting limitations affect our perception of women in society. Yes, we are equal in principle, sure, but women should not be doing heavy physical work. They probably should not be working on a construction site with a hard hat and boots, or be employed on a rig, on a submarine… We are not strong enough, we need protection, we are frail, and besides, dare we mention it, hard physical work is not very feminine.

Wimbledon remains committed to its Victorian ideals by repeatedly speaking out against “grunting” in women’s tennis. There has even been talk of forbidding it altogether by using “gruntometers” to measure women players’ noise levels. The official line is that it distracts the opponent. In an article in the Telegraph a few days ago, Pippa Middleton, that symbol of women’s equality, said that she prefers men’s tennis at Wimbledon because she finds the grunting too distracting and annoying. Shockingly, men grunt too. Jimmy Connors was the first player to grunt, and has been credited with inventing it. Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and others are all noisy players. But we never complain about them. Instead, we focus on women’s grunting. Do we find it distracting because it is not ladylike, not feminine?

Maybe mixed doubles could be the green shoot of equality at Wimbledon. Move the mixed doubles to Centre court, let each play to her or his strengths, complementing a teammate’s abilities. Not a bad model for the workplace, either, come to think of it.

Change what you can, accept what you can’t … or influence?

Following on from our last blog on unconscious bias, many women (not just engineers) have emailed us asking for advice. If we can’t control the unconscious bias that we face in the recruitment process or even in the daily workplace, what do we do? Do we just work harder, change our attitudes and behaviours to ensure that we get noticed, or just accept what we can’t change?

A lot of popular self help books focus on the mantras “change what you can, accept what you can’t” and “You can only change yourself, not others”. When your career is at stake, I would suggest that is pretty bad advice!

Whilst I understand that it is difficult to change others, you can certainly influence their thoughts and therefore their behaviours.

So in a nutshell: Pre-empt the bias that you face, anticipate it, and address it openly without aggression! There are many instances in the recruitment process and beyond in the workplace where people will be making assumptions about you based on your gender.  You can anticipate these assumptions and address them.

Here are some examples:

1. Applying for a role

Suppose you apply for a role that suits your skillset and experience but that is likely to attract a lot of applications. What will the process look like?  There will be a recruiter sifting through a big pile of applications to generate a longlist of candidates. That initial sifting is not as scientific and objective as we like to think. Ultimately, a person with limited time has to find the candidates that are most likely to get the job. Bias will almost certainly be at play.

If you want to stand out in the process and ensure that you get through to the next phase, follow up your application with a phone call, or an excellent cover letter that gets their attention (and doesn’t reveal your name, and therefore gender until the end of the letter!). Remember, unconscious bias is not a malicious act of discrimination, it is the bucket of stereotypical thoughts that we have been fed throughout our lives and that linger in our brains. Recruiters will have a picture in their head of the ideal candidate, and in most cases (unless you apply for a role as secretary, teacher or nurse), that image will not be female.

2. Interviewing for a role

 Every interviewer knows that they are not allowed to ask the “child-related” questions, yet every hiring manager (male or female), really wants to know the answer to these questions.

This is the internal conversation happening in their head whilst they are talking to you: “Do you have children? …Will you want to have children? …When? …Will you return to work once you have children? … Can I really afford to hire you if you might have children one day and not come back? … I probably shouldn’t, too risky! “

Address them yourself. Why not? Even if you are not entirely sure, there is nothing wrong with answering what is true for you at that very moment. If at that moment in time you genuinely have no plans to start a family any time soon, say so! If at that moment in time you are pregnant, but feel that your career is very important to you and know that you will return to work after 3 or 4 months, say so!

I can almost visibly hear our readers sigh…

Yet consider this: Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was pregnant when she got the job at Yahoo. I am fairly certain she shared that news and her plans on how she would combine her job as CEO with being a mother. In her case, that meant installing a nursery (at her own expense) next to her office, which off course I realise is not a realistic options for most of us. However, many women do return to work and continue to have successful careers. We do have options, and can combine work with a family as long as we don’t rule ourselves out too quickly.

This leads me to my last example:

3. How to share the news of your pregnancy

 Here is where the bias really hits you. Your boss will be thinking:

“Great, I guess I have to congratulate her! When is it due? Is she feeling healthy, will she start missing work, coming late… How long will she be off?… Oh yes, I can’t ask that… better start thinking about replacement… Who else can do her job?”

You might be thinking:

“I hope I am not going to miss that promotion now. I’m feeling really good and still have lots of energy. Besides, once the commute gets too much I could take the train an hour later and stay longer. The baby is due in June, and I’ll take 4 months off. I’ll be back in October when things are really busy.”

SAY IT! You will not even be considered for a promotion, pay increase or anything anymore if you don’t proactively share your thoughts on the impact of your pregnancy on your work. And that doesn’t have to mean pretending the pregnancy doesn’t impact you and you’ll go on as usual, just to share realistically how you will handle the likely impact on your work.

Many women might not agree with my ideas. At the end of the day, we had to fight for the right to not have to disclose our personal circumstances in an interview, or in the workplace.  I just believe that in this case, more disclosure might benefit us!

Gender Bias in Recruitment: our Responsibility as an Industry

My business partner and I started Sagent Recruitment a few months ago with a view to promote strong values in engineering recruitment. After many years managing recruitment businesses, we found it refreshing going back to the desk, dealing with clients and candidates on a daily basis whilst working assignments.

Whilst somethings have changed since we last worked as consultants, recruitment is still a people business, where building strong relationships with both clients and candidates will help you become successful. What has changed is the impact of technology on the daily life of a recruiter. Technology has crept in at every level of the process, making recruitment more process-driven in a drive for increased efficiency. Counterintuitively, I argue that the increased use of technology has also made our industry more prone to bias.

How is that possible? Surely, a solid, technology-driven process increases objectivity and ensures that human bias is not taken into account in the selection process. Whilst I haven’t conducted any statistically valid analysis on this issue (although it would certainly be very interesting), I would like to share my experience  based findings with you.

Many large organisations post their roles via a portal to their preferred recruitment partners, eliminating the need for multiple conversations with different agencies. The agencies will use the job description given by the customer to advertise the vacancy themselves. A lot of recruitment these days is exactly that: posting vacancies on job boards and portals, and waiting for responses to come back.

This leads me to my first finding: women don’t respond as readily to job advertisements as men. That doesn’t mean however that they are not looking for new roles. When moving away from the reactive use of job boards, and using different methods such as proactively networking amongst engineers in specific areas, we find the number of relevant women for a role is much closer to the industry percentage of women in the industry.

Through our work targeting women’s engineering networks and actively promoting the women’s cause to our clients and candidates, we can usually produce a shortlist with a much greater number of women than the industry average. So we infer that women are looking for career opportunities to the same extent as men — they just don’t respond to the ads in the same numbers.

Why is that? From my conversations with women, and reading the relevant research, I believe that the job descriptions and advertisements are written with the incumbent in mind, and use a language that doesn’t appeal to women. Many advertisements aimed at engineers are clearly (albeit unconsciously) written with men in mind, and whilst a female engineer might objectively have the necessary skill set to apply, she might very well feel that the company advertising is not the right environment for her.  The language used might be overly masculine, and therefore suggest an environment aimed at men. Research also suggests that women tend to apply only for a role when they feel that they have all the necessary skills required in the job advertisement, further decreasing the chances of female response to the advertisement.

My second finding is more worrying, however. We all have unconscious bias that we have to fight every day. When talking to engineers or assessing profiles and CVs, we make judgements about people that might not be accurate. Our judgments are biased, and in engineering this often means gender bias. As founders of an organisation which prides itself in promoting the advancement of female engineers, we are very conscious of this bias and address it regularly within the company, conducting internal workshops to ensure that we have a thorough understanding of our own bias and assumptions.

The problem of unconscious bias is backed up by extensive research. Consider this experiment:

Researchers made up applications in which one of the two strongest candidates had better educational qualifications but less industry experience, while the other strong candidate had experience but a less impressive educational background. When the sex of the candidate wasn’t mentioned, 76% of male undergraduates who participated in the experiment strongly preferred the better educated candidate. Similarly, three quarters of participants preferred a better educated male candidate over a less educated female candidate with more industry experience. You would expect the participants to still favour the better educated candidate when the sexes are reversed. Yet they don’t! Only 43% of participants choose a female candidate with better education. Yet the participants were convinced they weren’t sexist. Instead, when asked to explain their choice, they changed the criteria and cited experience as more important when the better educated candidate was a man.

Real life is obviously not as simple as a laboratory controlled environment. But it is important that we are aware of our own often unconscious bias, and we should be able to address this problem with our customers to ensure that female candidates get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the last few months is that recruiters have the power to address the gender imbalance in male dominated areas such as engineering, through changing their attraction methods on the one hand, and addressing their own and their customers’ gender bias on the other hand.  It is not the quickest way to recruit candidates, but as an industry we should take our wider role in society seriously and be committed to this cause.

Does sex matter?

Let’s start with an excursion in phrenology…

Phrenology was a (pseudo)science popular in the 19th century. Developed by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall, the central theme of the theory states that the different bumps on a person’s skull determines their personality. Gall developed his theory after examining thieves in prison and discovering that most of them had lumps above their ears. He claimed that a person’s moral and intellectual abilities were innate and could be determined by examining their skull. The theory led to widespread stereotyping and even formed the basis for some Nazi theories of race superiority.

With some exceptions, phrenology was widely discredited by the beginning of the 20th Century. New discoveries in science led to an increased understanding of the brain versus the shape of the skull. Research in neuroscience has also proven that intelligence is not just innate, but the brain continues to evolve throughout life.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we have an increasing body of research focusing on the innate differences between men and women. We regularly read articles in the press highlighting the scientific evidence for differences in personality traits between men and women, differences in how they view the world, process information etc. Our educators are told to understand the differences between girls and boys, so that they can focus their teaching appropriately on both genders.

I am not a scientist, and will not argue against the accuracy of all this research (although I would like to point out that many renowned scientists disagree). I do however wonder how helpful the research is to the advancement of women’s opportunities. If men and women believe that their differences in personality and learning are innate, we offer both genders an excuse to stick to the status quo. In an article I recently read, one researcher who claims that men and women are inherently different pointed out that government initiatives to attract more women into science and engineering might be pointless, as girls tend to choose careers and education that fits their personality.  In other words, girls don’t have the personality for engineering? That sounds remarkably similar to the argument that boys with lumps above their ears will be thieves.

Whether the differences between men and women are innate, driven by differences in their brain function or driven by society and culture is irrelevant in how we deal with gender equality in the 21st century. Regardless of the underlying reasons, men and women are treated differently today, and behave differently. We hear plenty of anecdotal evidence from women who were pushed into arts subjects, even though they were interested in science. We read about women who drop their science subjects at university fearing they are not good enough, even though they have better grades than their male peers. We talk to lots of female engineers who are unsure about their career and future, and don’t feel at ease in the culture of their company. Sharing from my own experiences, I will never forget a tutorial I had during my master’s degree where I was singled out for not having read the materials on the reading list. One of my fellow students only half-jokingly pointed out: “it doesn’t matter my dear, in the end you’ll make a good housewife!”

Men and women alike, we are all stereotyping every day, and it is not helpful. We talk about the need to accommodate job sharing and part time working, to attract more women who want a better work-life balance, assuming men are not nurturing, and do not want to spend time with their family. There are lots of well-meant political initiatives that reinforce stereotypical thinking about women, and do nothing to advance equality in the workplace. In the Netherlands, the desire for part time working and increased family time is shared by both genders, and many men and women work four days per week, allowing each parent to spend a day with their children. Consequently, both men and women will combine their career with their important family life, and employers cannot willingly or unwillingly treat women less favourably on the assumption that they will need more time off. It is assumed that the desire to nurture one’s family life is gender-neutral. When developing plans to attract and retain more women in areas where they are traditionally underrepresented, like science and engineering, the best starting point is to forget everything we know about the genders, and ignore all assumptions in our head about behaviour and attitude. When recognising that people value family time and might prefer to pursue careers where a life-work balance is a real option, let’s focus on all individuals who value increased time off, rather than singling out women as a “target group”. When talking about changing company cultures to attract more women, let’s focus on a company culture that welcomes a more diverse group of people instead, men and women alike.

Above all, let’s always acknowledge that everyone is different. If we really want to help women feel more comfortable in their environment and advance in their chosen field, let’s start with their real personality rather than their assumed traits.


Women Engineering Recruiters: So What?

My business partner and I set up Sagent because we are passionate about the art of recruitment. We believe that technical recruitment has become a process driven industry, where truly understanding the needs of candidates and hiring doesn’t matter anymore. We didn’t realise that we had another selling point until clients started pointing it out. “You are a women owned engineering recruitment business”, a stakeholder at a large company told us, “that is great, we really want to diversify our supply chain.”
Really? That was our selling point?

We weren’t so sure how to feel about this. Being raised in a feminist household and having always believed in the power of hard work and my skills as a good sales person, I didn’t want to win business because I am a woman. More importantly, most of our staff, candidates and clients are men, I can’t tell them that this is our selling point!
But we were wrong. Being an engineering recruitment company owned by two women does matter. Our perspective on recruitment is female; some of the values we bring to our business are typical female values. That doesn’t mean they don’t appeal to men. Our consultants joined us because they like our values. Our candidates like dealing with us because we want to understand their career motivations and drivers alongside their technical expertise. Many men value this just as much as women.

Diversifying the recruitment supply chain matters to our customers. Most engineering companies are sincere in their efforts to attract more women engineers. Not just because it looks good on the CSR agenda, but out of sheer necessity. In a market driven by candidate shortage, our clients understand that they need to appeal to everyone, and that excluding skilled candidates will limit their ability to innovate and grow.

For a long time, the drivers in our sector have been around process improvement and efficiency, automation of sourcing to increase response rates etc. Candidates experience a slick, automated recruitment process with little personal interaction with the agency or corporate recruiter. At Sagent, we passionately believe that we will be better able to serve all engineering candidates – male and female – through a more personal approach, were conversations matter and are a real part of the pre interview assessment. Women might be less active job seekers, might welcome more coaching throughout the process, might benefit from a different interview style with the hiring manager etc. We don’t believe in positive discrimination. We will not favour female applicants over male applicants. We do however believe that our recruitment process will give female engineers a better chance to get the job they deserve. And that is why diversifying the supply chain in recruitment matters for engineering companies!