Tech goes to university

—Alison T. Wynn and Shelley J. Correll—

A typical recruiting session (a composite of many observed)

You walk into the room and you’re immediately greeted by a bubbly female recruiter. ‘Welcome!’ she says enthusiastically. ‘Please sign in and take a raffle ticket. We’ll be auctioning off an iPad! And there’s plenty of food in the back!’

At the front of the room, a man is preparing his notes and setting up the projector screen. (Perhaps there are two men, or a whole cluster.) These are the engineers, the content presenters.

A few minutes pass, and the female recruiter asks the presenter, ‘Should we go ahead and get started?’ The man nods his approval.

He kicks off the presentation by introducing himself. (He rarely introduces the female recruiter.) Then he asks the audience questions about their background. ‘How many of you are CS majors? Double E? What else?’ The students murmur their answers.

After these questions, he briefly quizzes the audience about their company knowledge. ‘How many of you have heard of [insert company name here]? What are some of our products you’ve heard of?’ A student or two (usually men) shout out some answers.

The presenter begins the formal presentation by explaining what the company does at a high level. The slides almost certainly contain some geek culture references – Star Trek is a popular choice – and likely contain pictures of stereotypically masculine men to represent workers in the company. Then the presenter launches into a discussion so brutally technical that the students glaze over; you can see many of them on their computers or whispering to one another, and sometimes they leave the session early. The diagrams on the slides have arrows pointing in confusing directions, the text is too small to read, and the speech is full of jargon.

If the company sends a female engineer, often she has no speaking role at all. If she does speak, her segment centers on ‘company culture’ or the company’s vision. Other women recruiters are in charge of handing out swag and other materials, or managing logistics. The ‘hard-core’ technical material belongs to the male presenters.

In the company culture segment, the presenter mentions the ‘fun’ work environment, with a plethora of ‘perks’, such as free meals and haircuts, which mean employees never need to leave the office. Entertainment might include foosball tables, beer fridges, and other elements of fraternity culture. Sleep is a low priority, mentioned as a point of pride.

Then the main male presenter opens the floor for a Q&A segment. Only male students ask questions. The conversation becomes a chest-beating competition – who can ask the most technical question that stumps the presenter? Meanwhile, the few female students remaining in the room stay silent.

The leaky pipeline leading to tech jobs

Past research has convincingly established that gender stereotypes, geek culture references, excessive technical complexity, and lack of female representation systematically decrease women’s interest in pursuing tech careers.

So, what happens when women with STEM degrees encounter actual firms interested in hiring them? With the help of three undergraduate research assistants, we attended a total of 84 recruiting information sessions hosted by technology companies at a US West Coast university known for its large concentration of engineering and computer science majors. Our goal was to observe whether, and the extent to which these sessions paint an image of tech work as ‘chilly’ to women.

Through their presentations, interactional styles, and the images they project, recruiting companies convey a gendered sense of who will fit best in their company culture. By emphasizing geeky masculinity, they risk appealing only to a narrow range of men and virtually no women. Smaller companies, in particular, compound this problem through the use of gendered swag, frequent references to geeky movies and TV-shows, and masculine cultural icons. The result is an environment that often feels like a fraternity house.

The study is reported on and analyzed more fully in:

Wynn AT and Correll SJ (2018) Puncturing the pipeline: Do technology companies alienate women in recruiting sessions? Social Studies of Science 48(1): 149-164. doi: 10.1177/0306312718756766