You Get What You Incentivise

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It’s about 18 months since my friend Tracy wrote this post pointing out that whilst the tech industry evangelises data for decision making, there is very little available when it comes to diversity numbers. And about 12 months since we started seeing companies release their numbers. Helped along by radical shareholder action from Jesse Jackson Sr.

This is progress, right? These things didn’t used to be discussed even internally, which is ridiculous because if you’re a woman on a team with more men named “Dave” than women, it’s the kind of thing you notice. Just because you don’t know the global, or local, percentage, doesn’t mean you don’t have a good idea of what is going on.

These are good developments, but at this point perhaps it’s worth stepping back and considering – how far have we come, actually?

Firstly, there is no consistent definition of what “engineering roles” means. My understanding is that it ranges from a narrow definition of ENG/UX/PM, through to a “everyone who reports into an engineering cost centre”. The numbers vary accordingly, but not everyone knows this – I’ve spoken to women who were comparing numbers at companies as part of their decision to take a job (or not) thinking that it was a different of percentages… when it was actually mostly a difference of definitions.

Secondly, if we’re going to blame the pipeline of women and minorities with CS and related degrees, and by “we” I mean “tech companies disclaiming responsibility for the culture they have created” it makes sense to tie the numbers to roles where a CS degree might actually be a benefit.

It’s not like there isn’t precedent for this – the ABI Top Company for Women awards use a standard definition for technical roles. Companies who have participated in this have that data. They have just chosen to release other – better looking – data instead.

As with all processes and incentives, you get what you incentivise. What concerns me is what is what is incentivised in this scenario: padding the definition of “engineering role” to make the numbers appear better, and focus on hiring “diverse” new grads.

What would we want to incentivise? Perhaps:

  • Hiring under-represented groups at every level.
  • Paying them equitably.
  • Building a culture where everyone is allowed to succeed:
    • Where they have equal opportunity to do equal work.
    • Where promotions aren’t delayed by gendered or racial feedback and expectations (hello, lawsuits).

What I would love to see is firstly a standard definition of what “engineering role” means.

The second, more revolutionary thing that I would like to see, is companies reporting not just the percentage of minority groups but the percentage of compensation going to minority groups (e.g. as determined via a standard measure, like taxation).

This removes the incentive to pad out “engineering” with less prestigious, and less well paid roles to make the numbers look better.

It makes hiring more senior people from under-represented groups, and paying those people equitably more important.

And for people looking at these numbers when evaluating companies, it would be a helpful metric. For myself, I’d prefer a company with 15% women in “engineering” roles receiving 13% of “engineering” compensation than one with 18% women in “engineering” roles receiving 12% of compensation. We know there is going to be a gap – women are better represented at lower levels. But the size of, and comparison of that gap would be very telling.

As in all things when it comes to diversity in the tech industry, we know that the data on people of color is even worse, and there is a racial pay gap as well as a gender one, generally.

I suspect we’ll never see this data. Because yeah we saw some progress, but we saw a lot more PR.

2 thoughts on “You Get What You Incentivise

  1. I can’t understand how who’s an engineer is ambiguous; if you write code that goes into production, you are an engineer. (or devops, but they know who they are)

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