Closing tech’s gender gap

Q and A with Stacey Epstein

Stacey Epstein is familiar with all the sobering statistics today about the gender gap in technology: 70% of U.S. startups have no women on their boards, and more than half have no women in executive roles, according to research from Silicon Valley Bank.

Their salary offers are lower than those of male counterparts 63% of the time, for the same jobs at the same companies, found. And their exit rate from tech jobs is more than twice as high as it is for men, according to the National Center for Women & Technology.

Epstein runs Zinc, an enterprise communications platform for remote workers. In previous roles she served as CMO of field‑service startup ServiceMax before its acquisition by GE, and as CMO of SuccessFactors before its acquisition by SAP in 2010.

In a recent conversation with Workflow, Epstein was bullish on the future of work, the outlook for women in the workforce, and the potential of AI to advance both causes

Do you think AI can reduce some of the gender bias that afflicts the tech sector?

I’m hopeful it will. Remember that bots are just robots and don’t have personalities. That means unless they are programmed with a bias, intentionally or not, they don’t bring one to their tasks. As we start to rely on bots for some of the processes where a human in the role would come with a bias, AI can help eliminate that.

Take Mya, for example. It’s an AI bot that will take hundreds of thousands of applicants and run them through the initial stages of the hiring process. The bots analyze resumes and then communicate with those it deems qualified to set up job interviews.

In this case, an AI bot handles phases of the process where a human in that job might have an unconscious bias: “Well, this must be a woman if it’s Jane.” Or, “This person named Krishna is Indian.” So, at the very top of the funnel of the hiring process, applicants advance purely based on their skill sets. It’s a huge first step in eliminating bias in a big aspect of business.

What about pay equity, something you’ve written about. Do you see AI intervening there?

I feel like we don’t need anything as sophisticated as AI to understand we have a pay gap between men and women and we just need to fix it. If companies locked in salary bands for roles, and if everybody agreed and said, “We’re not going make up titles, we’re going to have every title associated with a certain salary, and you don’t get to type in the salary amount as a hiring manager,” that would help a lot.

Fixing the salary gap should really be easier than having to lean on AI.

How have you wrestled with these issues as a CEO?

I had an interesting experience recently where an engineering manager came to me and said, “Hey, one of our (male) engineers is coming up on his one‑year with the company and is pushing for a raise.”

My immediate response was that he is a strong performer and we certainly want to pay him for the job he’s doing, but I don’t want to give him a raise in isolation just because he spoke up and asked.

So I asked for a report of all my engineers to look at tenure and see who was performing exceptionally. I discovered that salaries for the same role were all over the place, and I knew why. Most of the time, it’s the deft negotiator or the squeaky wheel who gets the pay. That’s not typically a woman.

Men are simply more adept at it and more inclined to negotiate. That’s where women get behind. Let’s say I’m a hiring manager and I’ve tried to keep my budget to a certain number, and if you take what I offer you I’m going have you sign on the dotted line. But if you negotiate with me, I’ll probably give you a little more.

That, right there, is sometimes the only reason there’s a pay gap—it’s not anybody doing anything wrong, it’s the fact that often a man asked and a woman didn’t.

How did you fix it?

I told my head of finance I want all the people with the same title to make the same amount, and I don’t want anybody getting a pay decrease. So we brought everybody up to the same level.

The next time somebody says, “Hey, I want a raise,” I’m going to say, “Okay, is it time to give everybody a raise for that salary band?” Or, “Does that person need a promotion to a different title because they’re performing that much better or doing more senior work?”

How important to you think it is that women participate in the creation of AI systems and applications? How do you propose we make it happen?

I don’t view it any differently than any other traditionally gender‑dominated field. Diversity of thoughts, opinions, background, experience, and skill bring better results. The more we encourage women to participate in STEM and the creation of cutting‑edge technologies, the better the industry will be for all.

While we’re at it, let’s encourage more men to become teachers and stay‑at‑home parents. Diversity is important everywhere.

How do you compare the career outlook of a woman just entering the tech workforce with when you were starting out?

I definitely notice a difference, mostly in women today. It’s a different world now, and girls are being raised differently. Girls can pretty much do what they want and are being raised by parents who were the last generation where girls weren’t allowed to do stuff.

The thought that a girl could be a CEO used to be a pipe dream. I remember my grandfather used to say, “She’s going be president of the United States,” and everyone would laugh. But it’s not a joke now, right? Women are being raised differently and they’re being told they can do things and they’re going to coding boot camps and they’re playing all the same sports. They’re encouraged to do math and become engineers, and there’s rarely an implied, “You can’t do that because you’re a girl.”

When these women come into the workforce, they feel entitled to all the same things that men have. They feel entitled to have a seat at the table, to speak up in a meeting, or to go for that big next job. They don’t feel like they should be held back from anything, simply because they’re female.

It makes for a good dynamic, where the younger workforce is much more equal in terms of what they can do, what they want to do, how ambitious they are, and what roles they think they can achieve. In my generation, if you simply stayed in the workforce and moved up anywhere close to the top, you’re a rare animal.

Nobody is telling my daughters that only men are CEOs, and that’s a great first step.