Home > math education, rant, women in math > Google’s promotion policy sucks for women

Google’s promotion policy sucks for women

May 18, 2012

I’m going to start this post with an excerpt from a comment of reader JoanDelilah from a couple of weeks ago, commenting on my post The meritocracy myth:

And at the end of the day, this also assumes that it is right and proper for a structure to be in place which requires you to *grab* tough/interesting work to prove yourself, as opposed to it being given to you. There is competition inherent in the foundational world-view behind that statement. Why so much competition? We are supposed to be on the same team and competing with other businesses, right? What about the woman who is happy to crush any assignment she is given but simply doesn’t want to have to compete for the assignments that will “prove” her abilities? Why must she step so far out of her comfort zone just in order for the company that pays her to make use of the talents they are paying her to use?

This really nails down what I see all the time with respect to women getting promoted or even just getting recognized for their achievements.

To paraphrase it, women tend not to compete for recognition as much as men, for whatever reason. Maybe they’ve been socialized not to, maybe it is a simple question of testosterone. I will go into why I think this happens below. But for now let me just say I get super pissed when a system has been set up to diminish the success of people simply because of this personality issue.

Google is one such system. At Google, one must self-promote. I believe the rule is that, after two quarters or so of getting good reviews, you are eligible to self-promote, but you don’t have to.

And guess what? That policy sucks for women. Women don’t do it as often. I’ll bet this is statistically significant, even though I don’t have the numbers. Hey Google, do the math on this policy! And then change it!

Here’s the first part of my theory of why this happens. Women are not as secure in their accomplishments. By the way, note I am not saying women are insecure and men are secure. I think it’s more like men are over-secure and women are realistic, kind of like those studies that shows that depressed people are realists and non-depressed people are optimists. I definitely have seen men who actually think they (individually) accomplished something which clearly took a team effort. Women are less likely to “forget” the help they received in making something happen. See this amazing blog rant on the subject from a professor at NYU.

Here’s the second part. Women tend to choose mentors (i.e. bosses or advisors) that are brilliant, thoughtful, and approachable. Typically this also means that those mentors are not the kind of bullying personalities that are best suited to promote their team. Even when one doesn’t have a choice in who your boss is, I claim this approach to pairing still happens in a business when that business decides who should be the boss of a woman.

Example in pure math: Yau at Harvard is famously dynasty-building with his students, but he’s probably not someone who has a tissue box in his office (to be fair I haven’t checked). I didn’t even consider taking Yau as my advisor, in part because he was super intimidating and seemed to challenge grad students with a ring of fire.

The reward for being brave in a situation like that are that he is fiercely loyal to his students once he accepts them, and helps them get great jobs. My point is that fewer women choose Yau-like personalities as their advisor (although it has to be said that Yau has had women students, including Columbia’s Melissa Liu). And thus fewer women end up with advisors that will land them jobs and give them good advice on how to get ahead. I just don’t think women are thinking about that aspect of a mentor the way men do (it’s also possible than men don’t think about it either but are less likely to shy away from rings of fire in general due to their “optimistic” egos).

I am not saying this is an easy problem to fix, because it’s not, and the best self-promoters will always do well no matter where they work. But I do think Google can do better than this; maybe they could think of something a bit more double-blind like the orchestra auditions.

  1. May 18, 2012 at 7:40 am

    “Mentors”… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I thought they phased out that concept! For most of us, anyway. (Certainly the supply has nearly dried up, but not the demand.)


  2. Richard
    May 18, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Hi Cathy, I like your blog a lot, but I have one issue – according to your use of the word, I am a woman. This would surprise most people who know me, since I’ve never shown any signs of being anything other than male.

    I’m not competitive with other people, even though I’m personally highly motivated. I don’t brag about my achievements, and I certainly don’t claim credit when it’s not due. I probably have slightly below average self-esteem, and really have to make an effort to appear confident and assured to other people. These are all qualities that you routinely ascribe to women.

    In spite of this, I really don’t think I’m that unusual. Most of my male and female friends broadly fit the profile above. There may be a selection bias in this of course (I like to be around people who are like me), or it may be a cultural difference between my country and America.

    But even if your characterisation were true of the ‘average’ woman, versus the ‘average’ man (which it probably is), I strongly believe that the characterisation of certain personality traits as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is possibly insulting, but certainly unhelpful.

    Alright, that’s my rant done with. As I said, I like your blog, and I’ve actually used some of your ‘advice for women’ in the past and found it helpful!

    (P.S. apologies if this is a double post)


    • May 18, 2012 at 11:20 am

      Totally agreed. Still think the rant needs to be made.


    • May 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm

      Self-promoters are a small fraction of the population but they are predominately male. No group is more frustrated with alpha male behavior than the omega males. Teen omegas wonder: Why do Alphas get all the girls? They ask. Why are so many girls taken by their bullshit? Omegas never really figure this out.

      Oddly, alpha behavior seems context dependent – it’s not entirely a personality characteristic. Some omega teens can turn into alpha adults if they find the right environment. Academia is full of these folks. In fact, academia requires as much self promotion as anywhere for success.


  3. Anonymous
    May 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

    I think framing the argument as “this practice sucks for women” hurts the argument.

    Even if women are less assertive than men, I’d still venture to say its not near a complete correlation in that the statistic might show (if you could make such a thing quantitative) something like that 25% of men are less assertive than 75% of women. I can imagine situations where assertiveness may be an asset (I can also imagine situations where assertiveness may hurt). I think the conversation regarding an “assertiveness biased” promotion system, should be based around if it is reasonable to make assertiveness an evaluation criteria.

    Similarly, in academia we often here the claim “the tenure system sucks for women.” That may be true, but the tenure system also sucks for men who want to start and be involved in a family before tenure as well. I certainly know men who have left academia because of this. Similarly, I have also seen claims like `people at company/university X are rude and mean and this puts off women.’ Well this puts off men too (just maybe a slightly lower rate)! No one likes dealing with rude and mean people. If a company has a rude or mean person, I don’t think the mindset should be “lets fire person X because they are making women uncomfortable at a rate higher than they are making men uncomfortable”, the mindset should be “lets fire person X because no one enjoys working with a jerk”.

    There certainly are going to be jobs where having trait X (that correlates with a particular gender) is an asset. In these cases, it should be fair for businesses to base promotion decisions around its businesses interests. In cases where promotion decisions are based around traits that don’t have a business purpose, the discussion should be just that.


  4. mmmmbacon
    May 18, 2012 at 10:28 am

    To the extent that someone’s ability and willingness to self-promote benefit the team as well as the individual, I see nothing wrong with encouraging folks to promote themselves and their work.

    To the extent that self-promotion crosses the line to narcissism and undermines the team’s effectiveness, it should be restrained.

    The difference between the two is a question of emotional health within individuals… not sure how you could systemically address that issue without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


  5. michaelkleber
    May 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Regarding Google specifically, you’re somewhat mistaken on the facts, and you’d lose your bet.

    First, it is true that, as part of the annual performance review cycle, anyone has the option of checking the box that says “Please consider me for promotion.” But your manager can also check that box for you, and indeed managers have a substantial obligation to nominate people for promotion who look like they would be likely to be promoted but who did not self-nominate (regardless of gender).

    Second, we do collect and disseminate those numbers internally. (This comes from SVP Alan Eustace, who worked closely with Anita Borg on exactly this question earlier in his career.) And eligible women at almost all levels self-nominate for promotion at the same level as men.

    What I thought you were going to complain about is something different. Promotions, and performance evaluation more generally, is primarily driven on reviews that you get from your peers. That means that there definitely is an advantage for people who are better at getting other people to hear about their accomplishments. Of course your manager knows what you’ve done no matter how good you are at telling the rest of the world, but you’re certainly more likely to be promoted if your reputation is more widespread, if high-level people further removed from you have good things to say about your work.

    I don’t know of any internal data on men vs. women getting peer reviews from people outside their immediate groups; that would be interesting to see.


    • May 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      i agree that “self-promotion” is just one small part of the whole system. but my story is, my manager wasn’t technical enough to know how difficult my work was. i grabbed the difficult and frustrating work which i believed was necessary for the whole team/project but no one else wanted to do (probably because they knew those tasks couldn’t shin as much in reviews lol). i didn’t feel my work was great enough for self-promote, and my manager didn’t care either because the “objective” numbers didn’t look good. my peer gave me much better reviews than my manager, but so what? it’s why i quitted.


  6. May 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks, Cathy! As with your A-Player post, I agree 10,000% It’s interesting that the woman I was having the conversation with that led in-part to my response used to work at Google…


  7. May 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    What if alphas (of any sex) are more economically productive, in themselves or in their ability to draw others into their projects? Should we practice resocialization for economic optimization? Testosterone injections? Or an OSTC omega safety-net tax credit?

    On the other hand, orchestra musicians work closely in teams within a team. Alpha is not always desirable or required for the most brilliant effects. One of the best orchestras doesn’t even have a conductor (Orpheus).

    In fact, alphas are often economically dangerous — not just Jamie Dimon, but I think of, say, Edison promoting himself and direct current, the inferior technology, at the expense of Tesla, the greater talent.

    There be many merits.


    • Tucker
      May 18, 2012 at 11:44 pm

      That kind of touches on my feeling. Competing with them is the answer, but if alpha’s are willing to destroy your world to make a profit, your only choice is to tie them down or find a way not to play their game. (That’s how you train dogs, btw, and the second method is far more effective and long-lasting).

      “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”

      Étienne de La Boétie

      I don’t think that means start a competing Google, but it dos mean aquiring assets enough that you can mitigate their effect on you. The alphas can only wind up with all of it if we can’t find a way to change the rules, And the rules right now say the 1% own, I mean control, the assets, and thus, opportunity..

      So Cathy teaches occupy folks how to love math, they teach others, they create research that lets them control a few inventions for the future – they don’t walk away from ionvesting in ttheir country like the current folks have. Tough shit to the 1%, Slower, but perhaps just as effective as beating their stooges in the flashlight with your head.


  8. Red
    May 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    I’ve met few women who can tread the fine line between being suitably aggressive for promotion while maintaining that revered of female traits “to be self-effacing.” So while there may be both men and women who suffer by failing to strut, women who do opt to compete are more likely than men to be attacked for it rather than rewarded.

    Being pushy isn’t endearing and women need to be likable. We cut more slack to male leaders who are alpha assholes.


  9. AlsoAnonymous
    May 19, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I also agree that the framing in this post is not entirely helpful. I agree with most of the points made, but I suspect that it is only a minority of men who like to compete for recognition and are into self-promotion. I think such policies affect both men and women in unhealthy ways. I have personally been told (I am a man) after an interview for a tenure-track position, that I did not appear to be sufficiently confident because I did not choose to self-promote or be assertive in discussing my work and ideas.


    • May 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      A relatively high alpha to omega ratio helps create the dysfunctional environments (refusal to work together, follow leaders, ….) that plague many academic departments. If you build an organization with high alpha content, it will need to be managed in a non-traditional way, otherwise it will turn into academia. Maybe Google and some of the tech start-ups have found ways to manage such groups – some have essentially eliminated traditional management. Successful alpha management may exist in academia but I’ve just not seen it.

      I’m not sure the alpha-heavy or omega-heavy groups will be successful in the end. There is a symbiotic relationship between alphas and omegas that is probably necessary for an organization to thrive. Even if Google and other tech start-ups have found ways to build successful alpha-heavy organizations, what will happen to the omega-heavy rest of the world? If alphas congregate in their own organizations, how will the remaining omega-heavy organizations be managed to succeed?


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