Home > data science, rant > Wage Gaps Don’t Magically Get Smaller Because Big Data

Wage Gaps Don’t Magically Get Smaller Because Big Data

December 19, 2014

Today, just a rant. Sorry. I mean, I’m not a perfect person either, and of course that’s glaringly obvious, but this fluff piece from Wired, written by Pam Wikham of Raytheon, is just aggravating.

The title is Big Data, Smaller Wage Gap? and, you know, it almost gives us the impression that she has a plan to close the wage gap using big data, or alternatively an argument that the wage gap will automatically close with the advent of big data techniques. It turns out to be the former, but not really.

After complaining about the wage gap for women in general, and after we get to know how much she loves her young niece, here’s the heart of the plan (emphasis mine, on the actual plan parts of the plan):

Analytics and microtargeting aren’t just for retailers and politicians — they can help us grow the ranks of executive women and close the gender wage gap. Employers analyze who clicked on internal job postings, and we can pursue qualified women who looked but never applied. We can go beyond analyzing the salary and rank histories of women who have left our companies. We can use big data analytics to tell us what exit interviews don’t.

Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and LinkedIn groups provide a trove of valuable intel from ex-employees. What they write is blunt, candid and useful. All the data is there for the taking — we just have to collect it and figure out what it means. We can delve deep into whether we’re promoting the best people, whether we’re doing enough to keep our ranks diverse, whether potential female leaders are being left behind and, importantly, why.

That’s about it, after that she goes back to her niece.

Here’s the thing, I’m not saying it’s not an important topic, but that plan doesn’t seem worthy of the title of the piece. It’s super vague and fluffy and meaningless. I guess, if I had to give it meaning, it would be that she’s proposing to understand internal corporate sexism using data, rather than assuming “data is objective” and that all models will make things better. And that’s one tiny step, but it’s not much. It’s really not enough.

Here’s an idea, and it kind of uses big data, or at least small data, so we might be able to sell it. Ask people in your corporate structure what the actual characteristics are of people they promote, and how they are measured, or if they are measured, and look at the data to see if what they say is consistent with what they do, and whether those characteristics are inherently sexist. It’s a very specific plan and no fancy mathematical techniques are necessary, but we don’t have to tell anyone that.

What combats sexism is a clarification and transparent description of job requirements and a willingness to follow through. Look at blind orchestra auditions for a success story there. By contrast, my experience with the corporate world is that, when hiring or promoting, they often list a long series of unmeasurable but critical properties like “good cultural fit” and “leadership qualities” that, for whatever reason, more men are rated high on than women.

Categories: data science, rant
  1. December 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

    It looks like Big Dada is becoming the latest avatar of the Invisible Hand.


  2. December 19, 2014 at 10:23 am

    “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

    I think that old yarn typifies the current state of ‘big data’ and ‘analytics’ … it remains, for now, a primitive, conjectural area with claims and promises that are a long way from fulfillment.


  3. cat
    December 19, 2014 at 11:16 am

    “a long series of unmeasurable but critical properties like “good cultural fit” and “leadership qualities” that, for whatever reason, more men are rated high on than women.”

    I think we all know what that ‘reason’ is. Whenever I hear “isn’t a good cultural fit” from a coworker about a candidate or another coworker I know to disregard their opinion.


  4. December 19, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Mostly on topic: Vi Hart’s and Nicky Case’s Parable of the Polygons is, for me, a pretty effective demonstration that small or historical bias can have important, persistent aggregate effects.

    What do you think of the effort currently being made by the tech industry to get more women into STEM (particularly coding)? I’m thinking of Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It, Made with Code, etc.


  5. Auros
    December 19, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    I actually find some of what she’s suggesting to be slightly creepy. I mean, I guess as long as people have control over opting in or out of revealing their “Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and LinkedIn groups” to their employers, maybe it’s fine, and maybe companies really will be able to use that to look for good candidates for promotion who aren’t tooting their own horns enough…


  6. January 8, 2015 at 10:12 am

    So Raytheon apparently has a serious cultural problem one that is antagonistic and unfriendly to women engineers. As in many engineering organizations, the HR person is then given a “problem to solve.” Changing men’s attitudes, changing the culture, is not something she can do. So she decides to use a “modern tool,” as if that would solve the fundamental problem. Well, as we can all surmise, it won’t. All it will do is gather more ammunition as to why Female Engineer X is “not a good fit.” And the culture will just go on.


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