Workplace Bias and User Research at Grace Hopper Celebration 2016

December 7, 2016

GHC LinkedIn Booth Crowd

Coauthors: Elysa Stein, Julie Norvaisas

“Oh, I can tell you stories! Age and gender bias. Sexual harassment is still so common. We’ve come a long way but still have work to do.” – Senior female leader at a nonprofit

Several weeks ago, a group of LinkedIn’s User Experience Design and Research team had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). We took advantage of the event to gather product feedback from conference attendees, learn about issues of workplace bias, and collect general feedback about LinkedIn from this audience.

What we found surprised us, and may surprise you as well. Our findings indicate that workplace bias is alive and well, with nearly all of the professionals we spoke to having experienced it in some form. According to this post by Caroline Fairchild, “white male VCs and founders remain unaware of sexism and racism within the tech industry.” However, this kind of sentiment stands in stark contrast to the findings of our qualitative research with women in the tech industry.

The approach

We conducted “intercepts,” which meant we recruited people for our research by asking them to answer some questions in a one-on-one setting between sessions at the conference. In two days, we met with 25 women in technology from around the world. Our interview participants ranged in professional development from entry-level to senior leadership at their organizations. Questions asked ranged from their specific experiences using LinkedIn to broad questions about their experiences with bias in the workplace.

User researchers leverage interviewing best practices that work to establish a rapport with and encourage participants to open up and share personal stories about themselves. In turn, these stories help us better understand their context and motivations for interacting with various products. Typically, it takes quite a while to get deep into these topics with participants. But in these intercepts, we were surprised at how quickly people opened up. GHC was a safe space where these topics were top of mind for women—they felt comfortable sharing their experiences. As a result, these conversations were very frank, surprisingly candid, and resulted in findings that are worth sharing.

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Workplace bias is more common than you might think. According to the The National Women’s Law Center, almost half of all working women have experienced some form of harassment on the job—a proportion that has not changed since the issue first gained visibility in the early 1980s.

Nearly every woman we interviewed had experienced overt workplace bias or harassment to some degree—even at the most progressive companies in Silicon Valley. We heard stories that ranged from slightly inappropriate comments to appalling incidents that shocked us. The topics brought up by attendees ranged from race and age discrimination to unequal pay to sexual harassment. Many of the women viewed these upsetting comments and put-downs as “ignorant,” but that didn’t prevent them from feeling disrespected. Those who experienced prejudice and harassment experienced it in all types and sizes of organizations, including Fortune 500 and top Silicon Valley tech companies.

When asked, “Have you ever experienced anything professionally, positive or negative, related to your background, gender, age, or race?” responses included:

  • "Hahaha, of course. You should hear the stuff that just gets blurted out. Comments about women needed at home to have babies, comments about women being too emotional...I need to be the nasty old woman in the office and I don’t care.” – Senior director at a top publisher

  • “[I’ve experienced] all of the above. I’m aging out of tech. My workplace, average age is 28. I’m considering transitioning into college counseling. I work in a core engineering group and there is a boys’ club, it’s all buddy-buddy. But if I’m loud, I’m the angry black chick and being too assertive for them. I’m debating whether to talk to my manager, but he’s fallen into it.”  – 45+ African American woman at Silicon Valley tech company

One particularly memorable story, and perhaps the most extreme of all of the feedback we received, came from a woman who works for a well-known Fortune 500 company—a common household brand in the US. She shared that a friend of hers who had also worked at this company was sexually harassed by a senior-level person at the organization about ten years ago. The friend and her colleague went to Human Resources to report the incident. While the accused faced very few consequences, the friend’s reputation was tarnished because she chose to speak up. Many years later, she applied to join a different team at the company, but people still recounted the story and ultimately it had a negative impact on her opportunity there. While others questioned the legitimacy of her friend’s story, the woman who shared it with me believed her because she too had been harassed by the same man. She felt she was not safe to report the harassment, because she isn’t a US citizen and was afraid of deportation. She told me, “What I’ve experienced at work would have been illegal outside of the corporation. I would have called the police, but at work, you can’t.” She felt frustrated that HR prioritized protecting the organization and not the individuals.

She isn’t alone. Very few harassed women, only 5-15%, formally report problems of harassment to their employers or fair employment agencies, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

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The original intention of this project was to gather feedback about LinkedIn and understand how GHC attendees specifically feel when using our platform, but the conversations evolved into much more. Inviting this type of feedback from diverse groups of members helps us eliminate unintentional biases and design a platform that is welcoming for all. Our team typically shares findings and stories like this with the product team to build empathy for LinkedIn members and give us an opportunity to to brainstorm solutions to improve their experience. We felt these stories were compelling enough to share externally.

Throughout these conversations, participants suggested that LinkedIn can be a valuable part of the solution of addressing bias in the workplace, by providing an appropriate platform to to encourage productive conversation, foster equality, and positively impact the issues many women face in today’s professional world. This is an honor and we take it very seriously.

In these short intercepts, we received insight into a broad challenge facing women in many industries around the world—but particularly those in tech. The reality is, workplace bias doesn’t have a simple solution, but there are resources available, such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website and Catalyst, where you can learn more about inclusion and harassment in the workplace. We also need to look no further than the Anita Borg Institute, which founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, for resources that benefit both technology companies and the women who work for them.  

We will only find solutions to combating gender bias in the workplace by first acknowledging that these challenges still exist, and then engaging in these important conversations to truly drive impact in our industry.


This blog post is based on qualitative research conducted by Sarah Aquino, Elysa Stein, Kassie Chaney, and Efrat Orkin.