Mark Bregman, senior vice-president and chief technical officer of NetApp Inc., is just three months into his role and is keen to drive diversity—simply because he wants more innovation from his team. To increase the number of women in his 12,000-strong workforce, he is taking steps to get rid of unconscious biases that hinder the progress of women at the workplace. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is the biggest challenge women face when it comes to being hired or promoted?

Usually, women don’t come across in a way that makes them look successful when you are looking at both hiring and promotions. So one of the things we are just starting is working with our managers to educate them so that they’re sensitive to this aspect.

When they’re interviewing a woman candidate and a male candidate, they’re not comparing them exactly, as a woman is likely to be less boastful, and a man more so, so we have to compensate.

Also, in a situation where you have some women candidates to be interviewed, you have to interview them in person. In my experience, very often, a woman, on paper, is very modest. But when you actually interview them, you can get a better sense and they stand a better chance of getting hired.

So we can’t just reject them based on what it says on paper. We have to create some kind of level playing field to even out the discrepancy in the way people represent themselves.

When did you start noticing the differences in the way men and women work?

There’s a very big focus in Silicon Valley on something that’s called the ‘brogrammer culture’. It’s real and I learned this years and years ago.

In another company I had two VPs reporting to me, a man who had all the hardware developers and a woman who had all the software developers. Every six months when we had a new product cycle, several weeks before the launch schedule, there would be some major crisis with the hardware development and they would come to me and say we found a defect we have to go redo and make some changes.

And all the male engineers, they would live in their office for two weeks—they would never go home, they would never shower, they would eat pizza, they thought it was fantastic and at the end they would solve the problem and then we gave them awards because they were heroes, they solved the problem... and this went on for about a year or two.

At the end of a regular meeting with the VP on the software side, she said: “By the way, it was very good that we gave Bill’s team all the awards because they really worked round the clock and they saved the project. It was great, but if you ever notice, my team goes home at 5pm, they don’t work on weekends and we deliver everything on time. So which is better?"

This incident reinforced for me this cultural problem in engineering. So it’s not that it’s a bias but it actually makes it even more uncomfortable for women. So we have to solve those problems.

Do you think there is a pay gap in the industry?

Well, there is a pay gap in the tech industry and I think in some companies it’s better than the others. There are two kinds of pay gap. The one that is the most annoying is when you have two people doing the same job and the woman is paid less.

There’s also a hidden pay gap and this is caused by promotions where a woman may not have gotten to the same level because they’re less aggressive and this is harder to understand and analyse.

In our company, pay is set by your job role and your job level. But if you’re not getting promoted very quickly because you’re modest, then that’s a problem. And we are reviewing to see if we have this problem. We have commissioned a survey to look at this.

How can you eliminate the hidden pay gap?

A group of us has committed to what’s called an unconscious bias training not only for managers but across the organization because there are a lot of things people do unconsciously and that creates an uneven playing field, not only with promotions but even in the work environment. So we want to make men aware of that. So we’re trying to make recruiting and promotions better, we’re trying to create a balanced work environment so we don’t have those unconscious biases.

Besides that, how are you making sure women progress?

I’m just starting to look at how we can be much more proactive in helping women grow their career, get promoted, and grow their representation in more senior levels.

There’s been a lot of focus on mentorship but there’s another factor, which is even more important—that’s sponsorship. That is, having senior people who are willing to take on and become sponsors for a high-performing young female engineer to make sure that they’re getting the exposure, the visibility, the experience and the opportunities that help build their career.

On the other hand do you think you run the risk of creating an atmosphere of positive discrimination?

Positive discrimination is a risk but that’s why I don’t want to create a kind of a quota system where I might tell my managers to increase the number of women as they might compromise just to fill a quota and it might force you to lower your standards and in turn backfire.

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