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Why Job Titles Matter if You Care About Diversity

The first time I took a job at a company that didn’t really “do” job titles, I remember feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was leaving an environment where managerial power plays and career ambitions had sometimes been put before team productivity or happiness, and I felt like I had suddenly been liberated from all of the petty political angling that surrounded promotions and fights for seniority. I was suddenly free to focus on doing my best work, and as a software engineer, I felt like I was living the dream.

But after working at a handful of different companies that de-emphasize titles, I’ve realized that there are drawbacks to titleless-ness, and that those drawbacks disproportionately impact people who conform the least to the stereotypes of their role. A lack of job titles can liberate everyone to spend less time worrying about the pecking order and free up teams to evaluate ideas based on their merits rather than on the title of the person who presented them. But it can also force developers who look the least stereotypical to disproportionately spend their time and energy proving merely that they are developers and that they’re qualified to be there in the first place.

Wait, what’s the problem?

When a person doesn’t have a job title, the rest of their team is forced to make assumptions about their role and seniority from other cues, including how they’re introduced, how other team members treat them, and what they look like. For example, women software engineers who look younger and dress in a traditionally feminine style are often assumed to be junior, “less technical,” and more likely to be working in traditionally more-diverse areas like frontend development. Compounding the effect, we pick up on other employees’ perceived seniority by how other team members treat them, effectively spreading what could be a bias held by a small number of individuals to the whole team. Diverse employees are then forced to spend time individually proving their qualifications to each person on the team, rather that starting at presumed competence and working on advancement. The effect is more severe for senior employees than junior employees, because the gap between basic qualification to be in the room and senior skills is larger, and the list of required feats to prove your current level is correspondingly longer and more daunting.

To be clear, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by removing “assholes” from the workplace. We all have biases, and we’re great at recognizing patterns — it’s incredibly easy for smart, open-minded people of any gender, race, orientation, etc., to slip up and assume someone is less likely to be a qualified developer because they look more like many of the folks working on the creative team or at the front desk. We can all benefit from the cognitive support that titles can provide to help us dial down the effects of biases we all hold.

Here are some reasons I think publicly using job titles can be helpful for diverse employees:

  • Employees can prove some base skill level just once in the interview process, rather than being forced to re-prove their qualifications over and over again each time they work with a new person. This is particularly important in companies with fluid or informal organizational structures, where employees wear more hats and may have to work with more people over the course of their job, each of whom might be skeptical of their qualifications. It can also be particularly important in remote-first environments, where the density of interactions between team members may be lower and the path to proving yourself can take more time as a result.

  • Titles make it easier for coworkers to spot major pay inequity along the lines of gender, race, nationality, etc. On many teams there’s a reasonably close correlation between job title and pay, so titles can act as a rough indicator of salary bracket and help others in the company spot major gaps between performance and pay. I once worked on a team where all the women engineers were noticeably underpaid relative to market rates and many male engineers in the company, but it was a relatively easy to spot because the average title on our team was one to two levels below all the other teams in the department, even though we were doing the same work. Armed with that information, we were able to go to management and make a case that there was a problem. This was at an innovative, forward-thinking company with many women in leadership roles — it’s easy for compensation and titles to get out of balance anywhere, and having more eyes on the problem can help. In titleless companies, often only HR, payroll, and whoever hired you know your salary, and the first two groups are not usually in a position to know enough about your work to suggest a raise.

  • Job titles allow for portability. Job titles are often the quickest and easiest way to explain your relevant experience and skills to future employers, and for diverse employees, being able to move jobs more easily can be particularly important. Employees from underrepresented groups may contribute different, “invisible” work that homogenous companies are often missing, but this very fact makes them vulnerable come performance review time because those in power may be less likely to recognize skills dissimilar to their own. Diverse employees are additionally vulnerable because they’re often less well-connected to or represented by the senior leadership team, and may not have the political clout to successfully fight discrimination or fix problems in a hostile work environment. For them, it’s even more essential that some of their reputation and seniority can be transferred to a different employer if things go bad.

What’s better?

I’m in favor of so many of the goals that drove companies to ditch job titles in the first place, and I think there are still great ways to support them in environments with titles:

  • Emphasize and reward servant leadership, where leaders see their role as supporting the work of and removing roadblocks for employees under them in the hierarchy, rather than working on amassing executive power or the largest possible kingdom.

  • Strive to have tools and processes that encourage employees at all levels to share ideas and make suggestions. For example, agile-style retrospectives (where team members write down their insights about the last sprint simultaneously and then discuss as a group) can give junior and senior team members roughly equal opportunity to be heard.

While it’s easy enough to start with job titles, the answer isn’t as clear for established companies who’ve survived titleless for a long time. Employees at those companies are already well into a long and elaborate process of proving they’re qualified to do their jobs and making people aware of their skills. Suddenly applying titles out of the sky will place diverse employees at risk of going from being unofficially undervalued to being officially under-titled, which can be more damaging and harder to reverse. Even as you proceed with caution and work with your team to bring on titles that help give recognition where it’s overdue rather than formalize existing biases, you’re likely to ruffle a lot of feathers. I don’t know of many resources for companies that are considering doing the switch, but I’d recommend this talk by Camille Fournier about going from structureless to structured as a starting point.