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How Scrum Improves Gender Parity in the Workplace

The question of equality between the genders in the US and around the world isn’t anything new. The Equal Rights Amendment in the United States was first introduced to Congress in 1923, but it didn’t successfully pass both houses until 1972. It has yet to be ratified by the needed 2/3rds of the States.

The first bill in the US regarding equal pay for equal work was introduced in 1944 but didn’t pass through the legislature until 1963. Depending upon which study you read, the pay gap between men and women can vary from as high as 22% to as little as 5%. The latter sounds great, except that 5% is a big gap when it comes to earnings – ask anyone paying a mortgage.

Additionally, the US is one of only six countries that, although having signed it, has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women instituted in 1981.

Despite the fact these protections have existed for decades, the US still ranks 49th out of 144 bench-marked countries for gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. [Note: We proudly rank 1st for educational attainment and in participation and opportunity for professional & technical workers.] Additionally, there is also tremendous disparity when it comes to holding power in the top offices. From what I have read and experienced while traveling the world teaching Scrum, the rest of the globe isn’t much different or much better.

Bottom line: no matter what you read or believe, gender disparity exists.

My sincere belief is that Scrum can help narrow these gaps. This has to do with the tacit understanding that in Scrum, no one of us is as smart as all of us and that for Scrum to succeed, it requires radical honesty and transparency.

Working with Parity

Although not explicitly mentioned in the Scrum Guide, teams perform better when they have clear ideas around their working relationship. This is because human beings dislike the unexpected and vagueness. Many Scrum Teams lay these ideas out explicitly in a Working Agreement. A good Working Agreement is like the US constitution, it sets boundaries and can be altered if needed. It describes the norms and guidelines for how we will work together as a group, what to expect from one another, how we will learn from our failures, and celebrate our successes.

In our overall society, as long as people speak up, vote, etc., there is an assumption of parity. If they don’t, they have no voice – and no one to give it to them. Part of the Scrum Master’s role is to ensure that everyone participates and is heard. Therefore, even if they are introverted, this role helps to create an atmosphere where their opinions matter. This role and system create a parity of power within the team.

In my personal experience, this has been transformative. As a Scrum Master, I had to create this type of atmosphere so women on my team had the chance to feel heard. As the Product Owner of an all-female Scrum Team, I made sure the rest of the company was aware of the quality, importance and overall value of the perspective and feedback my teammates provided. As a Team Member, I am careful to make sure everyone’s opinion gets stated, regardless of gender.

During my travels across the US, Japan, and Australia I have had many female students comment after class that they like Scrum because it gave them equal voice into how the team does things and helps root out offensive behaviors of the “ol’ boys club”. While this is anecdotal evidence, the fact that I have heard it across geographies leads me to think if we did a survey on it, we might find these feelings trending upwards. Another boost is the sheer number of female Product Owners I have taught and worked with. Our US & Australian classes are roughly 45-50% female today, whereas a few years ago they were filled with a preponderance of men.

Salary Parity

Some of the disparity in pay is attributed to the fact that women simply ask for raises less often than men. Other factors are not as clear and may be related to outright discrimination. Throughout the articles I read, I found there was one thing surprisingly missing: forehand knowledge of the salary of someone of the opposite gender in the same position. Would the women in these surveys have asked for more if they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that their male counterparts were getting paid more and exactly how much? We won’t know unless they do a study on it, but in the meantime, Scrum can help.

At our company, we run everything by Scrum. Scrum has had many different influences during its creation, one of the most important being empirical process control. One of the pillars of empiricism is complete transparency. Therefore, at our company, every employee has full transparency into each other’s salary, the company’s profit & loss statements, etc. While some may think this can create jealousy and cause harm, our experience shows it has created an environment where people strive to contribute more and are rewarded for it. Research backs this up. If we can get companies to adopt an empirical attitude in finance, it can help close this gap.

The Future

I believe that in the future we will come to a more realistic position regarding gender equality.

In the most developed countries, the gaps are getting narrower all the time – for example, women have now held the high political & corporate positions that were once exclusively the domain of men, and the pay gap is decreasing. In my opinion, transparency is the key factor – people can only try to elicit change on issues if they have the facts which cause them to be angered over disparities or injustices. Proof of this is all over social media. That anger is influencing real changes in laws, societies, even toppling regimes. As we acknowledge the equal intellectual contributions of different genders, we can further push these old prejudices and poor practices out.

Scrum teams rely on these ideas for their products to win in the marketplace as much as their own success as a group of individuals working towards a common goal.


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