How WordStream Used Data to Uncover a Potential Industry-Wide Gender Bias

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The issue of gender bias in the professional workplace is not new. There is no shortage of studies that show women are undercompensated compared with their male peers across virtually all industries, including our own Internet marketing field.

What is more difficult to quantify, however, is the exact nature of these perceived imbalances and biases and how they manifest themselves. Too often, “evidence” is based on subjective commentary and personal experience, which is easy to dismiss.

Recently, at my own company, WordStream, I uncovered a disturbing trend in our internal data that seems to suggest our female client service representatives are operating at a pretty sizable disadvantage.

In my guest column today, I’d like to walk through the steps I took, and the internal data I used, that reveals a large, yet subtle, gender bias within the search marketing field. The data indicates that women in our industry are undervalued by 21%. Read on for more details!

Search Marketing Clients Seem to Prefer Male Representatives

This all started with our most recent customer satisfaction survey, which we conduct roughly every quarter. In one of the questions, we ask participants to rate their level of satisfaction with their client service representative, on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being poor and 4 excellent. I recently analyzed approximately 300 customer responses and segmented them by the customer service representative.

As you can see in the chart above, almost all of the men had above average scores. All of the women had below average scores. In fact, the lowest scoring male rep rated higher than the highest scoring female rep! Repeat: all of the men ranked higher than all of the women.

Now, you could explain this away by assuming that with this sample size, we just had some weaker reps and they all happened to be women. Personal experience with them told me that wasn’t so. We had to look deeper.

Are Women Inherently Worse at Search Marketing?

First, a quick word about what our client service representatives actually do. The account owner remains responsible for the bulk of the work on their account. Our representatives don’t manage the account; they provide guidance, expert advice, and recommendations.

Clearly, survey respondents feel the male search marketing reps are better at the job than the female reps.

You would expect, then, that the clients of male service reps have better results in their AdWords accounts, right? That’s not what we found at all.

We used our AdWords Grader to evaluate the overall health of each of the accounts of the survey respondents. It looks at dozens of objective account metrics, including CTRs, conversion rates, quality scores, best practices adherence, and more.

Here’s where it got even crazier:

The AdWords accounts supported by female reps had scores, on average, nine points higher than those supported by male reps (out of a possible score of 100%).

In fact, in one particular example, we found that the account had a 99% AdWords Grader score, with an average quality score of 7.7/10 and an average CTR of 13.3%. This rep is doing just about as well as possible, yet she received a score of just 3/4 from her client on overall satisfaction. Men with lower-performing accounts outscored her.

Therefore, scratch this excuse off the list. The problem isn’t that the men are outperforming the women.

So, maybe the women are less experienced on the phone and somehow that shows?

Nope. When we looked at it that way, the research clearly showed that men were favored over women across all levels of experience and seniority. The least experienced male rep got a higher score than our most experienced female rep.

Why are clients more satisfied with their male reps?

Men Get More Credit for Equal Performance

I asked our in-house data scientist Mark Irvine to analyze our data further. He broke up our clients into quintiles (i.e., five buckets of equal size, based on their AdWords Grader scores), and this revealed two alarming findings:

  • Clients at the very top and the very bottom have, on average, predictably good or bad ratings for their rep, and the difference between genders isn’t significant However, for the middle tier clients – those whose performance is about average – the scores are widely separated.
  • The strongest bias occurred in the “average performing accounts” in our pool of advertisers (i.e., accounts that were neither failing badly, nor succeeding wildly). For these “average performing” accounts, male client service managers more often than not received the benefit of the doubt whereas female client service managers were less likely to get a pass.

Women Are More Susceptible to Gender Bias than Men

The gender bias actually was more dramatic among female clients. They scored female reps an average of .82 points lower than they did male reps. (Male clients scored female reps an average of .43 points lower.)

The male client service reps scored considerably higher with their female clients.

Female Search Marketers Are Undervalued by 21%

Based on our analysis, we believe the overall effect of this gender bias is that female search marketers are undervalued by 21%. They’re seen as less valuable than their male peers, regardless of their seniority, level of experience, and even measurable performance.

Think about this: how might this gender bias affect a job interview or a starting salary? How is the issue compounded by fewer promotions or raises if females are consistently underrated by clients?

All of this bias, in the workplace and in the industry in general, has the potential to compound over time and seriously affect a woman’s ability to end up in higher-visibility, better- paying positions, even when experience and performance warrant promotion.

It’s also worth noting that this 21% gender valuation gap aligns remarkably well with the 19.7% average gender pay gap that Moz identified in their recent search industry survey:

Data Wins the Argument

I don’t know what the solution is, but we need to stop pretending this bias doesn’t exist. We asked our female client service reps for their feedback on our research, and I was disheartened by how often their initial reaction was to blame themselves. You can see more data analysis and their reaction to it in our blog post.

It’s not an issue of some individuals not reaching their potential. It’s not that they need to just fight harder or speak up more. That doesn’t change the bias in others. We ALL have to look at this critically and understand our role in it.

My sincere hope in releasing this data is that all of us will be able to understand the pernicious nature of the bias that we discovered, as well as the process by which we discovered it through data analysis, in order to recognize it, should it manifest itself within our own organizations. Knowing that it exists enables us to potentially do something about it.

About the Author: Larry Kim is the Founder of WordStream, a PPC management software company, provider of the 20 Minute PPC Work Week. His free marketing tools including the AdWords Grader and Free Keyword Tools have been used by over a million marketers over the last few years. You can find him on Twitter and .

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