Recently, we reached an important milestone in astronomical science: The first picture of a black hole was recorded. This event was captured by an algorithm written by Dr. Katherine Bouman, a 29-year-old fellow at MIT, causing people around the world to celebrate it as another great step forward for women in technology.

Some people, that is.

For others, it became important to ensure that Dr. Bouman's work was downplayed, belittled, or even denied. The online harassment she has received as a result is an unfortunate reminder that there are many people who do not accept women in leadership roles. In the scientific community, which depends mostly on grants for funding, while women who get funded tend to stay funded, more projects are still led by male researchers.

Throughout my career in the tech industry, I've encountered something similar: I've noticed that my male counterparts often have an easier time convincing others to buy into their ideas than my female coworkers. According to research at Oxford University, this stems from an innate self-confidence in the speaker, which leads to a higher level of persuasion. How much? According to a 2012 Harvard study, men are up to five times faster than women at getting their point across.

I've seen this effect, not just in speaking face-to-face, but in writing emails. While answering technical support questions for Evernote, I measured how many back-and-forth replies myself and other agents were sending. As the majority of our issues were the same and had scripted replies, they should have had the same ratio.

However, there was an alarming statistic: For every male agent we had, their touch-to-close ratio was three times lower than every female agent -- across the board. Everyone sent out the same answers to the same problems, word for word. For some reason, on the female-named agent emails, customers were coming back and asking for clarification, asking for another solution, or often asking to be escalated to a manager.

Seeing that, I asked some agents if they would change their online name to an ambiguous name, like "Sam" or "Chris." After doing so, their touch-to-close ratio immediately went down -- overnight.

Research by customer service company Wordstream saw similar results. They learned that women are undervalued by 21 percent by their customers. As an employer trying to understand the issues surrounding diversity, the gender and wage gap, how can you address this? Start with these three strategies:

1. Do the research.

While I had anecdotal evidence in my own company that something was wrong, I needed actual data to support that hypothesis. By running a report on technical support agent tickets of the same number and types of questions divided split by male and female, I was able to clearly see the difference.

You'll need to determine a baseline you can test that will give you equivalent results.

2. Consider the upsides.

After you've run your experiment, see if there is a place where you are not as efficient with your spending as you could be. At Evernote, I created the potential for a 60 percent increase in efficiency for my agents by presenting them the opportunity to change their signature.

This had the side benefit of increasing morale, as the female agents who did change it finally caught up to their male counterparts on the overall ticket leaderboard -- which, in turn, kept them from leaving their positions.

3. Have a tough skin.

No matter what you do, there are going to be people that disagree with you. If you come forward as a supporter of Women in Technology, or as a Woman in Technology, you will likely be harassed. You will probably have your motives, your abilities, and your qualifications questioned.

What's important to know, though, is that with all the research that shows men are more persuasive, another Harvard study shows that people perceive women to be better leaders than men. And my own data backs that up as well -- remember at Evernote, all those times people asked to be escalated to a manager? "Heather" answered them, and almost always after one email, they were satisfied.

My advice to Dr. Bouman and all of the other female entrepreneurs out there? Keep being amazing.

Published on: Apr 30, 2019
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