There’s still bias in e-signatures

According to Adobe, women spend 27 more minutes chasing down signatures compared to men.

Emoji hand signing Adobe logo on a signature line

Adobe’s November “Culture of Contracts” research looks at the social practices behind e-signatures, touching particularly on equity in digital interactions.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

At her old job as a manufacturing company’s in-house counsel Marche Robinson would spend hours chasing down signatures. These were the pre-COVID days, when digital signatures were not yet a necessity. “Everything was wet ink,” Robinson said. Even for an executive based in Asia Pacific.

But it wasn’t just paper slowing the process down. Robinson’s company was very white and male. As a Black woman, she often faced disrespectful comments. “There were times people would question me, like ‘why are you asking me to get a signature? You’re not the secretary?'” Robinson said. “There’s a lack of power you feel asking for a signature.”

Contracts and signatures make up a massive portion of work in a wide array of industries: sales, medicine, law, you name it. The pandemic forced everyone away from the skepticism digital signatures once faced, leading to massive sales growth for DocuSign and Adobe. The convenience and accessibility of digital paperwork makes the alternative unthinkable. “I was at Adobe when we first acquired our signature solution,” said Lisa Croft, director of Digital Media at Adobe. “It used to take weeks to get signatures. Now we’re talking about days, or minutes.”

The practices and culture around document signing haven’t gone away with the move to digital. Even with rapid-fire, online interactions, there’s room for bias and exclusionary language. The good news, Croft says, is that a flexible, digital format is easier to improve upon. Adobe’s November “Culture of Contracts” research looks at the social practices behind e-signatures, touching particularly on equity in digital interactions. “We're helping our customers understand that, when someone's looking at a digital agreement, there are things that you can do to make that easier,” said Croft. Adobe also hopes to use the research to address pain points in its products.

The study polled 1,400 enterprise workers across the U.S., U.K. and Australia on their digital contract habits. The company sought to answer questions about inclusive contract language, time spent reading and signing documents and attitudes on digital versus wet-ink contracts. Unsurprisingly, the majority of workers surveyed would prefer to sign agreements digitally post-COVID (whenever we get there). It makes their lives easier.

One concerning finding that resonated with Robinson is the disparity between women and men, and POC and white people, when it comes to securing signatures. Adobe found that it takes women and employees of color longer to secure signatures from people, with women at 27 more minutes than men, and employees of color at six more minutes than white employees. “That’s a big gap,” Croft said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot but it is when you look at the progress we’ve made [in cutting down signature time].”

Employees of color also spend a longer time reviewing and signing agreements than their white counterparts, the study found. “That’s more just reflective of people of color in corporate America,” Robinson said, rather than data specific to digital agreements. She personally spent a lot of time reviewing contracts to avoid making mistakes, as she faced the added pressure of being the only Black attorney and the youngest attorney in the firm. Generally, Robinson found that men’s responses to signature requests were “oh yeah whatever, I’ll sign it,” while women asked more questions.

More than one in three respondents noticed gender-binary language in contracts, and 25% noted limited options to describe their identities. In its blog post, Adobe gave suggestions for the kinds of language companies should consider when writing up contracts. But ultimately, those decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis. Some employees might prefer the term “person with a disability;” some might prefer “disabled person.” Polling employees is important.

Accessibility, of course, should be top of mind when it comes to digital contracts. It should be top of mind when it comes to the whole internet, as the pandemic has made increasingly clear. “I worked in government, I know accessibility well,” Croft said. “It was always a government problem. That's not the case anymore. Accessibility is everyone's problem.” Andrew Kirkpatrick, Adobe’s head of Accessibility, said the company’s always looking to make its products more inclusive, like allowing more text customization through Adobe Acrobat’s liquid mode.

Adobe also recently released a report on workplace accessibility for employees with disabilities, surveying 1,000 people across the country. The study made it clear that workers want accessibility baked into all aspects of work, with 77% of respondents interested in more education on the issue. “Creativity runs really deep within people who identify as disabled,” said Rani Mani, head of Employee Advocacy at Adobe. “We’ve had to come up with a ton of life hacks to orchestrate our life and being.”

We’re still navigating the mostly digital workplace and all the ways normal processes, like contract-signing, have changed. Digital contracts solve for convenience, but they’re not immune to bias and exclusion. Still, Robinson thinks the prevalence of digital contracts is cause for optimism. She’s now working full time as a content creator and almost all of her contracts are digital (some brands, stuck in the ‘90s, make her print out contracts to send).

“You feel more comfortable sending a contract to a signatory,” Robinson said. “There’s no, oh I have to go face-to-face with you and chase you down. I think it will level the playing field in corporate America to move to digital.”


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