March 27, 2018
A few weeks ago, I was invited to one of those “diversity in tech mixer” events that to be honest, I kind of dread. Some managers wanted to talk to me because they “struggle to find diverse candidates.” I asked them the usual questions about what steps they had taken to seek out and attract people from non dominant groups. They returned blank stares, gestured at the event around them and mumbled something about a kids coding event they hosted last August.
They are not alone. And it is imperative not to judge them. Recruitment and hiring have become like dating. Modern dating and relationships are often fraught. People mourn the lack of decent partners in their area or circle of friends just as tech recruiters lament the “leaky pipeline”. Relationship seekers and recruiters use apps and websites to try and meet new people, but they forget how much seemingly “superficial” things can make a huge difference to a prospective candidate, or mate. Just as your dating app profile might repel people with a bad photo or the wrong words, so, too, can your company’s website, social media platforms, and the image it projects. Diverse candidates are not fooled by pictures of bean bags and candy dispensers. A mix of despair, hopelessness and apathy all set in. It is miserable for nearly everyone.
Even if you find a potential match, there can be communication disconnects. People get taken for granted. They’re disrespectful. There are missed signals, people are afraid to say what they really mean, or they’re afraid to be themselves. So am I describing dating here or recruitment and hiring? Hard to tell, isn’t it?
While both recruitment and dating can be soul destroying in similar ways, they also have their differences. This 2016 article sums up some of the main frustrations with tech hiring, but a few include: There are too many people contributing often aimlessly to a process that excludes so many. Candidates get discouraged by job descriptions that ask only for “rockstars” or “ninjas” or “superstars” to apply. Those that do apply are at risk of being discarded by a system heavily biased in favor of white candidates with certain backgrounds (The book “Algorithms of Oppression” is a very informative and worthwhile read on this matter).
Research I did recently revealed a few other factors that can make processes intended to increase diversity and inclusion difficult for everyone involved. For example, phone screens that take place outside of scheduled times or whole day interviews assume a certain level of flexibility, way of life, and access to PTO that not everyone has. Many candidates from non dominant groups are also primary caregivers or have responsibilities that are not easily pushed aside for six to eight-hour interviews. For instance, it might be mildly inconvenient for a white, single, and employed male engineer to attend an all day interview session; for a black male student, or a Latinx returning to work after having a child, it could be more challenging. We also need to consider that the current interview process is difficult for people with sensory or cognitive difficulties or disabilities. Microsoft has a particularly good model for this that involves online CTF and outreach programs and is worth studying. Sarah Wachter-Boettcher eloquently describes how the recruitment process discriminates against people of color. Her book touches on many areas in tech where bias is an issue.
We also need to reconsider the role of those mixer events, like the one I was at recently. Rather than investing in one-off mixers for non dominant groups, which can make those groups feel even less a part of a larger community, why not build inclusive practices into all events, making sure, for instance, that the panelists and subject matter represent a diversity of perspectives and topics?
This relates back to a larger point - that we need to focus on changing processes or systems, rather than just elements of them. Biased recruitment is a symptom of a much larger failed workplace system, and demands a set of holistic solutions. We must look not only at why candidates don’t apply or make it through the process, but also to question how and why the process itself was designed. This means increasing self awareness, creating benchmarks for change, and asking difficult questions.
The time has come to cease asking everything of candidates, or expecting everyone else to make the effort. Just as in dating and relationships, progress can sometimes mean painful self-reflection. You can choose to leave finding the one, or the right candidate, it in the hands of fate, and blame external factors when it doesn’t work out (they’re just not that into me - or us!). Or you can look internally and ask: why isn’t this working out? And do I maybe need to change? If you’re a tech or cybersecurity company - chances are good that you probably do.