Diversity, Kickstarter, the hiring process, John Oliver and orchestras, all in one post

Technology by gender.  Source: Quartz

Technology by gender.
Source: Quartz

Yesterday Apple released its diversity report, and while they are slightly (very slightly) better in terms of gender division than other tech companies, they’re still very close to the 80-20 split. There’s a nice summary and comparison of diversity reports from the different Silicon Valley tech companies here. I’ve lamented the gender effect on product management before so I won’t go into that again, but I would like to say that perhaps, despite that you have “been working hard for quite some time to improve them” it’s time to make a real change.

How? You ask.

Let’s look at a different industry. Let’s look at how John Oliver tried to diversify his group of writers. Historically, comedy show writers are a group of white men. What Mr. Oliver did was to first try and understand where the biases were and the first one he recognized was the application process. Therefore, instead of the traditional approach, which is to talk to agents and friends in the business and ask for recommendations, Mr. Oliver’s team went to social media to try and get more women to apply. Even those without any writing experience were encouraged to submit an application. Then, the second bias was addressed: the interview. To counter that bias the applicants’ names were removed from the application package and the writing was assessed blindly. The result: two women out of the nine writers on Mr. Oliver’s team.

Blind auditions are not new. They were famously employed by orchestras starting in the 1970s and 80s to start recruiting female musicians. Not only was the audition blind, where the musician played behind a curtain, but similarly to Mr. Oliver’s process, the casting calls themselves were advertised widely in more public forums than before. The result is that over 30% of musicians are women in the top orchestras today, up from almost zero three decades ago. Blind auditions have been a success. “Even when the screen is only used for the preliminary round, it has a powerful impact; researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to the finals.”

So tech companies, what are you going to do to change the percentage of women in your company?

The first step is admitting you have a bias problem in your hiring process.

The second is defining where in the process those biases influence decisions.

As a start, compare your first step to the “casting calls” made by the John Oliver’s team on social media. Is your candidate pool made up of mostly internal employee referrals or are you accepting candidates that come in without an internal plug and based on their resume? It is well known in tech that sending your resume to a company without an internal referral is like sending it into a black hole. The question is, should it be that way and how does this method reinforce existing diversity percentages by having friends bring friends?

Continue by making your hiring process as blind as you can for every step. Going through resumes? Remove names. Phone interviews? Consider doing via chat or with a voice distorter to hide the candidate’s gender. Software engineering interview? Have the interviewer pose questions and the candidate reply by writing code and sketching flow charts. For onsite interviews, can you create the equivalent of musicians playing behind a screen? A one-way mirror where the interviewer is visible and the candidate’s outline is blurry, masking gender, ethnicity, and age, could work. So could a number of other options that focus on skill and hide other factors.

Finally, take this process to other areas where biases exist. Take, for example, Venture Capital funding. Business Insider recently looked at 26 of the top venture capital funds in Silicon Valley and found that the percentage of female-founded start-ups in their portfolios ranged from 19% to a paltry 4%.

This is why I enjoyed reading about the success female founders have had with Kickstarter campaigns. While it’s true that Kickstarter has fewer technology startups and that campaigns generally try for and receive much less funding than venture capital firms provide, it is proof that by appealing to a broader audience, including more women, and focusing on the product more than the team, female founders are more likely to reach their funding goal.

Silicon Valley, you say that you are “committed to being as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing our products.”

Prove it by first admitting you have a problem, then committing to change.

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