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Strategies for Hiring Diverse Candidates

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With all of the talk recently about diversity, especially in tech, increasing diversity numbers is on the top of many people’s minds. Someone recently asked for strategies to hire more female engineers on a email distribution list that I’m on. As a female software engineer, this topic has been near and dear to my heart. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the topic and when I was a hiring manager, I spent even more time focusing on these questions. There’s no single easy answer out there and unfortunately, the root of the problem is ultimately the imbalance of the numbers universally. That said, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t work to improve things at each of our workplaces and level the playing field in the areas where we have the influence to do so.

There are three main areas that are all very important for improving diversity numbers at a workplace. We can improve the pipeline of candidates that we look at in the first place, we can make sure that the hiring process is as fair as possible and we can improve the retention of women and minorities already working for our companies. For the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on the first two points, but the third one is also extremely important.

So how do we hire more diverse candidates?

Job Descriptions

Believe it or not, job descriptions themselves can have a huge effect in who applies for the jobs and often show a gender bias. They can also suggest to people the gender make-up of the company. If we want any hope of succeeding, we need to make sure that we’re not cutting our pool before we even get started.

  • If you have a requirements section on your job posting, make sure you ONLY include skills or qualities you actually require. Make sure this list isn’t a wishlist of nice-to-have features. Women tend to only apply when they think they meet 100% of the requirements while men apply with many fewer.
  • There are a few more obvious things like when describing the ideal candidate, don’t use gendered pronouns. By saying ‘He will’ or ‘His,’ you send a subtle signal that you’re looking for someone of that gender.
  • Believe it or not, certain words appeal to or alienate people in a way that’s correlated to gender. To attract a balanced group, avoid gendered words and phrases in your descriptions. For example, words like ‘dominate,’ ‘superstar,’ ‘superior’ or even ‘strong’ tend to attract more male candidates while words like ‘community,’ ‘understanding’ or even ‘develop’ tend to attract more women. Additionally things like sports references like ‘hit it out of the park’ also tend to turn off women.
  • To help make sure your postings are equally appealing, I highly recommend the tool Textio. It automatically detects many of the common words and phrases so you don’t have to manually scan your postings. My company now runs all of our job descriptions through this tool. I’m not sure about the quality, but another (free) option in this area is Gender Decoder.
  • If you want further ideas in this area, this article does a really good job of summarizing.
  • NCWIT.org (National Center for Women and Information Technology) also has a two handy checklists for job postings here and here

Generating Pipeline

You may be able to get some percentage of applicants through job postings and your careers page, however, like for tech companies where there are many more jobs than applicants, a large amount of the pipeline must be generated in other ways. This is where it may be worth doing more targeted recruiting.

  • If you have recruiters crawling linkedin or other forums doing sourcing, have them spend some percentage of their time focusing specifically on underrepresented groups.
  • If your company is anything like ours, you get a high percentage of your hires through referrals. Research shows that we are more likely to refer people similar to ourselves. By asking employees to spend time specifically thinking of referrals from underrepresented groups, they’ll often think of great people they’ve worked with in the past that they may not have initially thought to refer. Some companies take this a step further and offer increased referral bonuses for diverse hires.
  • Sponsoring women or minority targeted events can be a great way to get your name out there. For those of us in computer science, conferences like Grace Hopper or sponsoring events like Girl Geek Dinners are a great way to more specifically target groups. If these sponsorship opportunities aren’t directly available in your area, consider hosting your own meetups targeted at the demographics you’re looking for. I’ve seen that even if you don’t advertise a tech talk as a women in tech event, if you can get a number of women to speak, you’ll end up with a skewed audience as well. Another way to get your name out there is to partner with campus groups such as SWE or SHPE to help them sponsor events such as hackathons or study breaks.
  • Take a look at what colleges you recruit from. It’s often easy to get stuck in the trap of only recruiting from the schools where you’ve previously gotten the most candidates. However, this both limits school diversity, and will also cause you to miss out on the great pipeline you could be getting from an all women’s school like Smith or Wellesley or a historically black college like Spelman or Howard.
  • Consider non-traditional career paths. Do you really need a 4 year degree for the particular role? There are a number of different organizations in the form of coding bootcamps to professional training programs aimed at equipping people with skills needed to succeed in a variety of roles. If you’re worried about the depth of knowledge, some of these programs also have internship options that allow the company to essentially have an extended interview with the individual before committing to a full time hire. Many of these organizations target women trying to re-enter the workplace, people from unprivileged backgrounds or other underrepresented groups trying to change career paths. Box has been exploring this area with great results so far.

Hiring Process

Once you have a good set of candidates to start your hiring process, it’s also important to make sure you’re not unfairly eliminating those candidates at any step in your pipeline. Bias, even unconscious bias can play a big role in how we evaluate people. This doesn’t make it okay that we are biased. Instead, we should find ways to fight that bias or mitigate the effects of bias.

  • People tend to change how they evaluate resumes based solely on the name on it both in terms of gender and in terms of how white the name sounds. See if you can find a way to scrub names from the resumes before evaluating if they should make the cut for the next round. Likewise, anonymizing any possible portions of the process can also help eliminate bias. The Boston Symphony Orchestra greatly increased the number of women they hired when they started having musicians audition from behind a screen.
  • Ask each candidate the same set of questions and have a clearly set and written down rubric for each of those questions and refer back to it every time. It’s easy to have bias cloud your evaluation of a candidate and to consider one skill to be passing for one candidate and failing for a different candidate. By having something written down, you can more clearly compare different candidates and lower the probability that your bias will play a big role. I’ve started doing this for every single person I interview and I’ve seen it affect my scores more than I thought it would in both directions.
  • Consider if there are steps you can insert into your interview process where bias would be even less likely to play a role. Can you use a tool like hackerrank that has static passing criteria instead of an initial phone screen?
  • Look at your interviews themselves. For example, women tend to do less well at whiteboard coding interviews, but coding on the whiteboard really isn’t a part of our actual jobs. Can you conduct interviews in a way that’s closer to what the actual job might be? Perhaps you can instead do a pair programming exercise on a computer or have them explain a technical topic.

Selling Your Company

This should all be backed up with actual fact, but the way you sell your company to a candidate (with or without an offer) also makes a difference. You should have the goal of giving every interviewee the impression that your workplace supports and encourages diversity. Even if that person doesn’t get an offer, they may tell a friend or two if they get a really positive or really negative impression.

  • Take a look at your careers website and make sure it feels welcoming — are there pictures of women and people of color (assuming you have them)? Could a diverse candidate see themselves working there? When describing benefits, do you include things like family leave? Do you have any women in tech groups or affinity groups and are they called out? Are things like flexible hours or work-life balance called out? Millennial women also have specific things they’re looking for.
  • Try to make sure you have at least one woman on the interview panel. This is actually something I look for when I’m a candidate. I don’t need to have more than one on my panel, but if it feels like there aren’t even enough women to make one happen, that’s a red flag to me. However, don’t pull someone from a completely different part of the org just so you have someone. It’s also not great if I’m interviewing with a bunch of people I won’t actually work with or who don’t know about the position I’m interviewing for.
  • If you are a woman conducting the interview (or even if you’re not), make sure you talk to women (or minorities) about some of the opportunities that may be more targeted at them — flexible work hours, family leave policies, women’s groups at the company, whatever they might be. Candidates may not ask about these topics even if they’re curious because they’re worried about how the questions will be perceived.
  • Once a candidate has an offer, give them the opportunity to chat with an employee who identifies with whatever affinity group the candidate wants to learn more about. Box recently started a program like this where we have a few people from a number of our employee resource groups who have agreed to talk to any interested potential employees. Offering this makes it clear that candidate won’t be alone and gives them the chance to ask any additional questions they may have not gotten to during the interview process itself. It also shows that your company cares about diversity and inclusion.

Data Driven

As engineers, we love data anyway and the hiring process should be no exception. Track statistics around each stage of your hiring process. Are you losing women or any other demographic at a disproportionate rate in a particular stage? Why is that? Is there something you can do to modify that stage? If you’re introducing a new tool or new process, keep track of how well it works. Does it provide equally good results as your previous process? Does it improve diversity numbers? Some tools seem to scare away women, some help them. Without constantly tracking and adjusting, it will be challenging to make sure you’ve fully optimized everything from communication to interviewing to selling candidates.

Further Reading

I’ve tried to give an overview here, but there are of course many, many other articles addressing this issue. In addition to all of the links I’ve already included above, I’ve included some below that I’ve read or found useful, but this list is by no means complete.

While there’s a lot of research in this area and a lot of great articles, this still isn’t a solved problem. Explore new solutions and share what works and what doesn’t. We should also be working to attract more diversity to tech, but even if we don’t, we should at least make sure the ones we have are being evaluated fairly. We should make sure they’re given a fair shot at the jobs we have available. This overview includes a lot of things and may be daunting to attack, but start somewhere. You don’t need to boil the ocean all at once. Try one or two things and iterate. Eventually, we can all get there.