D&I in Hiring

Whether you work at a large company with a robust hiring processes already in place or you’re a startup founder figuring out how to make your first technical hires, it’s never too early to start thinking critically about diversity in hiring. You may be approaching this feeling out of depth and anxious—“I know it’s a problem, but who am I to help solve it?” Or maybe you’re thinking, “It seems like someone else’s job.” Or maybe you’ve seen past efforts to incorporate diversity and inclusion into hiring practices fail.

important The principles behind effective recruiting with diversity in mind are the same as great recruiting, period. Lack of diversity in an organization signals a need for better recruiting practices. Hiring with diversity in mind is the most effective way to find and recruit talent to your team, because it will help you build a process that’s better for everyone, while building toward a workplace that makes employees want to stay.

story “In 2015, the engineers of the still small, 25-person Lever team voiced their gripe about the hiring process. As was the norm at the time, our interviews were primarily focused on evaluating technical skills. Some of the veteran engineers started saying, ‘If I were a candidate now, I don’t know if I could pass our technical screens.’ Hearing this from some of my most tenured, productive colleagues worried me. Behind their concern about the difficulty of the technical screen, I could hear their thinking: ‘Am I valued here? Do I get considered as a full person, or just a code monkey?’ If it were true that these employees couldn’t pass our screen, what other great candidates might we be missing out on, and how would we even know it? We gradually improved our process, moving away from a sole focus on technical skills. We added an interview that focuses on communication, collaboration, and personal motivations. We doubled-down on interviewer training. We aimed to deliver a great experience for every single candidate, so that even rejected candidates ended up referring us to their friends.* A couple of years later, these changes to our process resulted in gender parity across the company of 100+ people, 42% in technical roles, and significant representation of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ employees, as well as parents and caregivers, and a more supportive environment for everyone. The motivation wasn’t, ‘Let’s build a diverse team’; it was ‘Let’s improve our process, because something’s broken here.’” —Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate

D&I is not like a new feature you can simply add to your existing platform. It will most likely require re-architecturing your system. Increasing focus on D&I is more akin to going from a monolith to microservices than adding a new text box to a user profile page. But there are strategies to get you started.

It’s Not Just a Pipeline Problem

Every part of the tech ecosystem, from education through the hiring processes and the culture of companies, affects overall representation in the industry. And yet, tech companies often mark the “pipeline” as the biggest impediment to increasing diversity. This often manifests in a few different concerns:

  • Not enough underrepresented candidates apply for tech jobs.

  • Not enough underrepresented people graduate with STEM degrees.

  • Underrepresented people are not interested in STEM or in tech jobs.

There’s a lot going on here. There is no evidence that certain people are simply not interested in tech. But more notably, research indicates that the idea that certain people aren’t interested is dangerous. Stereotype threat influences performance in STEM at a young age, particularly for women.

Definition Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon that affects individuals’ performance when they are reminded of negative ideas about groups to which they belong or are perceived to belong.** Researchers are still discussing the exact ways that stereotype threat causes underperformance, but hypothesized causes include extra pressure to succeed in the face of negative stereotypes, negative stereotypes threatening self-integrity and belonging, and individuals subconsciously conforming to stereotypes.*

The seminal 1995 study on the topic found that “making African American participants vulnerable to judgment by negative stereotypes about their group’s intellectual ability depressed their standardized test performance relative to [white] participants.” Even asking participants to record their race had this effect. However, Black participants’ performance matched white participants’ when the study designers removed these reminders of group identification and stereotype.*

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In the tech industry, stereotype threat can affect individuals from underrepresented groups on the basis of negative perceptions about those groups’ performance in STEM. For example, women report that the negative stereotypes about them being bad at math, not belonging on a developer team, and so on, hurt their job performance in STEM roles.*

Among other things, this can lead women to feel isolated, suffer from imposter syndrome, and work longer hours to demonstrate their worth, which in turn can lead to burnout*—all of which are factors that contribute to them leaving tech in larger numbers.

Stereotype threat may hurt underrepresented groups in the recruiting process, especially when elements of the process, such as being confronted with non-diverse interview teams, draw their attention to the stereotypes against their groups.*

When it comes to the number of underrepresented people graduating with STEM degrees, Forbes reported* that access to STEM programs early in education, rather than lack of interest, affects the number of these folks who choose degrees in the field:

When looking at the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds taking AP computer science courses in the state of California, Black and Hispanic students make up 60% of California’s student population, yet only 16% of the population taking AP computer science courses. These underrepresented groups are also less likely to have access to and exposure to computer science at home and elsewhere. These students often do not have role models that look like them in the computer science field.

While 53.3% of men with STEM degrees are employed in STEM within two years, 41.4% of women are.* However, STEM is a broad field, and it can help to look more deeply at these numbers: engineering specifically employs 14% women, up just 2% since 1990, according to Pew.* The same study shows that the representation of Black engineers has risen 2% since 1990, from 7% to 9%, and Hispanic representation has risen 3%, from 4% to 7%. Compared to those groups’ representation in the U.S. workforce as a whole, and their graduation rates with STEM degrees, they are vastly underrepresented in tech, while whites and Asians are overrepresented.*

Lack of representation is a big problem for underrepresented people at every stage of their education and careers. If your company or team is homogenous, they are less likely to apply and more likely to drop out of the field due to unfairness and isolation. The “leaky pipeline” is often seen as the bigger problem; the number of underrepresented people leaving tech affects representation overall.

Any student of color looking at the numbers from the tech giants is going to be turned off and wary about taking a job there because it tells you something about what the climate is. They don’t want to be the token.Maya A. Beasley,* sociologist and author of Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite

With more people of all backgrounds earning degrees in tech, and representation in tech jobs staying relatively stagnant, how companies design the pipeline itself is one of the biggest issues. Overreliance on requirements like four-year degrees from the same few top schools, and on referrals from current employees, limits the number and kind of people considered “qualified” for technical roles. D&I can be approved by analyzing role requirements, improving other areas of the job description, honing your company’s value proposition, and changing how your company talks about and characterizes its current make-up and D&I efforts.

Having a narrow definition of what great technical talent looks like makes hiring needlessly difficult. If you can break out of the traditional mold of hiring—based on pedigree, network, and traditional credentialing—you dramatically expand your pool of qualified candidates. This can give your company leverage in the hiring market,* where there are more open positions than there are engineers to fill them.

Not only does hiring with diversity in mind allow you to escape the escalating bidding wars for the Stanford-educated engineers or Google alumni, it’s also an approach that leads to a better hiring process for all candidates. Actively designing for fairness and mitigating biases against underrepresented people makes for a more equitable process in general.

Figure: Stereotype Threat in Action

Stereotype threat in action from xkcd

Source: XKCD*

Talking About the Pipeline Myth

important The pipeline myth often comes up because teams have talked about diversity but haven’t meaningfully changed their recruiting practices or focused on retaining URGs. One reason people are resistant to moving beyond diversity in their hiring is that diversity is easy to measure, but assessing inclusion is much trickier.

Humans fixate on the idea that diversity is mostly a hiring problem for a number of reasons. First, it’s difficult to perceive the ways in which we are programmed by systemic racism and sexism—so we say it must be an issue with the pipeline instead. Second, we are each the hero in our own story, and the work it takes to de-center ourselves and understand how we are complicit in perpetuating the norm is not something we’re good at. We’d rather look at the mechanics and blame the machine, without understanding who built it in the first place and who maintains it.Jason Wong, leadership coach

In some ways, the focus on the pipeline can distract from the larger context of D&I. Getting URGs in the door isn’t effective when you’re not welcoming them to an environment in which they want to stay. People in leadership positions often insist on focusing just on increasing the number of URG candidates that move through the pipeline, even though those efforts have not resulted in better hiring policies or a more equitable environment in tech.

It can be hard to convince people that there is more going on.

story “A VC recently asked me how they can help their portfolio companies ‘hire more diversity.’ I encouraged thinking more holistically, such as exploring how leaders can build a more inclusive organization and make thoughtful improvements to their hiring process. They got frustrated and cut me off, ‘No, no, you’re describing culture, which is step 2. I need step 1, hiring. Tell me what job boards to post in.’ I replied, ‘Given the reality of the talent market, what you think is step 2 is actually step 1. Job seekers in tech have a lot of options. You can’t do the lazy thing and expect to be successful. This is the case for top talent, but especially so for people from underrepresented backgrounds.’” —Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate

caution Many companies mistakenly believe that they can magically hire a certain number of URGs, upon which, the work will be done, and the “problem” will have been “fixed.” This is in part due to the fact that companies disproportionately expect URGs to take on the work of diversity and inclusion.

story “One of the implications of a D&I program that only focuses on hiring is ‘we don’t know how to fix D&I, but if we hire enough URGs, they will know,’ which—either intentionally or not—places the burden of fixing a noninclusive or even hostile environment directly on the people most impacted by it.” —Ryn Daniels, Senior Software Engineer, HashiCorp

In trying to shift this at your own company, when talking with people who are focused on hiring at the expense of inclusion, it’s helpful to recognize that it can be daunting to feel like you’re starting a step beyond where you’re at. Tackling the pipeline myth requires a mindset shift—it’s less about what the company “gets” (hiring more URGs) and more about how everyone benefits from having a more welcoming, inclusive work environment. It is best to consider this an ongoing conversation, and to explain to resistant folks that companies need to commit to changing how they source candidates and put effort into creating a more inclusive work environment. Once people get over this initial hurdle, further improvements are much easier to make.

This list from Matt Krentz and colleagues highlights that inclusion efforts are consistently ranked more important than traditional diversity measures by both URGs and white men.

Avoiding Diversity Debt

startup You might be familiar with the concept of technical debt, which refers to having to make imperfect decisions during a product build, a result of having to make tradeoffs between short-term, quick fixes and long-term solutions. Teams often choose to focus on the short-term, knowing they’ll have to pay down the debt later as the company or project scales. Similarly, companies need to be mindful of diversity debt, especially early on when it is easier to prevent or correct.

Diversity debt is the result of expanding a team without ensuring it is diverse. The more members of majority groups on a team, the more difficult it can be to recruit members of URGs and provide an inclusive culture.

Phin Barnes refers to diversity debt as “the one startup debt you can’t pay back.” Homebrew, an early-stage VC, strongly encourages founders to start thinking about diversity early. We suggest reading their “Diversity at Startups” guide if you’re currently a founder or early employee.

If your engineering team is five people, most candidates from underrepresented backgrounds won’t have too many hesitations about coming in as the first woman, first Black engineer, et cetera. They might even expect it. However, if diversity debt gets racked up to the point where you have a 50-person engineering team that is entirely white and Asian men, it will be very difficult to convince talented people from underrepresented backgrounds to even interview. And that kind of homogeneity puts the long-term performance of the entire team at risk.

Privilege and Allyship

Privilege in the context of diversity and inclusion is a set of unearned benefits enjoyed by people who belong to particular social groups. Privilege can be a fraught topic because no single group has a monopoly on it—whiteness conveys privilege, maleness conveys privilege, ability conveys privilege, and so on—and because many are not aware of the privilege they have.

Acknowledging privilege can be uncomfortable, especially where overlapping systems of privilege are at play. But privilege is a critical concept in D&I work because it can help identify those with the social capital to effect change. It can also help to structure allyship relationships to ensure that less privileged voices are heard.

You may hear frustration or exasperation from some people, usually from the majority group, who say things like, “What do you want from me?” or “This isn’t my problem.” People who are not directly affected by inequity or don’t see it in their daily lives often don’t understand or accept that others have to work harder while facing discrimination, harassment, threats, or worse. When this is the case, people don’t always feel like doing something about a problem they don’t see—one they may not even believe is real. They may think this work should be relegated to those directly affected by bias and discrimination.

On the other hand, you might hear someone say, “I’m just a white dude. How can I help?” They’re saying that they really don’t feel prepared to address what they understand to be a deep and major issue, and they want to know where to start.

important When it comes to moving the needle on D&I, cisgender white men have an outsized impact on bringing about change. While they may not realize it, a vote of confidence or reaffirmation of belonging from someone in this group carries more influence than from anyone else. This is true at every level of your organization, from your C-suite down to your most junior employee.

When someone expresses that they don’t know what to do, or that they don’t feel that doing anything is their responsibility, it helps to frame the situation as benefiting everyone. Even though it may not seem like it, everyone is affected by bias and discrimination. When members of a team don’t feel supported or included, everyone’s work suffers, and so do the people they see every day. Eventually, those people are going to leave too. If candidates you’re trying to get to join the team don’t feel supported or included, they’re going to choose another company. By contrast, in a productive environment, everyone wants to make the team better, and that means supporting the needs of teammates and all of your candidates.

Being an Ally

An ally is an individual who uses their privilege to advocate on behalf of someone who does not have that same privilege. Anyone can be an ally—a member of the majority group contributing to inclusion work, a white woman to women of color, a cisgender person to transgender people, an able-bodied person to people with disabilities, and so on. Allyship is the process of acting as an ally. Because it is a process, rather than a conclusion, allyship requires ongoing learning, development, and effort from the privileged individual.

confusionTo highlight the importance of taking action, some prefer terms like accomplice to the term ally.*

Allyship is key because D&I is often misunderstood to be “a women’s issue” or “just for minorities to do something about,” failing to take into account the fact that D&I leads to better outcomes for everyone. One of the markers of effective D&I is when privileged allies start taking up the cause because they see themselves as part of the larger community.

caution Being an ally is a practice—something you do every day to support underrepresented people. Doing research and unpacking your own privilege is part of the work. It is not about getting praise for being a savior or fixing other people’s problems for them. And, like any new skill, you won’t get it right the first time.

Allyship behaviors include self-education, maintaining awareness of the issues that affect the day-to-day lives of the URGs in your organization, and amplification and endorsement of the achievements and concerns brought forward by underrepresented groups in their organization. In practice, these are small everyday actions like ensuring the voices of URGs are heard in meetings, affirming the technical difficulty of a completed project, or speaking up when witnessing discriminatory or exclusionary behavior. Allyship requires an ability to center the experiences of those impacted, rather than majority group experiences—including providing help and support in the ways that URGs have indicated they would like to receive it.

storyA good starting point is to find ways to listen to URGs. Allies can do this through diversifying who they follow on social media,* joining online groups or Slack channels where diversity and inclusion issues are discussed, or attending a D&I meetup in their local area. Learn how to participate in conversations without speaking—learn how to listen. When you hear something you disagree with, don’t automatically gear up for an argument, just make a note about it and keep listening. When you hear something that you object to or that runs counter to your intuition and experiences, don’t hop into the fray, don’t go ask the URGs in your network to explain it. Do the work to educate yourself. Get curious and Google it. The point of this is not to change your opinion or convince you of one perspective or the other. You’re learning how to de-center yourself and work toward an awareness of the issues that affect URGs. The goal is to develop an ability to recognize the moments in your day when an inequity happens so that you can take action to correct it. More often than not, that action will be nothing more than a small kindness—redirecting the conversation back to someone who was cut off, ensuring work was properly attributed, providing a public endorsement, inviting someone to participate in a meeting. —Jason Wong, leadership coach

important When it comes to hiring, steps you can take include listening for biased statements like, “She was too aggressive”; intervening when a hiring panel suggests adding on additional evaluation tests for URGs that no other candidate was subjected to; and trying to help candidates succeed.

dangerAllyship is especially critical because research has shown that underrepresented groups are often penalized in the workplace for promoting diversity. It’s people from marginalized backgrounds who can see the ways the system fails them, but they often lack the power to make changes without taking on significant risk. Gaslighting, retaliation, and labeling (like being called a “troublemaker”) are common.

Allyship acknowledges that it is risky for URGs to help each other. In a recent academic study,* participants were asked to rate a fictitious manager’s competence in hiring decisions after reading a description of a hiring decision and being shown a photo of the manager that revealed their race and gender. They found the following:

Participants rated nonwhite managers and female managers as less effective when they hired a nonwhite or female job candidate instead of a white male candidate. It didn’t matter whether white male managers chose to hire a white male, white female, nonwhite male, or nonwhite female—there was no difference in how participants rated their competence and performance. Basically, all managers were judged harshly if they hired someone who looked like them, unless they were a white male.

In addition to being risky, diversity and inclusion work often falls into a category of work with no promotion track and is handed off as a set of responsibilities on top of someone’s primary job. It is neither fair nor effective to ask people disadvantaged by the system—people who are historically underpaid relative to their white male peers—to be the ones charged with the bulk of the effort to fix that system. Success in building a diverse team requires allies to help shoulder the burden.

story“At my last startup, some of the biggest champions of diversity were cisgender white male engineers, especially because many had been so used to homogeneity of technical teams. They said, ‘It’s just so much better here—there’s a real culture around collaboration and thoughtful communication; I feel like we’re better at supporting learning and making mistakes better here.’ Having experienced the benefits of a diverse team firsthand, they said it’s something they would prioritize in future job searches. In the meantime, they wanted to know how they could use their privilege to help me and the rest of the team with diversity efforts. I felt like they were really getting it, that at the end of the day, it’s really about becoming better humans, not just more effective employees.” —Jennifer Kim, startup advisor and inclusion advocate

Further Reading on Allyship

contribute If you know of any great resources on allyship, please let us know!

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