It’s Not Just a Pipeline Problem

11 minutes, 13 links


Updated August 24, 2022
Technical Recruiting and Hiring

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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.*

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:

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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

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.

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