STEM Enterprises Seek High-Tech Solution to Hiring Bias Problem

NEWS ANALYSIS: Fighting workplace inequality by eliminating bias in hiring could help ease a perceived shortage of qualified science and technology personnel.

Fighting Tech Bias 2

Some years ago I was standing on the bridge of a Perry-class frigate off the coast of Cuba as I listened to a couple of my fellow officers quietly plot to make sure a young lieutenant failed her Surface Warfare qualification.

In their view the fact that she was female was reason enough to consider her unqualified. To their obvious disappointment, the officers evaluating the aspiring young officer saw that she performed brilliantly, and she got her qualification.

Move forward a few years and the same general attitude has afflicted the technology industry and jobs that are technology related. But times have changed, and overt bias isn't as socially acceptable to the extent it was a few years ago. But that doesn't mean employment bias has disappeared, just that it's moved into the shadows. It's not talked about openly, but instead is still part of the hiring culture.

As Michelle Maisto covered in her article on tech industry hiring, gender bias is having a significant negative effect on attempts by such companies to recruit and retain employees with the skill level necessary to keep their businesses healthy. And there's more than just gender bias. Companies are also passing over qualified applicants because they're not the right age or the right race or sometimes the right marital status.

And in many cases, the bias can be the result of assumed membership in a group of people that isn't favored. In a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, field researchers sent resumes in response to employment ads in Chicago and Boston. The resumes were randomly given names that seemed to indicate that they were from members of white, African American or Hispanic applicants. The resumes with "white" sounding names had a callback rate 50 percent higher than the others.

While the jobs in this study weren't specifically technology related, the results appear to still be valid because many of the resumes contained accomplishments and schools attended that are common to technology applicants. This means, according to the study, that a white applicant might need to send out 10 resumes to get a callback, while others needed to send out 15. In the long run, this will tend to eliminate the number of people in those overlooked groups who would go on to other jobs.

While it appears that the universities in the U.S. actually produce enough graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) specialties to meet demand, many are not being hired. Despite objections to this finding from some who claim that the numbers are fake, or that at least in their company there's plenty of diversity, the fact is that the bias exists, not necessarily on the surface and certainly not as a result of overt corporate policy, but it's there.

In many cases, real diversity is derailed at several levels. In some cases, the job description will tend to discourage specific groups from applying for a particular job. In others, midlevel hiring managers simply want someone who looks like and presumably thinks like them, usually in the name of fitting into the corporate culture.

Perhaps more insidious are the many times that the right people are hired, but then they're not given a chance to advance in their careers.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...