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.
STEM Enterprises Seek High-Tech Solution to Hiring Bias Problem
They never get the chance to take on the right projects, lead the development team or otherwise pay their dues, and they leave because there’s no future.
Part of the problem with encouraging diversity and in the process easing the problem of hiring enough qualified people is that it’s hard for a company to figure out what the problem is even when they want to solve it.
In many companies, “the definition of ‘qualified’ seems to be white or Asian males of a certain age,” said Gabriela Burlacu, human capital management researcher at SAP SuccessFactors.
Burlacu said that maintaining the status quo has always been part of most organizations, and that leads to hiring practices that seek to maintain the status quo. “They believe certain demographic groups are going to be more successful,” she explained.
“The starting point for organizations today is with workforce analytics being able to really dig into the data of their workforce,” Burlacu said. “It helps them see where the problems lie and where the inequities might be. Now you have all these tools that enable you to slice and dice the data. But that’s just the starting point.”
In May, SAP SuccessFactors announced plans to build data mining and analytics features into its Human Capital Management suite that will help improve workplace diversity.
These features will be based on SAP’s HANA in-memory database technology and will help companies review job descriptions, performance reviews and other personnel documents to discover potential bias and find ways to encourage workplace equality.
SAP SuccessFactors hasn’t announced when it will be ready to introduce these new features.
The next step is using the information to find out where equality is impeded in the hiring and retention process. Unfortunately, in most companies, there’s plenty of space for that. Hiring managers may want people who they predict will fit their culture, HR managers may worry about health care costs and lost work hours. Other managers may worry about someone simply not fitting in. Each of those when used as a prediction of suitability for a job brings a loss of diversity.
Making matters worse, the bias in technology hiring and retention didn’t start at the companies that are now finding themselves without qualified candidates. In fact, as I have observed, it starts much sooner as middle schoolers and high schoolers are encouraged to seek further education that fits their gender or place in society.
This is the place where young girls are actively discouraged from math and science classes and where children from families that work in blue-collar jobs are pushed into trade classes, not colleges. The problem continues when students begin their college training, as I also observed when going with my daughters for college visits, only to hear the dean of a university tell me, “Girls can’t do physics.”
Girls can do physics, and they can do engineering and software development. But it goes far beyond that because the same type of bias is preventing the hiring of people because of their race or their age.
One has to wonder if the companies bemoaning the lack of qualified applicants are actually looking, because if they were we wouldn’t see the vast populations of self-employed engineers and knowledge workers with decades of experience working as consultants.