How to Avoid Gender Bias in the Hiring Process With Technology

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Apr 5, 2016
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

Make a game about time travel and talking lizards, nobody objects. Make a game about the gender gap, “This is unrealistic!”  — Mauro Vanetti

The amount of hate Mauro Vanetti received for his two-minute game was insane. Mauro made “Two Interviewees” as a tiny gaming experiment with the anti-sexist theme. And the Internet exploded with haters calling him from sexist to ISIS.

“I must have struck a chord,” Mauro tweeted. Gender gap in employment has been that giant elephant in the room. Since the research into orchestras’ “blind” audition process revealing unconscious gender bias in the 1970s ’till this very moment, the problem still exists. It’s a touchy, tricky one.

In Mauro’s game, you play as two characters: Martin and Irene. Both have the same professional background, and are going to have an interview for the same company with the same “HR Recruiter” — Mr. White. They got the same questions and give the same answers. The only difference here is the shocking biased mind of the interviewer.

If you answer the question “how would you describe yourself?” with “as a competent, ambitious professional,” Martin will get a plus for being “resolute” and Irene will get a minus for being “arrogant.”

If you answer the question “how do you see yourself in 20 years?” with “with an established career and a family,” Martin will get a plus for “work ethic” and Irene will get a minus for “pregnancy alert.”

If you choose 30k over 20k for salary, Martin will get a plus for being acceptable and Irene will get a minus for asking too much.

The game is anything but subtle. No matter which answers you choose, Irene won’t get hired. Many players were pissed off and wondered if they did it “right.” In two minutes, they feel the frustration that many women have to face their entire lives.

Mauro may exaggerate “Two Interviewees” to make a point, but it’s not far from the truth. At no certain stage of the hiring process would somebody say “Let’s disqualify women.” For the most part, we make decisions based on our experience, impression, hunch, and unconscious bias — the gestalt formed from the societies we live in, that sadly are in favor of the male population at large.

Our stance here is not about hiring women because of their gender. It’s about not passing on talented women just because of existing bias and implicit stereotypes.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” — Benjamin Franklin

Studies show that we form unconscious bias against women when: 1) the number of women in an applicant pool is small, 2) evaluators are under time pressure, fatigued, or need a quick decision, and 3) when performance criteria are ambiguous.

The good news is that we can prevent all three nowadays by establishing a good process, with the help of technology.

Expand Your Talent Pool With a Healthy Balance

Many wonder why they get more male applicants while sending out job descriptions cramped with aggressive qualities, such as:

“Action-oriented,” “results-driven,” “people-person”

Now let’s take a step back and convert those nouns into equivalent actions:

“Ability to take initiative and produce results,” “ability to collaborate effectively with a talented team.”

Did you notice the difference? The first group describes the person. The second describes what it takes to do the job. While the former makes room for biased stereotypes in favor of men, the later puts you on an objective standpoint.

To remind yourself to maintain that neutrality, you can use tools like Textio. There you can adjust your tone and word usage to make sure that the job description is not advantaging one group of candidates over another.

With job promoting, you can automate the job posting to major as well as niche job boards by using modern recruiting software. How many applicants should you expect? Eric Feng, former CTO at Flipboard, gives an estimate:

If you start with 64 candidates in your talent pool,

  • 16 candidates should go through the screening stage
  • Four candidates should go through the hiring process
  • One candidate should get the offer.

Putting your job openings to where more underrepresented groups are would help balance out your talent pool, using sites and groups like; Women for Hire and LinkedIn groups like WomanLinkAn Empowered WomanThe Women In Business NetworkWomen in Business / Woman 2 Woman Business / eBusiness-USA; and Women 2.0.

If you want to take one step further, check out what Slack’s doing. The company addresses the pipeline issue with financial contributions to organizations and programs that educate and equip underrepresented groups with relevant technical skills. Hack the Hood, Grace Hopper, and CODE2040 are some of those.

Have a Structured Hiring Process

Nothing prevents time pressure and fatigue better than having a structured process where everybody involved can have an overview of the timeline, goals, and current status. Skip here and you murder the whole point of talent acquisition to begin with.

Bias can also manifest from subjectivity. In “Two Interviewees,” Mr. White, the HR Recruiter, had all the notes taken from the interviews for himself. A great way to prevent this is sharing interview notes from everybody in the hiring team straight in the ATS. When team members can weigh in and discuss, bias often cancels each other out.

Have Concrete Performance Criteria

Using the same set of questions for every candidate is good. But asking the same questions with a biased premise won’t help, as we can see in “Two Interviewees.”

Ambiguity induces stereotypes, so structure your criteria for each interview question as clear and thorough as your hiring process.

For example, the question “if you have a problem and don’t know the solution, what do you do?” has the criterion: “ability to perform independent research and be responsible for the problem,”  and not “action-oriented” or “results-driven.”

Again, these criteria are not labels trying to describe a person. They should describe what it takes to succeed in the job.

Also, steer clear of illegal questions. Some common ones many employers are still asking: Are you married?; Do you have children?; When are you planning on having children? Who will take care of your children while you’re at work?

Once you have criteria for interview questions, make sure you have criteria for disqualification too.

Be as concrete as possible.

“Not a cultural/team fit” is not a concrete reason. “Not the best for the job” is not a concrete reason. All reasons should point back to the ability to perform the job. All criteria should be performance-based and not labeling, stereotyping words.

These are a few ways you can employ technology to remain an objective hiring process. If you know more ways, feel free to comment below.

To conclude, and to echo Slack’s mission: Let’s create an environment where nobody has to give up on their ambitions.

This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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