It has been two weeks since the former Google employee’s diversity memo came out. I’m sure you’ve likely read it, or a lot about it (or maybe just the satire). I’m not going to make any points on that directly, but the one of the best things I’ve read is Cynthia Lee’s article on Vox.

I saw a comment on Facebook in response to all of this. The comment was arguing against diversity hiring, claiming that diversity hires don’t have the same bar applied to them. In other words, diversity hiring programs result in hiring lower quality engineers than the ones hired outside of the programs.

A well run1 diversity program doesn’t lower the bar for hiring. Instead it provides a way to ensure candidates all have an equal opportunity for consideration. It works to remove biases in hiring that adversely affect various groups.

A well known example of this is with the hiring of orchestra members. I think most would expect that those auditioning are hiring strictly based on their skills, meaning that a woman who is more skilled than a man would be hired. This wasn’t the case, and as orchestras implemented blind auditions suddenly women started to be hired. Studies have been done on this, and it is clear that blind auditions removed bias from the hiring process2.

There are a number of choke points where conscious or unconscious bias can come into play in hiring at most tech companies:

  1. Recruiter resume filtering
  2. Hiring manager resume filtering
  3. Phone screens
  4. On-site interviews
  5. Offer parameters (base pay, stock, etc)

The best solutions I’ve seen put efforts into all stages3. The work at each stage is a bit different4, but progress can be made and measured. I don’t have a magical solution, and I don’t think the big names in tech do either5.

Getting more diversity into tech is important. A varied set of backgrounds and life experiences help us make better products for our customers, and serve broader markets. The most important reason is that people should have the opportunity to work in the field they want, and actually be judged on their merits6.

  1. Can a company implement a diversity hiring system that does apply a different bar for hires? Sure. Have I ever seen or heard of one? Nope. And let’s be honest tech hiring is hard, imprecise, and makes mistakes. And evaluating the quality of someone’s work, once hired, is subjective. Bias extends well beyond hiring and includes how we evaluate and treat the employees that are present. 

  2. See also: the Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle for more. 

  3. A diversity program can be implemented only at stage 1, creating a pipeline where all the resumes meet the diversity criteria. This means that stages 2–4 can’t make comparisons to candidates where a bias might come into play. This methodology has some problems. It means you are ignoring non-diverse candidates, running two hiring pipelines, or rejecting everyone just further down the pipeline. Is it better or worse than doing nothing? I’d learn towards better, but I’m not totally sure. 

  4. For example: Getting more resumes from diverse groups in at stage 1. Removing opportunities for bias to have an effect in stage 2. Making phone screens uniform for a job at stage 3. The hardest is stage 4, where it means training employees to understand bias. Stage 5 means uniformity for offers given and pay. 

  5. Looking at gender for Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. Of those that report the breakdown in engineering/tech roles, it is around 20% women. We can do better. 

  6. One other pet peeve I’ve seen this week is people citing statistics of the number of women in CS and engineering programs in the US being at all time highs (or particularly the AP CS test having a majority of women taking it). That’s great, but retention of women in these fields is terrible. More women coming in the field is great, but they need to stay. We have a lot of work to do still.