Tech & Work

Can these tech tools fight gender bias and increase workplace diversity?

New software programs aim to do what unconscious bias training has not yet accomplished: Create blind hiring processes and diversify tech workplaces.

Last month, Qualcomm Incorporated agreed to pay $19.5 million to settle a gender discrimination class action suit—the latest high-profile case to hit headlines and make tech companies reevaluate their own hiring and retention practices.

As tech giants release employee statistics and draw criticism against their overwhelmingly white male ranks, a number of startups launched in recent years aim to offer more blind hiring practices and increase numbers of women and minorities at companies. These span from job posting tools like Textio, which analyzes job postings for gender bias, to Ellen Pao's Project Include, which focuses on managing talent once it's in-house.

Several studies demonstrate the benefits of diverse workforces, including increased financial returns. Yet, the percentage of women among US tech workers has steadily declined over the past two decades. Women held 25% of professional computing occupations in 2015, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology—down from an all-time high of 36% in 1991.

SEE: Women in tech: 20 stories of women doing big things with their tech skills

As a fix, industry leaders such as Apple, Intel, Google, and others spent millions of dollars in recent years on diversity initiatives and unconscious bias training. But, several studies show that this training usually does not increase workplace diversity. Even worse, another study found that raising awareness of bias can actually strengthen it.

"In tech companies, things are not getting better nearly as fast as they should," said Laura Mather, founder and CEO of Unitive, software created to remove unconscious bias in the hiring process. "Silicon Valley claims to be a data-driven society. But we look at the data and see not much has changed, yet continue with the same behavior, thinking that if we keep training people it will go away."

Read on for some of the tech tools that may help your company diversify its pool of candidates and select the person who is truly best for the job.

Helping hiring managers

Programs such as Unitive aid hiring managers in constructing a job post, reviewing resumes, and performing structured, quantifiable interviews. Unitive launched in 2015, and hundreds of companies now use it, said Mather.

A lack of diversity means missing out on products that could benefit more than half the population, Mather said. "The companies who get to it first are going to win on multiple dimensions—hiring better people, getting better market share, and beating competitors," she added. "The companies who wake up to what is happening and create change will have a huge competitive advantage."

Lever, an applicant tracking company, highlighted the work of customer KeepSafe on a "no resume campaign," in which they asked job candidates to describe projects they worked on without naming the companies they worked for.

"It opened their eyes to a whole slate of candidates who probably wouldn't have made it through a resume screen because they hadn't worked for flashy brands," said Leela Srinivasan, CMO of Lever. "At the end of the day, an interviewer should be diving into someone's experiences, and understanding what the candidate has accomplished and how they could bring value to their organization."

SEE: How venture capital must change: Gender equality as a business opportunity

Retaining women

Gender bias often creeps into not only hiring practices, but employee performance reviews, with women less likely to be marked as having leadership potential, said Gabby Burlacu, human capital management researcher at SAP SuccessFactors, a program that aims to objectively assess employee potential and identify, develop, and retain talent.

SuccessFactors offers a Calibration tool designed to help managers with performance management. In the coming months, a new version will alert managers to gender bias issues. For example, if all of the employees designated "high potential" are males, or if a woman who went on maternity leave was demoted.

Measuring the problem is only the start, Burlacu said. "None of these product features by themselves are going to solve everything," she added. "You need to keep coming back to the numbers as you create programs and drive change."

Equity for freelancers

In response to the federal government's Hack the Pay Gap effort, Accenture developed a prototype to address gender pay issues among freelance workers—a growing problem, since over 40% of the US workforce will be part of the freelance labor market by 2020, according to a study by financial services company Intuit.

"In freelance labor markets, people are negotiating their pay on a daily or weekly basis," said Mary Hamilton, managing director of the Accenture Lab in Silicon Valley. "If women undervalue themselves, they will be consistently growing the pay gap."

The program examines the language of job posts to determine gender equity. For example, the team learned that women will often self-select out of jobs if a posting has a long list of job requirements. "A woman will typically look at that and say, 'I don't have all those qualifications, I won't apply,'" Hamilton said. "But a man will look at it and say 'I have a few of those, I will apply.'"

Gender bias also sneaks into the freelance hiring process during the vetting process, when certain candidates are selected and given a sample task. The Accenture prototype asks all candidates applying to complete the same set of exercises to show their abilities.

A dashboard shows companies where in the hiring process they are losing diverse candidates—be it the job posting, the vetting stage, or the interview stage. Additionally, a list of relevant comparable salary and hourly wage data will help both candidates and job posters to negotiate more consistently and fairly.

Going beyond software

Some researchers remain skeptical of the ability of software and algorithms to truly lead to change.

"While employers might see these algorithms as efficient and fair, they also have to be cognizant about how the algorithms are being programmed, and vigilant that the programming doesn't continue the discriminatory practices," said law professor and sociologist Ifeoma Ajunwa. And, humans ultimately end up deciding what factors to weigh and who gets the job, she added.

Ultimately, companies must use these tools as part of a larger diversity plan to lead to stronger products and profits.

"Beyond hiring algorithms, a workplace diversity effort needs to look at the pipeline," Ajunwa said. "By the time you get to the people who are actually applying, the pool has already been significantly narrowed because of issues of access to education needed for that kind of job."

Diversity efforts from corporations should start at the high school and college level, encouraging women and minorities to take the steps that would make them competitive at the hiring stage later, Ajunwa added.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Women working in professional computing dropped to 25% in 2015. Several startups that launched in the past few years hope to get more women hired in the field using algorithms to diversify candidate pools.
  2. These companies offer service that analyze job posts, interview methods, salary offers and performance management systems for gender bias.
  3. Though these tools may be part of a solution to increase diversity, tech managers must also examine factors such as how the algorithms work and talent pipeline issues in order to draw the best candidates from all backgrounds.

Also see

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Image: iStock/Leo Wolfert

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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