A lack of diversity in the workplace is a multilayered problem; the roots of which extend across generations and color our perceptions and decisions. As I spend more years in the recruitment space, I’ve noticed just how much these inequities play out in the industry. There are major cracks in the system that create barriers and challenges to achieving total equity in the market. The issue cannot be solved overnight; it’s far too wide-ranging for that – but there are concrete ways we can work to break down these barriers to make things more equitable.
The problem starts in the supply chain. Historically in the United States, Black and Hispanic representation in STEM degrees has been extremely low - in fact, in 2016, just 6.2% of STEM graduates were Black. This number represents a noticeable decline from a peak in the mid-2000s where nearly 8% of STEM graduates identified as Black. As with all issues related to this topic, there are likely numerous factors at play.
One of the factors researchers honed in on, and that directly relates to the talent supply chain, is the gutting (and abolition in some cases) of policies aimed at increasing the recruitment and retention of minority Americans into these fields in academia. These affirmative action programs, which appeared after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, were intended to and effective at encouraging minorities to participate in fields where they had been historically and routinely denied access. The aforementioned mid-aughts peak for Black representation in STEM was the result of this work. However, the broadening of language and rescission of laws related to these policies has led to a reduction in their efficacy. This lack of minority graduates in STEM fields, in part, plays out as a lack of supply for STEM-related industries.
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are sorely underrepresented in tech overall. Black employees make up less than 5% of employees at many major firms. BIPOC makes up only 5% of Silicon Valley’s population overall according to one study by Wired. The perceived and obvious lack of presence contributes to detrimental trend that shines a light on the power of unconscious bias.
A 2016 report titled “Whitened résumés: Race and Self Representation in the Labor Market” showed the drastic steps some BIPOC have to take to mask their identities to even be considered for positions. The paper found that when recruiters were presented with identical résumés (in terms of merit, experience, and education), those with anglicized names fared better than those with ethnic names. To quote the report directly: “résumés containing minority racial cues, such as a distinctively African American or Asian name, led to 30-50 percent fewer callbacks from employers than equivalent résumés without the racial cues.” This is an example of one of the biggest problems inherent to the recruitment process: the individual biases of the recruiters, hirers, and decision-makers. Ethnic minorities should not be forced to flatten their experience and identities to take them where their skills and experience should be able to.
While I don’t think companies are maliciously looking to underrepresent or disenfranchise entire communities, the industry needs to be more aggressive in addressing these inequities. It’s well documented that matching AI used to train applicant tracking systems and recruitment portals can develop biases based on the information it is taught from. A white, male-dominated workplace tends to perpetuate itself by preferring similarly white male applicants.
One way to address this issue with homogeneity is to start at the beginning. Increasing recruitment from a variety of schools, not only Ivy Leagues, but HBCUs, community colleges, and institutions with smaller endowments (that are more likely to serve BIPOC) could help to greatly increase variety in the talent pipeline. Another way to broaden the base that matching technology works from is to train the technology on résumés with a wider range of skills, experiences, and aptitudes for roles. Perhaps a greater emphasis on soft skills and less preference for familiarity (in terms of experience like internships and membership to certain professional, social, or academic groups), can help to make a difference.
Furthermore, promoting the BIPOC within the organization and (if they desire it) giving them space and power to change the racial and ethnic makeup of the organization at large will help to further train matching technology and diversify the workforce from within.
One technical fix is increasing the prevalence and use of anonymizing résumé technology, which removes markers of race, sex, gender, or any potential “othering” information before résumés are presented to recruiters and hirers. Blockchain technology is an excellent aid to this end as it allows users to verify the veracity of the information while also allowing for privacy, confidentiality, and controlled access.
These fixes, while useful, must be coupled with frequent and focused anti-bias training within any organization. We all have biases shaped by the unfair society we live in and unpacking and unlearning them takes time and effort. Companies should be held accountable by employees, shareholders, and equity advocates for their shortcomings in these areas, while actively trying to correct their failings. It’s all good and well to hope and throw money at a problem, but without action and accountability, it’s a wasted investment.
The end goal for all of this is the creating and embracing of a truly equitable and meritocratic workplace that supports all employees and mirrors the markets these companies serve. To do this, we need to take make large-scale, unprecedented changes to address historic and ongoing inequality. There needs to be a fair distribution of opportunity and employment to ensure that everyone has the chance to see themselves in as many ways as possible. The end goal shouldn’t be to reach some arbitrary quota, but to ensure that a company is inclusive, expansive, and welcoming for anyone who wants to work there.
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