Business

How to fix Google’s gender gap in 3 weeks

Above: The main campus of the Googleplex has reflective-glass buildings.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/VentureBeat

The U.S. tech industry is overwhelmingly male (as recent self-reported demographic data from Google and other top Internet companies confirm), especially among its highly paid technical employees. To judge by many solutions proposed by well-meaning tech leaders, the path to gaining more gender balance is a long one: Better STEM education for girls, more outreach by engineering schools to young women in college, free online code lessons for women beyond the classroom, and so on.

All very laudable, to be sure, but also projects where a positive outcome may not be seen for years, if not decades — even assuming the public and private support for them can be sustained.

So what if I was to suggest an additional strategy where tangible results might be seen in weeks or even days?

Let me explain:

Earlier this summer, my tech company needed to hire a new client-services executive. We were preparing to begin the traditional hiring process most other firms use (LinkedIn, headhunters, e-mail, resumes, etc.), when a thought occurred to us:

Why not hire someone through an online contest?

As the founder of an online competition platform, I’ve seen contests inspire and showcase amazing resourcefulness and creativity, often from very unexpected applicants. Major organizations like NASA and Stanford encourage bottom-up creativity and initiative through online contests. Could we apply a similar system as an HR resource in corporate hiring?

In three weeks, we had an answer that surprised us, and gave me great hope that something like it, properly implemented and scaled, might help us address tech’s gender gap — sooner, rather than later.
Anonymized applicants means results-based reviews
In the first week, we defined the job role, designed and deployed a simple online questionnaire form, and posted the opening on Craigslist and other job boards. We received more than 100 replies. However, rather than request a standard cover letter and resume, we asked applicants to click the contest link and fill out the form. We purposely kept the questions open-ended, such as asking would-be employees to describe in their own words our business and their potential role in it — and to describe how they would connect two common household objects in an innovative way.

Of the 100 replies, about 15-20 took the time to fully submit questions. (The time and effort required to fill out our questionnaire, as opposed to quickly firing off a form cover letter and resume, had the added benefit of winnowing down the submissions pile to just the most serious applicants.) We closely reviewed each of these submissions during the second week. Submissions were anonymized, so no one in the selection committee could know the names, genders, education or previous places of employment of our finalists until they were selected — a very important part of this process, for reasons I’ll explain down the way.

At the start of the third week, we had selected four finalists we’d call for an in-person interview. All of them had demonstrated in their questionnaire superb professionalism, creativity, enthusiasm, and ability to articulate our company’s value proposition. And it was only then that we lifted the veil of anonymity, so we could see these finalists’ LinkedIn accounts.

Three of our four finalists were women, one of whom is African-American.

As I said, we believe anonymizing the entries greatly helped eliminate bias in the judging process. A recent study of emails sent from prospective grad students to academics suggests that even knowing a candidate’s name significantly leads to selection bias against women and minorities (however unconscious), while benefiting white males. Making our questionnaire open-ended also helped encourage improvisation and initiative — traits we value in a client-services executive who must constantly think on his feet.

Or in this case, her feet: After an impressive in-person interview, we were proud to welcome Melody King, the first woman to join our small team. (Like most tech companies, we too have a long way to go.)
Transforming tech with tech’s own tools
If tech companies experimented with a similar system, would they wind up with a finalist pool as diverse as ours? To be sure, that’s far from certain in many cases: The talent pool of qualified female engineering graduates, for instance, still lags behind its male counterpart. HR departments at major corporations, unfamiliar with online contest systems and how to design them, may have difficulty with implementation, to cite just some of the potential stumbling blocks.

However, I’m reasonably certain of two things: If gender bias can begin with even knowing the name of a qualified candidate, an anonymized online competition eliminates that prejudice before it has a chance to corrupt the process. More key: All the major technology companies already have the software tools at their disposal to try something like this. My company is fortunate to have its own competition system, but a single staffer at Google (for example), could customize a similar solution in Google Docs in a matter of hours. So why not try?

We in tech pride ourselves on being able to disrupt outdated business practices. We must now use our own tools to disrupt our own industry, which consistently excludes and undervalues women — which is surely the most outdated way of doing business of all.

Anil Rathi is founder of Innovation Challenge, the world’s largest and longest running university innovation competition, and CEO of Skild, a competition studio based in Los Angeles. 


VentureBeat is studying the state of marketing technology. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.
19 comments
Kristine M. Newman
Kristine M. Newman

Catchy title aside, I find the article's content very compelling.  I'm a 'woman in tech' and the President of Women in Wireless.   I think the anonymous applications and/or online contents for hiring can provide new data points to help identify how the gender bias is created and perpetuated.    

To the trolls: The fact that the gender gap is a problem in the technology industry has been established.  Google is already investing $50M to close it. 

Wayne Vaughan
Wayne Vaughan

Ridiculous. I've been in tech since the mid 90s. I started by working in a computer store (yes, they once existed) and have been running a tech company for 18 years. I've only come across a small percentage of women job applicants. Thankfully this is changing. There are fewer women in tech for the same reason there are fewer male hairstylists and nurses. These differences are driven by culture and the choices of individuals. It has almost nothing to do with bias of hiring managers towards whites and asian males.

임로드
임로드

Very disappointed in VentureBeat...

Byung Sa
Byung Sa

Something about this article smell very fishy.   I highly doubt the validity of the article due to the subject nature of it.  I'm pretty sure tests like these have the questions and the process itself biased to get the results they want.  


I can prove that many asians don't actually eat asian food.   I'll go to PF Changs and do a survey on the diversity of people eating there.  I just used a scientific method and study and proved my point through my study. 


Also, people who are very skilled won't bother going through a circus loop to be "reviewed" by you.  You didn't "winnow" serious applicants in, you "winnow"ed out the good applicants.  Seriously, this is a bad article.



Mathew D Rockefeller
Mathew D Rockefeller

@Mike McGetrick gets it. There simply aren't that many girls in engineering departments, so there aren't that many to hire. until that gets fixes, the numbers at these companies can't help but be where that are genderwise.

Joshua Darlington
Joshua Darlington

Btw The wisdom of the market paradigm ended in like 1980 w behavioral economics or whatever. Orgs w more women are measured w higher group IQ.

Joshua Darlington
Joshua Darlington

If your customer base is all young white/asian male engineers, then perhaps a bias toward hiring people w similar outlook makes sense. Otherwise you risk alienating mis serving the needs of the market and under performing.

Mike McGetrick
Mike McGetrick

Don't you get that most engineering schools are 75-80% male (predominantly white and asian), and therefore if you made it gender- and race-anonymous you might wind up with worse diversity than you have now.

Anze Aaron Sustar
Anze Aaron Sustar

What happened to hiring the best people for the job regardless of their gender?

Jakub Kocinski
Jakub Kocinski

You hired 1 woman. And this will fix google imbalance with 50k employees working and .. In 3 weeks ? Yup good luck and good night.

Miao ZhiCheng
Miao ZhiCheng

It's the market setting this gender imbalance up. If you really want more balance, try apply less tax or alike to females. Any attempt to wrestle with the market is doomed to no avail.

Susan Gibbons
Susan Gibbons

Great idea. I'm sure you got a great new employee

I would work for Google for free

I know that the perspective I have as a 53 yo woman, former coder in in the 1980s could be utilized. It's not just a gender thing, it's an age thing too.

Millennial generation and boomers look at the same things differently

Anil Rathi
Anil Rathi

Hi Anze, That's the point of anonymizing gender.

Anil Rathi
Anil Rathi

@Susan Gibbons I agree with you. Fresh and different perspectives on the same problems are so critical for innovation.