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.