“If someone came in right now and announced that the zombie apocalypse had just started outside, what would you do in the next hour? What is something that you’re geeky about? What is a superpower you would give to your best friend?”
Dropbox, which provides online storage, is clearly looking for creative people who can think outside the box and wants to make interviews more fun. It is not alone; many Silicon Valley companies ask such questions. The problem is that such questions are fun only for people who understand the jokes — and who can think like the young men doing the interviews.
They don’t lead to better hiring outcomes, as Google learned. Its senior vice president for people operations, Laszlo Bock, said last June in an interview with New York Times, “…we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”
Such hiring practices also disadvantage women. They hurt the employer by limiting the talent pool. They fortify the male-dominated, frat-boy culture that Silicon Valley is increasingly being criticized for.
Telle Whitney, CEO of Anita Borg Institute, which is working on getting more women to study computer science and have more women fully engaged in creating technology, says its research shows questions such as these cause women to get screened out more often than men. As an example, the superhero concept is going to resonate much more with men, as demonstrated by the demographics of the superhero movie attendance. Whitney cites research which shows that a strong and pervasive stereotype of computer professionals as devoid of a social life alienates women. Subtle cues in the physical environment of companies such as Star Trek posters and video games lead to women being less interested in being a part of an organization when compared to a neutral office environment. This causes women to self-select out of technology jobs.
Indeed, the trend is getting worse. In 1985, 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients were women. By 2011 this proportion had dropped to 18 percent. Most technology firms refuse to release gender and diversity numbers. Data collected on Github explains why. Dropbox, for example, had only 9 women in its 143 person engineering team as of October 2013. That’s 6.3 percent in an industry in which 18 percent of the hiring pool is women.
Dropbox recently completed $250 million of funding at a valuation close to $10 billion according to the Wall Street Journal. It is rumored to be heading towards an IPO. The company has been expanding its hiring yet the number of women in management is declining. Kim Malone Scott, who headed operations and sales, left in April 2013; Anna Christina Douglas, who headed product marketing, left in August; and VP of Operations Ruchi Sanghvi left the company last October.
Two former female employees and one current employee of Dropbox shared their concerns with me. They asked not to be named because they had signed non-disparagement agreements and feared negative consequences for their careers if they spoke critically of Dropbox. One wrote in an e-mail, “When I interviewed for Dropbox, I was interviewed in a room called ‘The Break-up Room,’ by a male. It was right next to a room called the ‘Bromance Chamber.’ It felt weird I would be interviewed in such a strangely named conference room.” She said that “every time the company holds an all hands ‘goals’ meeting, the only people who talk are men. There are no females in leadership. The highest ranking is a team lead on the User Ops team.”
She spoke up because she believes that “having more females in leadership positions results in more females; when they all leave those positions, it signals poorly to the rest of us.” Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, was invited in by Dropbox to talk about hidden bias research and how it may apply to startups. Her husband, Mitch Kapor, also came to the talk as someone who has been a successful entrepreneur and feels that the culture set at the outset of a company is critical. (Coincidentally they became shareholders in Dropbox, when the company bought a startup in which they had invested.) Klein says that Dropbox executives, like other startup founders, honestly believe they are a meritocracy and are unaware as to how hidden bias operates. Employee referrals play a large role in their hiring as in most start-ups which further introduces bias and makes the culture exclusionary.
Klein’s advice to Dropbox? “Founders are looking for ‘objective’ measures such as school ranking, GPAs, SAT scores, but fail to recognize that these are biased. Dropbox and other start-ups should pioneer new ways to identify people who can succeed on the core set of job responsibilities.
“Perhaps a question on how Dropbox might be used to solve income inequality or the unaffordability of housing in San Francisco would reveal as much about someone’s creativity—and more about their character—than questions about superheroes.”
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke’s engineering school and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. His past appointments include Harvard Law School and University of California Berkeley.
This story originally appeared on the Washington Post.