Since major tech players like Google and Facebook came out with their lackluster diversity figures last summer, tech companies big and small have started paying more attention to the industry’s diversity problem, emphasizing meritocracy when it comes to hiring and promoting.
That there is a problem is undeniable, but it turns out all that lip service about cultural change might actually have an inverse effect. Researchers from MIT and Indiana University call this the “paradox of meritocracy.” They found that managers in organizations emphasizing meritocracy as part of their company culture actually showed greater bias against women in their performance evaluations and rewards.
Rather than try to teach employees and managers to change unconscious behaviors, a better solution to the challenge of hiring bias, says Joan Williams, a law professor and founder of the Center For WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, is to intentionally interrupt biases. “When an organization lacks diversity, it’s not the employees who need fixing,” writes Williams in Harvard Business Review. “It’s the business systems.”
One startup, GapJumpers, has drawn inspiration from an unlikely place in its efforts to create a solution to the hiring problem at tech companies: reality TV, specifically the NBC singing competition, The Voice. The show, whose premise originated in Holland, uses blind auditions in which a panel of judges–the likes of which include Christina Aguilera and Pharrell–keep their backs turned to contestants while hearing them sing for the first time. “The Voice is a very good analogy to clearly explain the impact of blind auditions for actual hiring,” says Kedar Iyer, cofounder and CEO of GapJumpers, and, not surprisingly, a fan of The Voice. “If one industry, especially a shallow one like the music industry, can do [blind auditions], why can’t tech companies, which are so much more scientific, do them?”
Of course the impact of blind auditions on eliminating bias isn’t unique to The Voice Research by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford revealed that orchestras increased their number of women musicians from 5% to 25% since the 1970s because of one simple change. Judges began auditioning musicians behind screens so that they could not see them. Simply knowing a candidate was a man had automatically upped that man’s chances of being selected.
Those same challenges of unconscious bias translate across industries and are particularly pronounced in the tech world. Hiring managers might prefer male candidates to female ones, judge potential hires by their names or alma maters, or allow other identifying details to taint their hiring decisions. One study in the American Journal of Sociology, for example, found that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired for a tech position and are offered an average of $11,000 less in salary. Williams calls this the “maternal wall bias.”
Taking measures to prevent such biases from kicking in means establishing “bias interrupters”–steps that “change the basic business system in a way that stops a pattern of bias in its tracks,” according to Williams. For example, research by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that simply adding the words “salary negotiable” to a job description helped significantly close the negotiation gap between men and women, who might otherwise be less inclined to negotiate their salary.
GapJumpers is trying to get in on this “bias interruption” approach. Last June, the company began providing software that enables tech companies to offer an open-ended challenge to job candidates before they can progress to a phone or in-person interview. The companies don’t have any identifying information about candidates like names, gender, or where they went to school. “We’ve tried to defer any judgment until you’ve evaluated capabilities,” says Iyer.
For its first seven months in business, GapJumpers gathered data from nearly 1,200 auditions across 13 companies–attempting to see how the numbers stacked up when the early stages of hiring were done blindly. They found that male applicants raised concerns about having to prove themselves in a blind test more often than women. Once the blind challenge was completed, the gender breakdown of those candidates hired was 58% women, 42% men.
“The complaint for any company can never be there aren’t enough women applying, at least at the entry-level space in tech and design,” says Iyer. “We can’t change how humans are wired. That’s going to take a long time. We are trying to move the process of judgment so that it’s based on evidence and not just perception.”