If you believe the narrative, then the solution seems obvious. The problem arises when the narrative isn’t real, so the solution doesn’t work.
In the fall, in meetings with potential clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became aware of a dangerous trend: Employers are turning to techniques that “mask” the gender of the candidates they interview — removing names from résumés and altering voices on phone calls, for example — with the hope that this will offer a quick fix to diversity failures.
These gender-masking tools and the related trend of “blind hiring” have recently been chronicled in The New York Times and Wired, and discussed at tech conferences. One head of talent at a major financial services company told me she’s getting up to five pitches a week for tools that can mask applicants’ gender. My team is regularly told by potential clients in the Fortune 100 that they are already using tools to obscure gender in hiring. Yelp has tried using a voice disguiser on initial interview calls to hide applicants’ gender.
There aren’t enough women in tech. Strip job applicants of gender and have them compete for jobs solely on qualifications. Surely that will eliminate bias. Or not.
This is a misguided distraction from the hard work of evaluating and fixing the ways in which their cultures drive out the women who are actually hired.
This is a tacit shift in focus, having nothing to do with hiring. So blind hiring works?
But it has become clear that masking is, at best, a partial solution. While it might allow more women to get through interview rounds, there is little evidence that it would get more women hired. In fact, the low-tech version of masking — removing names from résumés — has been tried, without much documented success.
First, the pool of female applicants was very small to start.
The explanation for this goes two ways. On the one hand, you can’t force women to become coders if they prefer a different course of study. On the other hand, women complain they feel unwelcome in STEM education.
Second, her team tended to discount a résumé with a gap that signaled it had been submitted by a woman who took time off for caregiving.
Any resume with a gap raises a red flag, for legitimate reasons. In some cases, there may be perfectly valid explanations for the gap, but that would require a potential employer to learn that a women left the workforce to have a child, which would in turn mean that the whole blind thing got in the way.
Removing gender identifiers helped women through the first screening, but at traditional interviews, the positive effects were undone by hiring managers’ biases.
Whether or not the problem was bias isn’t empirical, but narrative, putting the process back where it started. But even if the hiring process produced the outcomes desired, the employment process would still be insufficient to meet the challenge.
The biggest problem with gender is that it allows companies to ignore the challenges of making their environments more inclusive.
Gender-masking tools do nothing to address the culture of a company. One of the central reasons the number of women at tech companies remains so pitifully low is that these companies are not creating environments where women feel they can thrive.
This remarkably vague complaint is fleshed out by an example.
Over the summer a hiring manager at a major media company my start-up works with discounted a strong senior software engineer candidate after she told him she’d work 10 to 12 hours a day but occasionally needed to work remotely so that she could pick up her child from day care. “This isn’t a nine-to-five organization,” he responded.
This certainly smells of googlism, a culture of extremely long hours, dedication to the company at the expense of work/life balance, and remarkably high pay in return. It’s not for everybody, and there is nothing wrong with a job applicant, or a company, realizing that it’s not a good fit.
What is not acceptable is the complaint the businesses reinvent themselves to meet whatever job applicants feel like doing. No one says you have to work for a company that demands more than you’re willing to give. But no company owes you a job that suits your chosen lifestyle.
By not being masked, at least she learned that company would be a terrible fit for her.
And what if her identity had been hidden? The hiring manager would have probably driven her from the job in a few months, wasting his time, her time and the company’s resources.
And this is certainly the likely outcome, a product of crafting solutions based on false narratives. Unsurprisingly, there is another narrative constructed to address the flaws of this one. It goes that businesses should change their culture to accommodate the special needs of women, by providing paid leave, child care, remote working, in order to staff with women while allowing them to deal with their personal needs.
The argument in favor of placing the burden on business to accommodate the individual, rather than the individual to accommodate the requirements of their job, is that the things women do benefit society. And, indeed, they do. But benefiting society isn’t the reason businesses exist.
Yes, half the battle is getting more women in the room, but the other half is assuring women they won’t have to hide who they are when they show up.
There was a time, way back when, when the feminist narrative was that women can have it all. As it later became clear, they can’t unless they’re willing to forego aspects of life like having children, and that a choice had to be made.
Now, the narrative is that there is a choice to be made, but it should be made by the employer rather than the employee. Is this narrative any more valid than its predecessors? If not, then it will be unmasked as a failure.