Tweaking The Meritocracy

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.

23 comments on “Tweaking The Meritocracy

  1. Hunting Guy

    Rhetorical question.

    When are these people going to realize that there are not enough female civil engineers, Black coders, Hispanic lawyers, etc to fill all the slots?

    1. SHG Post author

      That just presents new problems demanding further social engineering. Don’t you think we’re up to the task?

  2. B. McLeod

    If the problem has shifted to post-hiring issues, our progressive society of today allows the women to fix this by “identifying” as men. Further, if for any reason that does not work, employers can extend the “masking” from blind hiring to the daily workplace by having all employees wear bulky space suits or pressure diving suits, with their helmets on. As in the military, the suits and helmets will display only the gender-neutral last names of the workers, and all employees at all levels will be required to address one another only by those names. Problem solved! On to the next divisive conundrum!

  3. Derek Ramsey

    “women complain they feel unwelcome in STEM education.”

    That’s bizarre. When I was in college the men tried hard to make the women feel welcome, at least those men with enough social skills to even look at or talk to a woman. I’ve never once run into a male programmer (or any other related IT field) that thought women were a threat to them. What an odd complaint.

    I’ve interviewed a number of women for coding positions and almost universally they’ve been impressive. More importantly, they’re in high demand. We’ve made offers to a number of them who then turned down those offers in order to take salaries well above the market average at other companies. The tiny pool of female applicants for programming positions is a huge annoyance when it comes to hiring for quality. I’ve only managed to hire one.

    “the other half is assuring women they won’t have to hide who they are when they show up.”

    I don’t buy it. Is Katharine Zaleski making this stuff up just to sell her services?

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s an excuse for everything. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to fill the gap in narrative.

    2. delurking

      “women complain they feel unwelcome in STEM education.”

      In my experience, STEM education makes everyone feel unwelcome. That is true whether you are applying to be an undergraduate student, graduate student, or faculty member. The higher you go, the more unwelcome it makes you feel, regardless of gender.

  4. MelK

    Businesses have been having to reinvent themselves since before the 40-hour work week. q.v. salaried positions. This is just the flavor of the hour.

    1. SHG Post author

      Businesses reinvent themselves organically. If they can’t hire qualified employees for the minimum wage, they pay more. If employees need specialized skills, they require those skills. But they change to accommodate business needs. This is the opposite and externally driven.

      1. Frank

        “If employees need specialized skills, they require those skills.”

        Yup, require 2 years experience in a platform that’s been out 9 months. Which is another story.

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