Achieving Workplace Diversity

It takes a whole lot of work to net small gains for underrepresented groups.

Jessica Nordell‘s report on “How Slack Got Ahead in Diversity” demonstrates that it takes a whole lot of work to net small gains for underrepresented groups. The setup:

Slack has been outperforming other Silicon Valley companies, and its current numbers show that the trend has continued. At Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, women hold between 19 percent and 28 percent of leadership positions and between 19 percent and 20 percent of technical roles, according to those companies’ most recent figures. At Slack, women make up 31 percent of leaders and hold 34 percent of technical roles. Also, in Slack’s U.S. workforce, percentages of underrepresented minorities (including black or African-American, Hispanic or Latino, or American Indian or Alaskan employees), are, in some cases, triple that of peer companies. At Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, underrepresented minorities hold between 4 and almost 8 percent of technical roles and make up less than 11 percent of all employees. At Slack, by contrast, underrepresented minorities make up almost 13 percent of technical roles and roughly 13 percent of all employees; they also make up 6 percent of leadership. The number of Hispanic women at the company has more than doubled since last year. The number of Hispanic men more than quadrupled.

These are rather stark differences. It wasn’t easy:

For one thing, the company has, since 2015, proactively sought out candidates from outside traditional programmer pipelines like Stanford and MIT, recruiting through all-women’s coding camps like Hackbright, as well as programs that focus on training black and Latino programmers such as Code2040. Recruiters are trained to look at skills rather than a candidate’s university pedigree. In 2015, Slack worked with Textio, a company that analyzes job descriptions to ensure they appeal to the widest possible audience. (Slack’s job descriptions feature phrases like “care deeply” and “lasting relationships,” which statistically draw more applications from women. Microsoft’s, by contrast, feature words like “insatiably” and “competing.” Amazon’s keywords: “maniacal” and “wickedly.”)

The company has also worked to eliminate opportunities for bias to creep into its hiring process. The “whiteboard interview,” for instance, is a classic part of software hiring in which candidates are asked to solve a coding problem in real time. But tracing one’s thought process with a dry-erase marker in front of a live, skeptical audience can create extra stressors for people from underrepresented groups. Interpersonal phenomena like stereotype threat, in which people from stigmatized groups spend mental energy grappling with negative stereotypes about those groups, can lead women and minorities with the same skills to perform more poorly.

So, from the beginning, Slack forwent whiteboard interviews in favor of a blind code review—modeled on the blind auditions that orchestras hold—in which candidates are given a problem to complete at home. All personal identifiers are wiped from each candidate’s homework, which is then evaluated against a rigorous checklist. Not only does this help eliminate stereotype threat, but it assures candidates they’ll be judged fairly. When it became clear, last year, that this approach presented additional challenges for candidates who cared for children and didn’t have dedicated time for homework, the company shifted gears again. Candidates now have the option to do the assignment in the office if they prefer. “It’s a huge competitive advantage to be empathetic,” Grace told me. “Candidates know that the company is excited to accommodate them.”

In 2016, Slack also revamped how it interviews candidates. Bias has the potential to wreak havoc on that process: Interviewers may inadvertently favor candidates who resemble themselves, and if criteria for a job are ambiguous, interviewers may mentally rejigger those criteria to fit whatever a favored candidate has. The technical term for this is “redefining merit,” and it’s a classic manifestation of bias. (In one study, people evaluating candidates for police chiefs were asked whether education or experience were more important for the job. When the male candidate had more education, they said education was more important. When the female candidate had more education, they preferred experience.)

So a team at Slack rebuilt the interview process. For each role, the team determined what characteristics and skills a successful candidate should have—communication skills, say, or capacity for teamwork. Then, for each of these, they defined what information they needed to assess those skills, and then devised a list of behavioral questions expressly aimed at sussing out that information, questions like “Tell me about a stressful situation, and how did it go?” or “Tell me about a change to your code base.” Each candidate now faces the same set of questions. “If you ask every candidate the same question,” Grace told me, “you start to see what a good answer looks like.”

Finally, interviewers were asked to do mock interviews with existing employees, the way doctors practice on fake patients. The interviewers themselves became more skilled—and less likely to introduce biases that could filter out good candidates.

This approach, in aggregate, seems to be working: Women in technical roles, for instance, are up almost 5 percentage points from last year. “Folks on my team very regularly talk about how this is the most diverse company that they’ve ever worked at,” Grace told me.

In order to make slow but steady gains in diversity, then, Slack has had to upend the entire culture of the tech industry and, indeed, most of the business world.

Hiring mostly from Stanford and MIT (and a handful of other great tech schools) is perfectly understandable, since their selection processes ensure people with strong aptitude and work ethic. But, in a world where women have outnumbered men in the undergraduate student body for decades, the reverse is true at both Stanford and MIT. Both schools have done a reasonable job of attracting African American and Hispanic students but they’re still underrepresented. (Stanford hits above the national average for Hispanics, but well below California’s demographics).

The other steps taken are intriguing and likely wouldn’t have ever occurred to me.

Having applied for a handful of jobs in the media sector, I always took signals in the job announcement that they expected the eventual hiree to work an inordinate amount of hours for not that much money as a helpful sign that it would suck to work there. But it’s likely true that more men than women have the flexibility and desire to apply for jobs with words like “insatiable” and “maniacal” in the announcements. Conversely, if I saw “care deeply” and “lasting relationships” in the announcement, I would take them as virtue signaling, not a thing for which they were actually screening.

Speaking for myself, I find questions like ”Tell me about a stressful situation, and how did it go?” incredibly frustrating. My brain just isn’t wired to answer that sort of thing off-the-cuff. I don’t have a catalog of “stressful situations” in my memory banks; I just deal with things as they come and move forward. There’s no obvious reason, though, that the question would have implicit gender or cultural biases.

While the tech world has to overcome “bro culture” and underrepresentation of women in the academic pipeline, achieving diversity there may actually be an easier task than it is in more people-oriented industries. With some work, it would seem relatively easy to figure out what skills one needs in a coder or designer and systematically test for those.

Having sat on numerous hiring committees, we all bring implicit and explicit biases to the table. Granting that academic and think tank hiring is somewhat different from that in Silicon Valley, most of us genuinely want to diversify our team. But we certainly privilege candidates from prestige schools, for example; that’s true even of those, like myself, who did not graduate from one. We look for certain career paths on the CV, tending to weed out those that deviate too much from the norm.

We don’t have a whiteboard coding demonstration but we do have a teaching demonstration. Given that our students are mostly uniformed military officers in their 30s, that’s almost certainly to the disadvantage of women and very young candidates. But I haven’t the foggiest idea what we would substitute for that exercise to suss out those who lack the personality to be effective in the classroom.

The interview process is problematic all the way around since it’s nearly impossible to recognize our own biases. We do in fact use standardized questions for each candidate in the pool but we certainly don’t do multiple rounds of practice interviews ahead of time. Since we do the interviews ourselves, rather than outsourcing to a human resources team, that would be an unreasonable burden. But, of course, the interview process rewards those who are comfortable in the setting and penalizes the awkward and introverted. Then again, the whole process advantages extroverts; I’m not sure how to fix that—or whether we’d even want to.

Additionally, we live in a social media world. We can make résumé scanning and test evaluation blind by removing names and other signifiers of gender and ethnicity. Presumably, though, firms will do due diligence in searching for LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and other open accounts. I suppose doing so later in the process rather than earlier would minimize the bias reintroduced by the search.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Gender Issues, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SKI says:

    It may take more work initially but it does create a competitive advantage by widening the talent pool. Companies do a lot more for lesser advantages.

  2. Andy says:

    It’s good see companies rethink the hiring process. And, considering how important employees are, it’s especially good to see some companies invest more time, energy and money into finding the right talent instead of the usual methods which tend to do the minimum for most positions.

  3. Gustopher says:

    It seems like a lot of work.

    For a company like Slack, which is building communication products, a diverse workforce has immediately tangible benefits — different groups are going to react differently to the software, and having a diverse group of employees they are going to find issues long before releasing them into the world. It’s part of why they are successful.

    (I interviewed at a company years ago, where they wanted to compare customers with monkeys as an April Fool’s Joke. I asked whether they had ever shown this to a black person, or a young earth creationist… good times)

    But, if the role was to design a database engine… I’m not sure there really is a distinctive feminine viewpoint to maintaining an index. And, there are almost always men good enough to do the job, even if they aren’t the very best. In that spot, going through the hoops to maintain a diverse workforce is all about fairness to the prospective employees, and I would expect a lot of companies wouldn’t bother with the cost and effort.

  4. Gustopher says:

    Speaking for myself, I find questions like ”Tell me about a stressful situation, and how did it go?” incredibly frustrating. My brain just isn’t wired to answer that sort of thing off-the-cuff. I don’t have a catalog of “stressful situations” in my memory banks; I just deal with things as they come and move forward.

    As someone who has had to ask this type of question, I can say that would be a great first answer. I would then prod and poke to try to bring up an example. “What about a time when you were asked to do something objectively stupid on the job?”

  5. Kit says:

    People’s confidence in their ability to conduct an interview pretty much mirrors their confidence in their own common sense. My experience is that most people aren’t really sure of the sort of skills that are really needed, and have almost zero ability to recognize the best candidate.

    I suspect that if new hires were evaluated after some decent period, and that those involved in the interview process were rewarded or punished accordingly, then we would see a real push into making the interview process based on something more than gut bias and prejudice.

  6. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The main problem of Silicon Valley is that, unless you are a single male that does not have sex these extremely long working days and hours you are not going to endure working weeks of 60 hours or more. You might find small numbers of women willing to do that, but you need to rethink your work conditions if you want a diverse workforce.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    “Tell me about a stressful situation, and how did it go?

    Well, there was this one time a guy asked me a question about how I deal with stress and I jumped over the desk and stabbed a pencil in his eye. A pencil just like the ones on your desk right now. Do I get the job?

  8. george says:

    I notice the term now being used is “underrepresented minorities” rather than minorities; I assume this is because the percentage of whites in silicon valley is pretty much the same as their percentage of the population. The problem then is the over representation of certain Asian groups rather than of whites.

    Which raises the question: should all workplaces over a certain size have workers of the same proportionality as the general public? This may or may not be a good thing, but why not be explicit about the question?

    I note that women are still underrepresented, they’re at about 20% rather than 50%, so while whites in general are at the expected number, males are over represented by 30%

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @george: To me the real problem is the overrepresentation of women in retail and services sector, that have low wages, low unionization and low job security. I’d rather have less women working on McDonalds than more women on Google or in Executive suites.

    On the other hand if companies want more diverse workforce they should be willing to improve their working conditions and hours. That’s the elephant in the room with Google: their work hours and working conditions are not suitable for married women, and really not for women with children.

  10. george says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Good points. Its certainly true in hi-tech in general; especially the work hours. I’ve heard less complaints about conditions (or more specifically, everyone has complaints of one kind or another, most often a variation of a-hole managers), but working hours tend to be hard on anyone with a family.

    But given that most jobs are in the service industry, and they’re generally low paid, and as you say over-represented by women, finding a way to improve their conditions and wages would be a much bigger benefit. How to get there is of course the question.

  11. de stijl says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    On the other hand if companies want more diverse workforce they should be willing to improve their working conditions and hours. That’s the elephant in the room with Google: their work hours and working conditions are not suitable for married women, and really not for women with children.

    So spot on. One underrated factor is time / effort. If you are attached to a tech project, the expectation is that you will contribute 70 – 100 per week during crunch time. Which can totally rock if you’re single with no family responsibilities and you’re paid by the hour.

    One project early in my work life, I did not have a day off for nine months – seven days a week, averaged ~14 hours a day. “Emergency” overnighters two to five times per month. Per week, the minimum hours would be 80, and the average would be ~100 hrs/ wk.

    I was single, no kids. That perceived minimum effort would knock out any single parent.

    The stupid bit on my part was that I was salaried at the time and didn’t ask for appropriate compensation. (I got pay back later.)

    Expect to never see your friends, food is fuel, stress is constant, your psyche becomes very brittle.

    My “boss” was consultant who billed out at $250 / hr. He was rarely on site and called me 10 -20 per day with radically new work directives with every call. “Do this!” “Why are you doing that? This new thing that has never been mentioned before is obviously more important, idiot!”

    And it turned out that the project sponsor was in cahoots with the primary consulting group and was double dipping. That MFer made my life hell and was getting a kick-back.

    I put in my two-weeks three days before project delivery date because I was spent. That schedule is unsustainable.

    The reason that tech companies are bro-ish is that they groom bros. You cannot succeed and advance unless you cede your soul to them as evidenced by hours. No mother / care-giver could contribute the hours that these companies deem as the minimum requirement for employment.

    F*uck those guys.

    My sweet revenge was that for the next seven years I was a contractor working at (not for) the same company making so much fvcking bank (my bill rate was outrageous and they paid it with no push back and I worked ~50 hours / week and had a life.

  12. DrDaveT says:

    James, I’ve been fairly critical of some of your recent articles, so I wanted to be sure to say that I thought this one was very well-considered, balanced, and thoughtful. Nicely done.

    I’ve been involved in a lot of hiring decisions over the past few years, and have had a lot of opportunity for introspection. It’s incredibly humbling. Fortunately (?), I have colleagues who exaggerate my own biases to the point that I recognize them, and can then try to work around them.