The Gender Gap in Tech: How to Attract Female Candidates Through Thoughtful Hiring

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While many companies are taking steps to close the gender gap, tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Uber continue to prove that women struggle to break through hiring barriers in the modern workplace. Facebook only has a handful of women in leadership positions, while Google and Uber have faced criticism this past year for creating hostile work environments.

The modern workforce has turned the application process into a minefield for women. Female candidates will turn away from companies that have perceived biases, focusing their job search on places they feel welcome. For employers, this means poor hiring processes can potentially isolate 50 percent of the talent pool.

Improving hiring practices to encourage top female talent requires active training and changes within a company. Even the most inclusive companies might need to alter their hiring processes to eliminate bias. Here are a few places to start.

Increase Candidates Through Improved Job Descriptions

Your recruitment starts with the job description. You don’t stand a chance of luring more female candidates if they don’t even want to apply for the jobs your company posts.

Nancy F. Clark, a business and happiness expert for working women, was one of the first people to report on the differences of how men and women apply for jobs. She shared a report from HP that found men are confident in applying for positions when they meet 60 percent of the criteria, while women are only confident if they can do 100 percent of what is asked of them.

Some believe this is a confidence issue while others say women don’t want to waste their time applying to positions they have no chance of obtaining. Employers who rattle off a dozen software tools and programming languages in their job descriptions will find plenty of male applicants, but most women won’t apply at all. This immediately skews the candidate pool to predominantly male.

Leisa Reichelt at Disambiguity has seen this bias in action. She has read plenty of job descriptions that isolate female candidates and frustrate potential employees. Reichelt believes there are two key ways to improve the content of your job descriptions:

  • Only list job requirements that are absolutely essential. Some candidates might read “optional skills and experience,” as mandatory for the role.
  • Focus on the growth aspects of the job instead of claiming every applicant needs to be an expert in your tools and systems. Even the most experienced employees will face a learning curve at your company, so emphasize the learning and training process.

By limiting what you expect of candidates and showing that you’re willing to train staff, women can feel more comfortable applying to work at your company knowing they’re qualified for the job.

Focus on Traits Instead of Tools

Additionally, your job descriptions should focus on intangible skills that can be harder to train.  Hannah Moss, project manager at GovLoop, says focusing on traits can ensure you find a good fit for your company with skills that come later with training.

“A highly skilled professional – someone who is well-educated, dedicated, a quick learner, and adaptable – will be able to pick up a new technology with relative ease,” Moss writes.

For example, a Java-specific developer might use Perl about five percent of the time, but if it is listed on a job description, it could isolate candidates who don’t know it well. However, hiring someone who is a fast learner means they can easily learn Perl and apply their new skills to the job.

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Showcase Women Succeeding in Leadership Roles

One of the first places to start when adding women to your company is in forward-facing positions where the public can see that your organization is dedicated to diversity.

“Female job seekers are unlikely to pursue positions with companies that have demonstrated that they rarely (if ever) hire women,” Amanda Hess, a David Carr fellow at the New York Times, writes at Slate. “Many male-dominated boards, mastheads, and organizational charts are so implicitly unwelcoming to women that great candidates won’t think to apply for a position at those companies at all.”

Uber is a quintessential example of this. There has been so much publicity surrounding sexual harassment in the company and its inability to hire female candidates that many women wouldn’t even consider working there. The public perception is that it’s a boy’s club where women aren’t welcome or allowed.

“Women at the senior level are beacons for other women,” Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president at the Anita Borg Institute, tells Sarah Kessler at Fast Company. “If you go interview at a company and there is nobody at the senior level who looks even remotely like you, is that a place where you think you’ll be comfortable or able to achieve?”

Not all women want to be pioneers who fight to break the glass ceiling. Many simply want to flex their skills and work in a company where they feel accepted and heard.  

Let Women in Leadership Roles Actually Lead

Placing token women and minority employees within your leadership to prove that you hire diverse teams can backfire if the move is purely symbolic. These team members need equal voices equal to prove that they’re making a difference.

“Don’t just place one or even two women in executive-level positions,” Solange Lopes of The Corporate Sister writes.

Workers (and the media) are becoming increasingly sensitive toward symbolic hiring, where a woman or person of color is given a position but not the respect that comes with it. This perception can damage your company long after changes are made to your organization.

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Reduce Internal Bias in When Selecting Candidates

The reason women are attracted to companies with other women in leadership has to do with affinity bias. Affinity or similarity bias runs rampant across the tech universe. This is the idea that employers tend to favor candidates who have similar personalities or backgrounds to themselves or others they work with. There’s a double-whammy effect too: Male dominated companies are likely to hire men while isolating women who view the organization as a boy’s club.   

“It is easier to take the perspective of someone who resembles your own demographic characteristics or past experiences than that of someone who has had a very different upbringing,” research fellows Melissa Wheeler and Victor Sojo at the University of Melbourne explain. “In itself, the process described may not seem problematic. However, in many instances underrepresented groups may be unwittingly discriminated against in recruitment due to affinity bias.”

By taking steps to remove this bias, more candidates with diverse backgrounds are likely to receive calls to come in or make the final cuts of interview processes.

Train Managers and Department Heads to Detect Bias

While your employees probably receive sexual harassment training and learn about diversity within your organization, they might not be familiar with internal bias and how it can affect hiring. This doesn’t make your managers bad people; it simply means your company needs to teach them how to identify affinity bias in themselves and others.

“Unconscious bias awareness training will help your employees uncover their personal and cultural beliefs, which are the root causes of most harassment and discrimination complaints,” Katherin Nukk-Freeman and Suzanne Cerra, co-founders of SHIFT HR Compliance Training, explain.     

Additionally, companies can set up policies where multiple employees from different backgrounds are part of the interview process, which can reduce affinity bias and help companies find hidden talents in their candidates.
  

Invest in Blind Testing

Sharon Wienbar, former CEO of Hackbright, prefers online coding tests to in-person whiteboard exams or tests where the department manager is hovering over the candidate’s shoulder. Not only are these tests less stressful for women (who can feel intimidated with their potential future male bosses breathing down their necks) they’re also gender-blind.

These online tests only show the results, which means companies will call the top candidates who have the best skills, regardless of their race, gender, or identity. This removes any internal biases that might stem from hiring managers evaluating the work of a candidate they’re met in person.

Create Standardized Interview Questions

Unstructured interviews, which are meant to be more conversational and help a candidate discuss her work experience organically, aren’t very accurate or reliable, Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School, explains. Meanwhile, standardized interviews (where each candidate answers the same questions) allow for better direct comparisons. Some companies take this a step further by grading or giving points to certain answers and then comparing scores across the candidates.

Standardized questions also reduce affinity bias toward candidates who have similar interests or backgrounds. This way a conversational interview doesn’t devolve into reminiscing between a candidate and employer who went to the same university or who like the same sports teams.

Learn How Age and Racial Bias Affect Women More

Gender isn’t the only factor that holds women back. Additional lifestyle factors like age and racial background can further complicate the job search and lead to discrimination.

Nancy Collamer, author and the voice behind MyLifestyleCareer.com, shared studies on how older women struggle to find work compared to older men:

  • Older workers are 35 percent less likely to get a callback for a job than younger workers.
  • Female applicants in their mid-sixties are less likely to get called back for job interviews than men in that age range are.

“For the millions of boomer women who hope to keep working full-time or transition into part-time or ‘bridge jobs’ during retirement, this [is] a sobering reminder that age discrimination is, sadly, very much alive and well,” she writes.

By training teams to identify different forms of bias —  including racial, age, gender and lifestyle — companies can prevent hiring teams from doubling or tripling down on discrimination because a female applicant is older, Latina, and disabled.

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Develop Inclusive Benefits Policies

Along with improving the hiring process, companies can attract women through better benefits options. These don’t have to be expensive, as it’s more important that they appeal exactly to what women are looking for.

“Many companies offer benefits targeted at women that are often cookie-cutter and not reflective of what today’s woman wants,” Kathy Gilbert, founding board member of Women in Automotive, says.

This means companies are either creating benefits they think women want (which might only attract certain women at specific points in their lives) or they’re playing catch-up to compete with industry standards from decades past.

Instead, Gilbert encourages employers to personalize benefits packages and tailor them to the specific needs of employees. For some, this might include paid maternity leave, but it could just as likely include remote work or time off for volunteer activities.

Create Position-Based Pay Guidelines

Some organizations ask candidates what they hope to make in a position or ask for a pay history. This is viewed as a money-saving opportunity when candidates ask for lower pay rates. However, women typically ask for lower amounts than men in hopes of getting the job.

“Setting pay rates based on the applicant’s salary history only serves to reinforce past salary inadequacies that may have been gender-based,” business consultant Bridget Miller writes at Recruiting Daily Advisor. Even if you’re following the footsteps of that employer’s pay bias, you could become the subject of a pay-gap lawsuit if your employees discover that male workers are paid more.

By creating position-based pay guidelines, you ensure every employee is paid fairly based on the work they do, regardless of their gender.

Embrace Maternity and Paternity Leave

The United States is known for having one of the worst parental-leave policies in the world, with an average total paid maternity leave of 2.8 weeks. Many companies don’t even offer paternity leave, requiring men to return to the office within a few days of their child being born. Implementing strong maternity and paternity policies can encourage women to consider applying to your company.

“While paternity leave is designed for men, it ultimately benefits working mothers and children,” marketer Rikki Rogers writes. “Since most states don’t require it by law, implementing paternity leave shows that an employer is willing to go above and beyond to promote equality and inclusion.”

Not only does paternity leave allow men to have more time to bond with their children, it also allows women to return to work sooner because their spouse is able to provide childcare. A paternity policy allows both parents to care for the child and both parents to return to work, rather than encouraging women to stay home while men stay in the office.

Look for Flexible Scheduling Opportunities

It’s possible to change your company’s benefits packages to appeal to women without increasing overall costs to the company. One easy way to do this is by testing flexible scheduling opportunities.

Christina Comben at Business.com writes that this doesn’t mean allowing employees to come in at eight instead of nine. Truly flexible scheduling allows parents to work their full 40-hour weeks on their own time. This might mean leaving the office at two to pick up the kids from school and then working from home between four and six. It could also mean working remotely two days per week.

Flexible scheduling may not mean your employees work at two in the morning or are constantly out of the office, but it does mean coming to an agreement on work schedule that might not fit the traditional nine-to-five.

Each company will face different challenges when changing their policies for greater inclusivity. Some might need to improve the interview process to eliminate biases while others have to revise their benefits options. Eventually these steps should pay off, increasing the number of women who apply for positions and the quality of candidates in your talent pool.  

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