Think Diversity is a “Pipeline Problem”? Look to Your Process Instead.

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

October 1, 2020

The "pipeline problem" is a myth we maintain so we don't have to look at the biases in our own hiring processes. It's time to look elsewhere.

Last week, the CEO of Wells Fargo made headlines for blaming a “limited pool of black talent to recruit from” (aka "the pipeline problem") as the reason why the company isn’t meeting its diversity goals. The comment has caused the same stir as it did in 2016, when Facebook blamed the public education system for its miserable diversity numbers.

Janice Gassam Asare, author of Dirty Diversity: A Practical Guide to Foster an Equitable and Inclusive Workplace for All, was quick to remind us that the bank has had to pay over $2 billion in fines for selling subprime mortgages to Black and Hispanic borrowers who qualified for prime loans. If Wells Fargo is having trouble meeting its diversity goals, it may have something to do with the discriminatory lending practices it inflicted upon the very demographics it’s now trying to hire. Joel Vazquez, Diversity and Inclusion Recruitment Manager at Venture for America, had a response to the news that also took aim at Wells Fargo’s use of the mythological “pipeline problem”:

Think Diversity is a “Pipeline Problem”? Look to Your Process Instead. (1)

The "pipeline problem," debunked

The “pipeline problem” is the theory that diversity initiatives are failing because there simply aren’t enough skilled members of underrepresented groups—women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled talent, veterans—out there. In other words, an inability to diversify is not a failure of a company’s culture or its hiring process; it’s a failure on the part of women and underrepresented groups to achieve the appropriate skills for those open roles. This argument is ultimately a scapegoat. Focusing on the pool rather than on our processes means not having to look at the ways we’re programmed by systemic racism and sexism. It means not having to look at the biases baked into our organizations that serve as the obstacles to underrepresented talent’s entry. It means we don’t have to take our failure personally. But when we lay the blame elsewhere, we never address the root cause.

Study after study in recent years has debunked “the pipeline problem” as a myth. In 2014 we discovered that top universities were graduating Black and Latinx computer science and engineering students at twice the rate that leading tech companies were hiring them. A 2018 Kauffman Fellow report by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that, as White Americans become a smaller proportion of post-secondary degree holders, Latinx and Black graduation rates have risen 350% and 55%, respectively. Between 1980 and 2016, the number of Black and Latinx professionals with master’s degrees has increased by 133% and 400%, respectively. “Latinx and Black students have been earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at record rates,” the study concludes, “but those gains are not translating into representation.”

Indeed, a report from June of this year shows the big tech companies have seen the meagerest of increases in their diversity numbers since 2014: Facebook’s workforce, for example, has gone from 3% Black to 3.8% Black in that six-year span. Rather than a “pipeline problem” or a “lack of qualified talent,” an organization’s failure to diversify almost certainly has an internal cause: lack of creativity or variety in sourcing efforts, bias in the hiring process itself, or noninclusive or unwelcoming cultures that cause candidates to drop out of process. In other words, the barriers of entry may very well be barriers you’ve put in place—whether they keep talent from entering your funnel to begin with, or result in leaky hiring pipelines. If you’ve been blaming the “available talent pool” for your failure to diversify, it may be worth taking a hard look at these four possibilities:

You’re not diversifying your searches for passive talent

There’s a good chance you’re using LinkedIn as your primary source for passive talent—which makes sense, given its unparalleled database of professional profiles. But rather than using the same keywords over and over again, consider the unique identifiers prospects use that may be a match for your diversity targets. These query-based approaches will require some critical thinking on your part: What terms might surface on the profiles of talent pools that would fill the demographic gaps in your organization?

Do you search for schools that predominantly serve minority populations: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and women’s colleges? Do you perform searches for historically black sororities and fraternities or LGBT-friendly fraternities and sororities within these institutions?  Do you think, and search, beyond traditional degrees? Think coding camps, nanodegree programs, community colleges, and vocational training programs. These are programs that teach the same skills a university does. But because they offer the same training without the systemic barriers that often exist in collegiate programs (programs with their own diversity pipeline problems), they tend to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Do you search for programs that explicitly serve underrepresented groups, like The Grace Hopper Program, or Black Girls Code, or Code Platoon? These are just a few of many organizations offering education on the technical side; but there are bootcamps out there for URMs across roles and skill sets. When you uncover organizations relevant to your diversity targets (Lesbians who Tech, TransTech Social, the National Association of Black Accountants, Black Product Managers, Bay Area Black Designers, etc), are you following them online, engaging, and establishing relationships with these organizations? Relationship-building takes time, energy, and trust. You’ll need to earn the right to eventually spread the word about opportunities at your organization. Are you willing to put the work in?

Do you leverage Instagram and Twitter hashtags (#blackgirlscode, #gracehoppercelebration, #lesbianswhotech, #latinxintech, #latinxengineers, #womeninengineering, #queerengineer, #ilooklikeanengineer) and @mentions? Is your referral program replicating the homogeneity of your organization? If so, are you committed to breaking that referral model? Have you asked your employees specifically for underrepresented referrals? Have you sought out your employee resource groups (ERGs) and former employees that belong to minority groups for the same?

These are just a few of many questions you can ask yourself that get you fishing in new ponds (you know, the ones where the fish are). We have more suggestions for seeking out underrepresented talent; but we also challenge sourcers and recruiters to don their creative hats. Underrepresented talent is out there; it’s just not easy to find in the places—and in the ways—you’ve become accustomed to looking.

Your job descriptions, careers pages, and/or social feeds aren’t inclusive

Underrepresented talent is much less likely to respond to your outreach if they don’t get the sense that DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—is a core company commitment, baked into your organization’s DNA. And they’ll be looking for a whole host of cues that tell them they’ll be safe and valued in your organization—from your careers page, to your social media feeds, to your job description. Here are a few ways bias might creep into your JD:

Socioeconomic bias is often unintentionally at play in job descriptions that emphasize the need for advanced degrees from a set of high-profile universities or having studied a certain curriculum—neither of which may have been available to underrepresented talent. Qualified individuals who possess the relevant skills and professional experience but couldn’t afford a college education simply won’t apply—and you’ll be missing out on a much more vital recruitment pipeline.

Gender bias is at play in programming jobs that require candidates to have spent time contributing to open source software. If you know anything about open source programming, you know that female-identified engineers have often experienced hostility in these spaces; so many simply don’t engage. A 2017 GitHub survey of talent on its own repositories discovered that “the gender imbalance in open source remains profound: 95% of respondents are men; just 3% are women and 1% are non-binary.” That same year, respondents to Stack Overflow’s survey found that 88.6% of users identified as male. And the reality is that, while having contributed to open source development is a “nice-to-have,” it’s not a critical requirement for your role. So don’t list it as one. You’ll miss out on a lot of great female engineers if you do.

Gender and racial bias is unintentionally at play in job postings that list seniority requirements. That’s because female representation drops steadily as you move from entry-level positions up to the C-suite. (In 2017, it fell by more than 50%). What’s more, in corporations in 2017 there was a distinct drop-off in women of color when moving up the ranks: from entry-level employees (17%), to managers (12%), to senior managers or directors (8%), to vice presidents (6%) and C-Suite execs (4%). So requiring past experience in seniority positions becomes a barrier to entry for qualified female candidates—especially women of color. Your JD is one of many places where underrepresented talent will discover cues about your company’s commitment to DEI. Here are other things to ask yourself:

  • Do you include your pronouns on your signature and your LinkedIn page? Do your employees do the same on their profiles? They’re small words, but pronouns appended to names will show gender-nonconforming talent that you’re conscientious about how talent identifies.

  • Do you include a diversity statement on your careers page?

  • Do you signal commitment to representation by sharing demographic stats and diversity goals (including for leadership positions), showcasing a diverse range of employees in your social spotlights, displaying diversity awards you’ve won on your website, and otherwise showing underrepresented talent that your company employs people who look like them?

  • Do you signal commitment to psychological safety by showing how everyone on your team gets a voice, having talent from the dominant group state their support for inclusive company practices, and/or highlighting your employee resource groups?

  • Do you signal investment in retention by highlighting your inclusive benefits (flexible work policy, paid parental leave, health insurance benefits inclusive of employees with disabilities, transgender employees, domestic partnerships, etc.) or your mentorship and sponsorship initiatives? When talent lacks internal role models who are members of their demographic, it’s harder to imagine career advancement within the company.

Underrepresented talent is paying close attention to whether you recognize the urgency of equity and whether you’re building a culture of real belonging. If you’re not showing this wherever possible, this may be part of your top-of-funnel trouble.

There’s bias in your hiring process

Resume screenings are typically done by recruiters or HR managers, and we all know the difference a name can make when the folks in those roles harbor unconscious bias. Have your resume reviewers undergone unconscious bias trainings? Do you use a blind resume screener—one that removes candidates' names, graduation years, college names, and even addresses—excluding personal identifying information that’s been shown to trigger bias?

Are your interviews structured? By this, we mean you’re asking the same set of questions in the same order to every candidate. We mean your rubrics are standardized and your hiring team is calibrated on what weak, good, and excellent answers look like. We mean formalizing hiring criteria before those interviews (indeed, before you even look at resumes), to keep interviewers from making subjective decisions based on “gut feeling” and amorphous criteria. We mean no shortcuts, additional steps, or different bars for different candidates. This way candidates can be compared equally, apples-to-apples. Have your interviewers done the work to uncover their own biases?

Does your hiring process include a work-sample test or a performance task that’s related to the role? This ensures your hiring team is prioritizing actual skill sets, competencies, and proficiencies. Have you asked whether your traditional assessment methods work for all candidates? Two years ago, Microsoft replaced job interviews—which focus heavily on social skills—with a weeks-long vetting process and team-building exercises for candidates with autism, allowing them to better showcase their skills. Are there demographics for whom you might need to do the same?

Are your hiring teams diverse? Indeed, are the folks included in your decision-making process reflective of the candidate pool you want? When underrepresented candidates are confronted with homogenous interview teams, it only draws their attention to the fact that yours is a culture they may not feel belonging in. The more balanced your team is, the fairer the decision will ultimately be.

Are you still using the phrase “culture fit”? It may be well worth it to stop using that phrase and think about values fit” and “culture add instead. Over time, “culture fit” has taken on a tribal meaning, facilitating bias by giving recruiters, hiring managers, and companies permission to hire people that walk, talk, look, and think like them. Stop asking if a candidate will “mesh” with your team. Ask how we’ll they’d perform the work the role requires. Ask if they’d bring your team something it doesn’t already have.If your hiring managers make the final decision, are they aware of their blind spots? Can they articulate their decision objectively, without “gut feeling”?

Have you adopted something like theRooney Rule—in which at least one female-identified and one URM candidate must be considered in the final slate of candidates for each open position? (Research has found that when the candidate pool has a single minority candidate, that person has virtually zero chance of getting hired. But when there are at least two female candidates in the final pool, the odds of hiring a female are 79x greater; and when there are at least two minority candidates in the final pool, the odds of hiring a minority candidate are 194x greater.)

Look at your process as often as possible and see where loopholes may be causing female and underrepresented talent to drop out—that's the real "pipeline problem." (Gem offers gender and race/ethnicity features that allow you to track this.) Where you see those drop-outs happening, it’s time to ask the hard questions.

There’s a problem with your culture

Finally, female-identified and URM talent simply isn’t going to sign that offer letter if something feels awry about your culture. It can be challenging to assess how inclusive your organization is; but here are some questions to get you started:

  • Does your company have a code of conduct and a non-discrimination policy in place? Does it have a diversity mission statement? Have those at the highest levels of management formally opted in to the commitment?

  • Do you have employee resource groups or affinity groups? How about formal mentoring and sponsorship programs?

  • What safeguards are in place to ensure leadership assessments and promotion processes are as free of bias as possible?

  • How frequently does underrepresented talent get promoted? What do their career trajectories look like compared to their White/male/cisgender/heterosexual counterparts?

  • How much are underrepresented employees paid compared to majority employees who hold similar roles?

  • Are company benefits inclusive of underrepresented talent (coverage for domestic partners, for example; or appropriate health care plans for transgender employees)?

  • Does the company allow employees to take their religious/cultural holidays of choice off? Do you celebrate gay pride together? Do you collectively honor International Women’s Day?

  • Are the bathroom signs in your office/s inclusive?

  • If your organization offers employee awards, are the award-winners diverse?

  • Do employees use their pronouns in email signatures? Are they pronoun-forward when introducing themselves?

  • Are company social events inclusive? For instance, do they always involve the same things (happy hour drinks, which may alienate non-drinkers, parents, and caretakers who must get home); or do they take diverse lifestyles into account?

If underrepresented talent is going to join your company, they want to know that they’ll have opportunities for growth with you, that they’ll have advocates, that they’ll feel seen and heard in every people decision you make. Diversity initiative failures aren’t a “pipeline problem” or due to “a lack of qualified talent.” But they do demand thoughtfulness, creativity, and a concerted effort to do things differently than you’ve done them until now.

They also take time. So our final piece of advice is to start building pipeline now. You may be looking in places you’ve never looked before, and having to build new, trusting relationships with organizations. Speed and diversity are typically mutually exclusive in hiring—it’s tough to do both at once—and we know that the reality of many open roles is that they need to be filled now. So start looking for, and nurturing, talent before those roles even open—and you’ll have done the hardest work when that req comes down to you.


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