The past few years have seen excellent strides toward diversity across organizations in the United States. However, many issues remain. For example, Amazon’s recruiting algorithm was taken offline last year because it was accidentally creating bias. And, while many organizations are aware of the need for diversity, some don’t seem equipped to act.
I recently had an opportunity to discuss these issues with Josh Wright, Chief Economist at iCIMS.
HR Daily Advisor: Many organizations are seeing the bottom-line need for more diversity in their organizations. But there is a big difference between awareness and action. Can you talk about that?
Wright: As more of us learn what an asset diversity can be, more of us realize how much potential is going untapped. There’s a growing awareness of how we’re falling short in aggregate, but we still have a ways to go in building awareness about how this plays out in individual workplaces.
The unfortunate reality is that most of us often act against our own values without even realizing it. Research in behavioral economics and psychology consistently shows that our unconscious biases can work against our active intentions at many stages of the hiring process and the talent management life cycle. The effects are subtle, and that’s part of why we’ve had to compile statistics at the aggregate level in order to see them, but over time and across organizations, those effects are also profound.
One study with a computer simulation indicated that even a 1% bias in performance evaluation scores can mean the difference between 50% of senior executives being women versus just 35%—that’s a 1% difference compounding into a 15% drop over time. The 15% estimate isn’t canonical, but the point is that differences can start small and end up being big.
The good news is that behavioral economics also gives us a lot of tools for addressing these issues, and researchers and employers are breaking new ground all the time. (In fact, this interview reflects the growth in both awareness of the challenges and the intention to address them.)
By applying new techniques in optimizing job descriptions, interview formats, offering strategies, and onboarding, as well as talent management, a lot can be done to reduce bias. Sometimes, breaking a few old habits and working around our unconscious minds is all we need to do in order to put our conscious minds back in the driver’s seat so we can act in line with our true intentions.
Often, we need concrete training, not just abstract consciousness-raising. We don’t have any silver bullets, but there’s plenty of reason to see the numbers on diversity as a call to action rather than a cause for despair.
HR Daily Advisor: Last year, Amazon stopped using its recruiting algorithm because it was leading to a lack of diversity. I thought recruiting technology was supposed to help organizations with diversity? What happened?
Wright: For all our amazing advances in technology, computer-human interactions still have a fundamental GIGO problem: garbage in—garbage out. If we tune our algorithms off human behavior and human judgments that are contaminated with unconscious bias, our algorithms will replicate that bias. Indeed, they may amplify or distort it.
This is bigger than Amazon—there are plenty of other high-profile examples of this principle. As with chatbots, facial recognition, automated vehicles, self-writing code, and many other kinds of algorithms, we need to keep upping our game as humans in looking for where bias can creep into the design of algorithms and where it shows up in their results. That’s what it means to use technology smartly and responsibly. It’s never just about speed; quality is always in question.
HR Daily Advisor: In most organizations that claim to have great diversity, the numbers on underrepresented groups might bear out that claim. But if you look at the organization from a hierarchical standpoint, you’ll notice larger pools of diversity as you descend the ladder. Do you have any insights into why this is happening and what can be done?
Wright: The pipeline issue is about talent management as much as recruitment. A variety of techniques are emerging, and taken together, they suggest that the most important thing may be to view the promotion of diversity and inclusion as a multifaceted skill we must collectively cultivate.
Raising awareness about these issues is important, but it’s not enough. Managers, leaders, recruiters, and others all need training and support in developing the skills to work around unconscious biases. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget: When bias is unconscious, it’s hard to notice, and when it’s hard to notice, it’s hard to address. Addressing bias requires a whole toolkit and a process of continuous investigation and experimentation.
HR Daily Advisor: Some industries just seem unable to catch up when it comes to diversity. Is that just a legacy problem, or is there something else going on?
Wright: There probably are overlapping historical accidents at play, but we can’t take for granted that they will be resolved without focused effort. For one thing, while unconscious biases are pervasive, it’s not a given that their triggers are distributed evenly across organizations or across different kinds of hiring processes.
Remember that computer simulations indicate that small changes in initial conditions can lead to profound differences over time. Also, not all talent pipelines are created equal: Some industries are more deeply connected to certain fields of study, certain locations, and other social networks. There are a lot of drivers of inequality that come into play well before it’s time to create a job requisition. So some industries may face steeper challenges, but with an unflinching eye on the diagnostics and a commitment to change, there’s a lot that can be done.
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