EEOC Panel Looks at Promoting Diversity, Inclusion in High-Tech

By Kathy Gurchiek May 23, 2016
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Women, workers over age 40 and other protected groups face significant challenges if they want to work in the technology industry, according to panelists speaking during a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) public meeting. The discussion was held in conjunction with the EEOC’s release of a report looking at employment patterns in that industry. That report found that the representation of female, black and Hispanic workers in high-tech was significantly less than their representation in the overall workforce.

Meeting the critical shortage of employees from these groups in computer science extends beyond addressing recruiting and hiring barriers, said Kweilin Ellingrud, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., in Minneapolis.

“We must address conscious and unconscious bias” in the workplace, she told equal employment opportunity commissioners. Some companies, she noted, are using advanced analytics to understand and assess unconscious bias and search for keywords in review memos and other sources for “gender-skewed feedback,” such as describing a woman as having an “abrasive style.”

Other tactics include asking leaders to develop sponsorship and retention programs for women and minorities. She also suggested broadening parental leave policies to include men—and then rewarding them for taking that leave. Doing so lessens the likelihood that taking parental leave negatively impacts an employee’s career trajectory.

Hiring Practices at Start-Ups

Panelist Camilla Velasquez, vice president and head of product and marketing for Justworks in the greater New York City area, noted that hiring and anti-discrimination polices are the last thing on the minds of those growing start-up high-tech companies.

They “don’t feel they have the bandwidth to focus on HR issues” in the early days of the business. Often, the employees are right out of college and without a lot of training. “Because a startup isn’t providing this core foundation of training, it’s not until later that an experienced HR person comes in—if ever.”

Even after the first round of funding for a startup, basic HR operations still are considered a luxury, she said.

“It’s rare to see a true HR representative hired until a few years into the business. Hiring and anti-discrimination trainings are rarely happening because of the need to remain lean,” she said. When it does happen, it often comes late in the company’s timeline.

One way to address the problem is to outsource HR functions to another company, said Velasquez, whose company provides HR services to different companies, many of them in technology.

Benjamin Jealous of Baltimore-based Kapor Capital is an advisor to tech startups and the former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Too often, high-tech firms shut the door to women and minorities through the recruitment patterns they use. He pointed to the tendency to recruit from certain universities, to require previous industry experience, and the controversial practice of “pattern-matching.”

In pattern-matching, venture capitalists—who are predominantly white men—want to replicate or match a previous successful start-up when looking to invest in new companies. The demographic profile of a start-up founder tends to be a young, white man who is a Stanford graduate with several years of experience in the high-tech industry, Jealous said.

“Two of the largest factors in many venture capitalists’ controversial pattern-matching formulas are ‘Where did they go to school?’ and ‘Where did they work?’ ”

University preference, he explained, is a reliance on looking for job candidates who attended the same undergraduate or graduate school as the startup’s founder or potential founder.

“The majority of diverse computer science graduates and entrepreneurs do not attend the elite, Ivy [League] institutions for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to get into those schools” and are more about factors such as tuition cost and proximity to family members.

Additionally, startups often use social media to recruit candidates from those schools and social circles. Jealous suggested that recruitment should be broadened to include more-traditional methods, such as posting on job boards that are available to a wider talent pool. He also advised blind-screening resumes so that a candidate’s name and name of his or her school are not factors when making hiring decisions.

Laurie McCann, senior attorney at the AARP Foundation in Washington, D.C., pointed out that the high-tech industry is unapologetic about its bias against older workers and its “rampant age discrimination,” and she said this is most evident in companies’ hiring policies and practices.

Some of those practices are blatantly designed to attract and hire younger employees, she said. McCann pointed to the website of a large IT services company that declared on its careers page that “We want people who have their best work ahead of them, not behind them.” She called for companies to eliminate online applications that require job seekers to include dates of birth or graduation dates in order for their application to be considered.

EEOC Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows noted that efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in high-tech only succeed if it is clear there is support from the top of the company and managers are held accountable for providing equal employment opportunity.

“This means accountability not just for hiring, but for retention, promotions and fair treatment—including in pay, assignments and benefits,” Burrows stated.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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