Why Your Efforts to Fix your Pipeline Aren’t Fixing Your Pipeline

WARNING: This post speaks frankly about race and gender dynamics. I use the term ‘white men’ on several occasions. If that feels to you like a personal attack, I do not recommend this blog post for you right now. Instead, I recommend this resource.

If the warning applies to you and you insist on knowing what I have to say, I recommend skipping to the conclusion.

Inside your soul, you value diversity. But at this company that you’ve built/joined, the employees and/or leadership are overwhelmingly white and male.

And somehow, even though you feel like you are trying, the people joining your team also seem to be overwhelmingly white and male.

What the heck is going on? And what can you do to build a more diverse team?

It’s true that diversity is not a pipeline problem. At the industry level, it is chiefly an inclusion problem tied to very specific monetary outcomes for your company.

But on a company level, it’s very hard for you to credibly claim you’re inclusive if you have a homogeneous staff (and no, the line about ‘diversity of thought’ isn’t convincing anyone). So at some point you gotta try to source and hire queer people, trans people, black people, latinx people, women.*

*These are examples. There are many, many axes of oppression, and this blog post doesn’t mention them all. Accessibility for disabled folks is not mentioned. Hiring neurodiverse folks is not mentioned. The bamboo ceiling is not mentioned. These things are also important. I highly recommend seeking out other resources in addition to this one to develop a well-rounded understanding of intersectionality.

Before we move on, let’s level set. This post assumes that you already have some knowledge about common pipeline mistakes that funnel a homogeneous applicant pool into your company. It assumes that you already know that advertising in mainstream tech spaces will overwhelmingly place the ad in front of dominant groups. It assumes that you know that how you write your job descriptions causes folks from underrepresented groups to self-select out. It assumes that you know that folks from underrepresented groups will see your experience requirements as requirements, while most white men will instead view them as suggestions. It assumes that you know that bias in interviews affects who is getting through your pipeline. If any of these things are news to you, I recommend doing some additional research and coming back later when you have a deeper understanding of the dynamics that affect who you see and how you see them during the hiring process. When in doubt, I often recommend this repo as a great place to start.

So let’s say you know all that, and now you’re trying to specifically reach out to a more diverse applicant pool—say, by running a hiring ad in a listserv for women in tech, or by sponsoring meetups for underrepresented groups. Let’s address why those approaches might not be yielding the results you would like. We’ll also use that knowledge to identify some additional strategies that can help you make the most of your recruiting efforts.

What if we run an ad in [insert underrepresented people in tech listserv here]?

No doubt, this will get your name in front of said groups. Know this:

The individuals you’re looking for are screening you.

And the more senior they are, the more they are screening you. They want to know if you have queer people, trans people, black people, latinx people, women in leadership. They want to know if you place those people in senior roles. They’re looking at the management chain above them: is it white dudes all the way up?

Turtles stacked on top of each other. The top turtles all have the white man emoji over their faces. The bottom turtle has a woman of color emoji face.

Outspoken and experienced women, for example, are screening because they’re sick of being the first woman on the engineering team and suddenly becoming the sole delegate for the ‘woman’s perspective’ on things. They’re sick of being assumed less technical and getting forced to prove themselves again and again and again. They’re sick of being the one expected to buy the thank you cards for clients, to remember people’s birthdays, to order lunch for the team. And they’re sick of showing up to a place that’s ‘trying to be more diverse’ and getting slapped with the term ‘aggressive’ the first time they call out these problematic dynamics. Because once people think a woman is ‘aggressive’ she won’t get promoted. Would you stay in that situation? She didn’t the last time this happened to her, and she doesn’t want to have it happen again.

At your company, she would be surrounded and superiored by people who have no lived experience of marginalization. This means that your company displays a risk factor for placing people in situations like that. So you’re getting screened out.

You can run ads to get name recognition from these groups, but if you don’t pass their screens, they’re not going to reach out to you. The more senior the candidates, the more true this is because senior tech people have more options. And senior matters to you because once you have queer people, trans people, black people, latinx people, and women in CXO, VP, leadership, and senior roles, you start passing the screens that you fail while it’s white dudes all the way up.

Hiring junior folks from underrepresented groups is important, but it will do little to help you pass the screens of future applicants because:

a) junior people do not have the hard power to change things that are problematic

b) having junior people from underrepresented groups does not say anything about leadership’s willingness to listen to diverse perspectives. This is because leadership has no hierarchal obligation to listen to junior people. Shrewd junior people, aware of this power dynamic, are less likely to raise their voices in the first place.

What if we sponsor events for [insert underrepresented people in tech meetup here] ?

Again, this will get your name in front of said groups. Again, things to know:

Thing #1: These groups are screening you. Some groups are explicit about this. For example, Chicago Women Developers does not let dudes come ‘mentor’ at their hack nights. They also have you answer several questions about inclusion practices at your company before they will share your job posting with members. Even if a group doesn’t explicitly ask these questions, their members often are. If a company broadcasts that they’re hiring to a black coding group, the people in that group are looking to see if they would have any black colleagues there. If not, the more senior ones will not apply, and the more junior ones will be less likely to apply.

Thing #2: tech meetups skew junior. A few reasons why:

  • First, people with more years of experience tend to have more years period, which often come with families and other obligations that keep them off the meetup circuit. This is especially true for women, who often shoulder more childcare responsibilities than their husbands.
  • Second, the preponderance of young people at these events as well as the preponderance of beer-and-pizza pot sweeteners creates an environment rife for harassment, so women, queer people, and trans people who have experienced that harrassment avoid meetups so they don’t have to repeat that. This is still true in meetups for underrepresented groups; just because it’s for queer people doesn’t mean trans people won’t face harassment there, and just because it’s for people of color doesn’t mean women won’t face harassment there (that’s right: intersectionality is complicated).
  • Third, a lot of junior folks attend these meetups to network for jobs or find mentors. As folks start to build their networks and experience, the meetups are less useful to them, so they show up less. The waning group of senior attendees find themselves shouldering expectations of connections, jobs, and mentorship from the much larger number of junior attendees. The senior attendees do not have time or energy to fulfill all of these expectations, so they might stop coming to avoid inevitably disappointing people since they cannot provide enough resources to go around.

Junior tech people are an opportunity, not a problem. But junior tech people, as previously explained, are not in a power position to shift your culture on their own. And for that reason, junior people also do not shift your results when you get screened by more senior applicants.

So what can you do?

Your #1 force multiplier for building out a diverse pipeline is:

Getting queer people, trans people, black people, latinx people, and women into your boardroom.

And CTO. And CDO. And CSO. And Senior VP. And VP. And Director. And Manager. And Senior. Technical roles, not “Chief Culture Officer.” If you have a high-level role to fill, prioritize people who can fill your gaps up top.

But Chelsea, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or gender…I think it’s really interesting how this legal protection only ever gets mentioned when we’re talking about passing on white guys’ applications. I’ve never heard someone bring this up in defense of a candidate from an underrepresented group. Somehow there’s always some other reason, right? Sometimes the reason is as vague as ‘not a good fit for our team.’ What the hell does that mean? If that counts as a valid reason for you to pass on someone without being concerned about a discrimination suit, then discrimination becomes un-prosecutable because you could claim ‘not a good fit’ about literally anyone. To entertain the position that someone will sue us if we don’t hire more white guys is patently absurd.

Look around your boardroom. You’re gonna try tell me that the demographic represented by the vast majority of the room is discriminated against? I get it, you feel like thinking about these things during hiring equals discrimination. Here’s the thing: not thinking about these things during hiring equals discrimination. The status quo is discrimination—and it’s discrimination against the exact groups you say you want to attract. The proof is in the photo from your last leadership retreat. You’re not a fluke where this is just who happened to get hired and promoted. How do I know that? Because your leadership retreat photo looks the same as the leadership retreat photo for 90% of tech companies. 90% of thousands of companies do not independently experience flukes. The probability of that is so infinitesimally small that to entertain it is, again, patently absurd.

I’m not telling you to hire a CXO specifically because they’re black. I’m telling you that there is a critical weakness in the collective perspective of a homogeneous leadership, and it’s your responsibility to hire team members who supplement the team’s weaknesses. If you hire more team members who also lack the perspective that your leadership team already lacks, you’re indicating that that weakness is not critical to you. That’s your company’s opinion, maybe, but it’s at odds with the opinions of the people you’re trying to hire. And that weakness will prevent you from being a competitive employment option for the slice of the talent pool that screens you.

How do you attract these senior people with all this screening going on?

Ads and meetups are great, but they won’t get you the applicants you’re looking for if you’re failing the screen.

If you cannot pass the screen, you have to get around it.

A few helpful tactics:

1. Reach out directly. send them an email. Address them by name, mention how you found out about them, and explain why you want them specifically to work for you. What background do they have that you want? Not just queerness: I mean their technical background. I was not hired into my current role for being a queer lady. I was hired into it because I have a track record of spearheading challenging projects, speed-ramping on half a dozen languages and frameworks, driving teams toward more robust programming practices, and connecting with the wider programming community through explications like this one. Yes, I know it’s a lot of work to individually contact people like this. Most of the time, you’re going to get a ‘thanks, but I’m happy here’ reply.

Look: you and every other company in tech are all after a pretty small group of people, and that group of people is pretty skeptical of you specifically based on past experiences with companies that look a lot like yours. This is very much an uphill slog, so you’re going to have to climb.

Sidenote on this: do not end the message with “and if you’re not interested, please send along the names of anyone else who might be!” a) This person does not know you. Why are they gonna give you free access to their network that they spent time, energy, and money building, and in the process subject their friends to unsolicited contact from a company that did not pass the screen? b) This makes your explanation of why you want them specifically seem disingenuous, because you capped it off with “also please send along literally anybody else.”

2. Be prepared to answer hard questions. What percentage of your leadership is (insert some group you have none of on your leadership team)? What is your company’s policy around (something you’ve never heard of)? In performance reviews, how do you control for (something you have never considered)? These, by the way, are the easy questions. They get a lot harder when you bring these folks on. And you want them to ask these questions, because finding good answers is how your team gets better. It’s not annoying or burdensome or “stirring the pot” or whatever that old white dude on your board is telling you it is: it’s an important method by which these candidates add value to your team.

In the meantime, be prepared to do two things:

  • Give straight answers, even when they are not flattering to your companyYou don’t have to say “Well, there are no latinx people on our leadership team, but….” You can stop at “Currently, zero. We recognize that our collective perspective as a leadership team has a blind spot because of this.” (Sidenote: do not end this answer with “You can be the first!” unless it is, in fact, the role you are hiring them for. Women ICs who have been told they might be promoted to “first” woman manager someday often see themselves passed up for that exact promotion by many, many dudes once they join).
  • Explain your current strategy to get better.
    • Are employees motivated to address their implicit biases because they know they must evaluate well on inclusion metrics to secure their promotion, raise, or bonus?
    • Are you insisting on evaluating at least as many non-white candidates or women candidates as you do white dudes for every role before making a hiring decision?
    • Are you working with managers to ensure that their reports get fair representation and advocacy in performance reviews?

The exact things you’re doing matter, because here’s the dirty secret: you are going to have unflattering answers to most screening questions, and so are 90% of the companies you’re competing with to get this person. So you can beat them by having a better plan in place to address your weaknesses.

3. Demonstrate that when you say you want them to come, you mean it. Folks from underrepresented groups end up with additional uncompensated representation labor and emotional labor in mostly-homogeneous teams. So compensate them for it. Benefits, remote work, time off, their pick of managers, whatever it takes to win this person over.

And pay them good money. Do not try to skate off with the lowest salary they’ll take. Do not ask them any variant of the question “What is the lowest amount you’d come to us for?” Give them the top amount a person of their experience would make.

But what if we overpay them by accident? You’re much less likely to overpay them by accident than you are to overpay someone from the dominant group by accident. An outsize proportion of promoted-out-of-harm’s-way do-nothings sucking up $150k or more that I have met in business have been from the same demographic. I’ll let you guess which one it is. So if you’re not worried about this for your ‘usual’ hire, then you have absolutely nothing to worry about when it comes to hiring the people you are specifically and strategically targeting.

Conclusion

If your company is homogeneous, how can you hire more diverse folks? Maybe you’ve tried targeting underrepresented groups with your recruitment ads and it doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?

It’s not working because folks from underrepresented groups run initial screens on potential employers. Those screens look for people like them in leadership positions above them. If they don’t see that, they’re less likely to reach out to you. And the more senior they are, the more options they have, so their likeliness to reach out drops even further.

This creates a Catch-22: without people from underrepresented groups in leadership, you cannot pass screens run by leadership-level people from underrepresented groups. What do you do?

You have to get around the screens. I recommend, first of all, prioritizing better representation at the top of your company so you can pass future screens and start getting a return on your investment in things like job listservs and meetups.

But to get those key people for top positions at your company, you’ll need to get around their screens. Reach out to them individually, find out what they’d bring to your company, and sell them on what their specific future at your company would look like. Answer their hard questions honestly, and leave out the excuses. Be prepared to share your specific action items for fostering an inclusive culture at your company as well as your progress to date on those action items. Finally, make them an initial offer that proves you’re very, very serious about bringing them on.

If you’re worried about discriminating or overpaying, I recommend you consider why you’re so worried about these things when it comes to underrepresented groups and not worried about those things when you’re bringing on another white dude. The default in our system is discrimination. So we have to think about these things in the hiring process in order to not discriminate.

If you learned something from this post and you’re not totally incensed, you might also want to see these:

Anger and Sadness in the Workplace

Smart is Not a Hiring Criterion

Bias Doesn’t Start with Skin Color

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