Photo via Spiva Center/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Tech has a hidden bias problem—and here’s how to fight it

Our own worst tendencies are holding us back.

Internet Culture

Published Apr 16, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 1:34 am CDT


Featured Video Hide

A few weeks ago, Freada Kapor Klein, an investor, researcher, and social activist, joined a great group of talent managers and HR folks to educate the folks at Tinybop on hidden bias, workplace diversity, and closing the digital divide. She and her husband and co-investor, Mitch, are both totally badass in the kindest, most thoughtful sense of the word, and I’m so proud they are investors in our company. 

Advertisement Hide

This workshop is part of RRE’s ongoing efforts to support their portfolio companies and open up a dialogue about issues faced by startups; I’m also very excited to be part of their community of portfolio companies.

From what I learned at this workshop, we have to fight our brains a lot to go against our hardwired nature to associate two things at once. For instance, as foragers we learned: “These mushrooms: delicious. These mushrooms: poisonous.” Throughout evolution, this bias has been extremely helpful and lifesaving. 

However, this hardwired nature becomes more problematic when interacting with people and hiring for companies. Most of these associations (including race, sexuality, gender, and religion) are formed from media and the experiences we have while growing up; unfortunately, they tend to promote a limited view of the world. 

Advertisement Hide

Throughout evolution, this bias has been extremely helpful and lifesaving. 

When it comes to people, this subconscious association is referred to as implicit bias or hidden bias, which is defined by OSU’s Kirwan Institute as the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” More importantly, every step in the hiring process involves an opportunity for some kind of implicit bias or subconscious decision to take the lead. These thoughts or even “gut decisions” really have nothing to do with overall work performance or if someone has the best skills to get a job done. 

So, after absorbing all this, why is it even important to be discussing hidden bias? 

Diverse teams are better at problem solving and innovation. However, when surveyed, only 54 percent of white folks and men agree that diversity is an asset in the workplace. Roughly the same number (or a bit more) think that companies are doing enough to improve workplace diversity and think no additional measure need to be implemented to improve diversity.

Advertisement Hide

That’s bananas. You probably know why it’s bananas, but if you don’t please look around at who gets the most funding: white men. Who makes up most of board of directors in tech and beyond? White men. Who makes up the majority of the employee pool in startups? White men

When someone looks at a resume or interviews a candidate, it takes less than two minutes to assess whether that candidate will be hired. The uphill battle some people are up against: In studies, non-white sounding names received 50 percent less responses to job applications, religious affiliations on a resume received 29 percent less, and LGBT folk 23 percent less. 

Based on life experience and what we’ve been exposed to, we’re all going to have some type of bias informing our decisions. As was emphasized in this workshop, though, neither religious affiliation nor sexuality nor ethnicity have any affect on job performance, so this bias is getting in the way of building top-notch teams. We can chalk this hidden bias up to the myth of “culture fit.”

Advertisement Hide

When someone looks at a resume or interviews a candidate, it takes less than two minutes to assess whether that candidate will be hired. 

Instead of allowing this myth to hold companies back, the real question(s) should be: Are you interested in the problems we are solving here and do you have the skills to solve them with us? Culture fit is too often used as a barrier of entry for many startups when really so much of a company is learned as you go: This person was too corporate. Not outgoing enough. Too focused on team structure. Didn’t seem like she could work our hours

As a historical reference, the same excuses were used for years about hiring women for many jobs (they just can’t handle the stress of real business!). There are too many reasons why I’ve seen people nixed from a candidate pool in my six years in startups that can mostly be boiled down to people putting partial facts together and making a judgement based on it, as Freada Kapor Klein explained. These judgements are used to keep startups and other industries exclusive communities instead of truly opening them up to innovation and real problem solving. 

Even companies like Google are willing to admit that their brainteaser questions, designed to reveal thinking strategies and apparently filter out non-exemplary candidates, were not great predictors of overall performance.

Advertisement Hide

One thing that we didn’t get to discuss with Kapor Klein is practicing mindfulness when encountering these biases. What could mindfulness in hiring look like? Perhaps taking that split-second judgment you make when someone walks in the door, identifying it, and really understanding where it comes from. 

I think that this is the personal growth stage of mitigating bias to really change our perception of the world and the people we interact with. I try to practice mindfulness throughout much of my day: “Why do I feel upset? Am I stressed? Is something really bad going to happen? No! You just feel like that meeting wasn’t as productive as you hoped but you can fix that with a follow up action plan.” I personally like to challenge myself to understand where my bias comes from when interviewing candidates and then change that perception.

Remembering that diverse teams are better at problem solving and innovation, what are the ways startups can be increasing diversity from the get go? Kapor Klein shared several solid steps to do this:

Consider a bonus for diverse hires 

Ninety-two percent of a white person’s friends are white. Referral bonuses for hiring within a friend group are probably not helping diversity and innovation. Incentivize everyone in the company to work toward diversity.

Advertisement Hide

Take off names and education from resumes before looking 

I think this is a tool that hiring startups can definitely help with. Get on these features, Workable and Greenhouse! In removing these two things, you’re not even putting your biases to the test.

Ensure that new hires of all backgrounds and representations are aware of the ins and outs of your company

 This will ensure continued success, confidence, and that desired culture fit startups chase. For example, on the startup education side, I field questions about Tinybop and the app space from many new hires and it didn’t take me long to realize that terms (OKR, KPI, ROI, IAP, etc.) that are second nature to me are brand new to many people who are just joining a tech company and could potentially cause someone to feel like an outsider.

Consider measuring diversity not just by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and physical ability but also by distance traveled

As Freada put it: “How did you get to here by your own steam?” Taking diversity of experience and barriers overcome also bring a wealth of opinions and approaches.

Remove barriers of entry and address perceived risk of startups head on 

At Etsy, they’ve done this by awarding grants to Hacker School. Some companies create generous maternity or paternity policies to retain employees as they grow their families or flexible work from home policies so they can care for family members. One of the ideas Freada Kapor Klein brought up was creating a pool for student loan repayment.

The Rooney Rule 

Don’t even look at candidates until the hiring pool is diverse. Only white dudes applying? Maybe you’re not posting in the right places. Maybe the job description is too exclusive. Maybe you used the words “ninja” and “rockstar” too much.

Advertisement Hide

I’m lucky to be working at Tinybop, which is as far from a typical startup as one can get. We’re 70 percent women, several of us grew up outside of the U.S., we speak many languages, and some are first-generation college grads. When we add up how far we’ve come in our lives to get to Tinybop, I’m pretty proud we’ve all blown past some hefty hurdles. We’re a company that constantly thinks about diversity as a huge asset to our team and I know we’ll continue to add new voices to strengthen our community. 

I hope everyone is open to doing the same or at the very least, open to a dialogue about it.

This article was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.

Kika Gilbert is the Head of Community at Tinybop.

Share this article
*First Published: Apr 16, 2015, 6:19 pm CDT