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By Barika Pace | July 01, 2020 | 0 Comments


The past week has been peppered with headlines about advertisers boycotting social media platforms for their ineffective handling of hate speech. High tech is itself no stranger to stories of discrimination and bias in product design. Recently, for example, biometric and AI providers have faced comparable news cycles with Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding that certain facial analysis software showed error rates of 0.8% for light-skinned men but 34.7% for dark-skinned women. The use of AI in certain hiring tools and video analytics has also made the news for discrimination. With so many stories around, one must examine the underlying causes of these tech product strategy missteps very closely indeed.

First, research has shown a nexus between diversity and sustainable innovation. Today, 76% of technical jobs are held by men.  Figure 1 highlights high tech versus other private industries in terms of employee percentages of underrepresented groups.With so many stories around, one must examine the underlying causes of these tech product strategy missteps very closely indeed.

Perhaps even more interesting is that unrepresented minorities tend not to stay in high tech. With women, we call this the Leaky Pail (See Fig 2)

Many tech companies persistently fail to recruit women and minorities, and more struggle to retain them. Several recent studies have highlighted that this is less than ideal practice for companies looking to achieve thought leadership, innovation, and adoption. For example, one particular investigation found that gender-balanced teams were more likely to identify gaps in the ideation phase and proved to be more profitable. So, it would not be too far a stretch to point to a lack of diversity among tech staff as a contributing factor to the bias and cultural insensitivity that can lead to product gaffes.

To improve product strategy, tech firms must look at their hiring practices to recruit and retain more diverse candidates. Tech firms make two key mistakes:

  • Suboptimal recruiting practices have left many technology companies looking for “right fit” candidates, thereby missing opportunities to achieve diversity and stunting product innovation in the process;
  • Technology providers use limited recruitment sources and have high dependency on poorly designed employee referral systems that undercut diversity and inclusion goals.


“The Right Fit” Problem

Technology firms seek out candidates that are the “right fit”.  This usually means seeking out candidates who conform to certain corporate conventions. Further driven home by some D&I programs that implicitly suggest that the issue with candidates themselves.  The obsession with the “right fit” which directly or indirectly drive code switching,  or setting homogeneous cultural expectations, eventually lead to watered-down diversity in thoug ht robbing our product ideation and execution process of real transformation While a homogeneous culture may lead to operational expediency, it may also come at a cost to both innovation and profitability.


Redefine “the right fit”

Technology providers must take steps to evaluate existing recruitment practices, particularly by changing the “right fit” mentality to one that rewards diversity in thinking. Altering recruitment standards will reshape the type of candidate you hire and ultimately increase the diversity of the corporate perspective to create a culture that encourages digital imagination and yields product innovation. Smashing the homogeneous staffing mold could be the first phase in eliminating the cognitive bias that can plague product ideation and execution.

The subsequent steps to attracting diverse candidates should include reviewing your company’s diversity debt, recruitment sources, job postings, and hiring process. For example, one tech company found that changing a job title from Hacker to Security Engineer doubled the number of female applicants. Adopt a framework that focuses on the four areas of diversity debt, recruitment channels, job postings and hiring process.

  • Develop actions to overcome biases by improving lack of trust and deeply rooted stereotypes in communication, behavioral change and training.
  • Diverse your hiring teams, and if you are facing large diversity debt ask for outside assistance
  • Current Employees–>Conduct a climate survey about perceived inclusion of unrepresented groups, identify areas of improvement  and track progress regularly
  • Hiring Candidates–>Survey candidates at the end of a hiring cycle, look for trends related to diversity and inclusions to find opportunities for improvement
  • Reward the progress of individuals and teams, by promoting ethnic-inclusive actions
  • Carefully choose the team that will subsequently work on both survey results and how the key assumptions are built.

Too Many Technology Companies Rely Too Heavily on Employee Referral Systems

Tech firms often use employee referral systems to attract new hires with one startup, for example, offering $20,000 referral bonuses. However, a University of Georgia study by Ian Schmutte found that employees are more likely to refer candidates of the same race, gender, and ethnic background which can clearly undermine efforts to increase diversity. A heavy reliance on employee referrals can therefore lead to an even greater diversity debt for your company.


  • To ramp up your innovation culture, avoid going the same way every time you recruit and diversify your sources
  • Leverage social media groups that target diverse demographics to help counter ad hoc, word-of-mouth recruitment such as employee referrals which tend to create unintentional bias against candidates who are not already well represented.
  • Accentuate diversity by actively constructing divergent hiring teams and ensuring that members play a balance of roles during the recruiting process.
  • Seek out and participate in professional associations that support women and minorities.
  • Use collaborative words like coordinator, cross-functional, and partner in your job descriptions rather than passive, or overtly, aggressive wording that might alienate women or minority candidates.
  • Also consider using job description tools such as Textio Hire, TalVista, or Gender Decoder to assist with writing descriptions that will attract more diverse candidates.

While recruiting more diverse staff is not the definitive step to addressing cognitive bias in product design or gaps in a company’s cultural sensitivity, it is a useful starting pointing to achieving more inclusive thought leadership.


Recommended Reading

Product Managers Must Reduce Bias in Biometrics

Don’t Let Your Recruiting Practices Stunt Diversity and Limit Innovation as an Emerging Provider

Diversity to Better Support Business Performance Management as a Tech CEO

Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion in Your Marketing Strategy

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