Why Smart People Screw Up Diversity In Tech (And How To Fix It)

In How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg wrote that “when you bring [people with different backgrounds] together in a work environment, they integrate to create a broader perspective that is priceless.”

Hsin-Ju Chuang agrees wholeheartedly — diversity helps companies innovate. But, she’s concerned that hiring bias is preventing startups from reaching their full potential. The scary part? Because of a phenomena called blind spot bias, most employers don’t even realize they do it. Chuang founded a startup, Responsiblr, that will help employers, especially startups, overcome hidden biases and hire without regard to race or gender.

The Problem

Hiring bias in symphonies.

Explicit or conscious discrimination is certainly a real and important problem in many industries but it’s the less spoken about implicit biases in hiring that impact how people behave without their realizing it.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, symphony orchestra managers would have said they weren’t biased against female musicians. For some odd reason, though, female musicians made up less than 5% of the top symphonies. When orchestras finally adopted blind auditions, female percentages grew to 25%. Those blind auditions uncovered a serious bias problem in the music industry.

Here’s a more recent gender example — in 2012, Yale University published a study that involved science faculty from various schools rating applications with a randomly assigned male or female name for a lab manager position. Male applicants with the same qualifications as female applicants were rated as “significantly more competent and hireable” than females and were offered better salary packages. The gender of the faculty member didn’t make a difference either. Male and female professors alike were biased toward males.

When it comes to race, hiring bias happens regularly as well. A University of Chicago professor submitted applications to job ads in the Chicago Tribune with either a African-American sounding name or white sounding name. She found that applicants with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get job callbacks than applicants with African-American sounding names.

Bias In Startups

Responsiblr in tackling workplace diversity issues.

What’s especially troubling is that while the startup and tech worlds are made up of some of the smartest people around, they are more prone to unconscious bias than the general public. There’s a meta-bias known as Bias Blindspot. That’s the belief that cognitive biases effect you less than the general population. What’s fascinating is that the smarter you are the more likely you are to believe that bias doesn’t effect you.

Worse still there’s evidence to suggest that higher intelligence correlates with bias and faulty ways of thinking. According to this piece from the New York Times there’s a recent study that suggests that “smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors.”

So when you take known implicit biases — like those above surrounding diversity in tech — run by folks who are often extremely intelligent and you would normally expect that the problems will get better, not worse. Based on what we’ve just learned you might be a lot less optimistic about that expectation.

That helps to explain why collectively the tech industry acknowledges that diversity is a problem but individuals and organizations believe their process is unbiased.

Don’t lose hope, however, with a better understanding of the root causes of these problems (including Blind Spot Bias) and a better designed solution that has thoughtfully eliminated the opportunity for bias to occur in the process (more on this later) a more meritocratic process can emerge.

Validation of this issue comes from companies like Google who have recognized the importance of addressing unconscious bias. They have instituted unconscious bias training for all of their 60,000 employees as a great first step to combating the role unconscious bias plays in the workplace.

Those organizing orchestra auditions in 1970s probably thought they made all of their decisions based on merit but that doesn’t explain why the rate at which they selected women for positions increased five fold when they changed the audition process to prevent bias from occurring. So they question is, what does the equivalent blind audition process for knowledge workers look like?

Firsthand Experience

Hsin-Ju experienced difficulty with hiring biases firsthand when she sourced talent for her team through a recruiting firm. In the six months she used the firm, she only received two female applicants out of a slew of male applicants.

The reason? Recruiting firms make choices based on the skills needed for the position as well as cultural fit for the company that is hiring. If the company is mostly white and male, they’ll get mostly white male applicants. While there’s nothing wrong with white male talent, ignoring talent that is female or from another race limits an employer’s ability to create a diverse team.

Startups have another problem that prevents them from hiring diverse talent, according to Chuang. They tend toward homogeneous workplaces because they don’t have the resources to pay the high commissions or monthly fees that recruiters charge. Founders rely on their own networks to source talent, and their employees end up being people with similar backgrounds and interests. These startups, then, lose an opportunity to bring together diverse talent.

This is one of the problems Hsin-Ju has set out to solve.

Job Seekers Need Responsiblr Too


The other side of the equation — the job seeker side — isn’t much better. Chuang spent several months personally researching the job search process by playing job seeker, filling out applications, going for interviews, and talking to employers.

She found that job seekers face a “black hole” when it comes to finding the perfect position. They manually fill out dozens (maybe even hundreds) of applications on job boards like CareerBuilder or Indeed and then never hear back. They have no way of knowing what the applicant pool looks like or even if the position is filled already. Weeks or months pass before they hear back from an employer (if they hear back at all).

When they do land an interview, job seekers don’t have the information needed to negotiate well. They have no idea of what the competition looks like or even their own earning potential. Having access to data about other applicants would help them be able negotiate better, but as it stands now negotiations are weighted in the employer’s favor.

The Solution

Responsiblr, Chuang’s brainchild, is an app that gives all talent regardless of race or gender the same chance that female musicians had several decades ago — blind auditions, so to speak, for the startup and tech world.

Chuang has always tossed around the idea of a social good startup. After attending a Google Startup Weekend in November (where she met her first team member, Matthew Szczublewski), she finally settled on tackling bias in hiring.


Hsin-ju Chuang and Co-Founder Matthew Szczublewski met at a Google Startup Weekend in San Diego.

She partnered with Gigster to build an app where applicants fill out job seeker profiles. Their information includes their names and demographic data along with all of their qualifications and experience. Employers, however, can’t view any personal information and must make the decision to interview based on qualifications alone.

She tackles the problem of resources for startups by keeping costs low. Employers pay a monthly fee that covers costs for Chuang and her team. Job seekers, on the other hand, don’t have to pay any fees and can sign up for free.

To help applicants negotiate better, Responsiblr gives them access to the same data as employers, including information about their competition. This data helps them know how in demand their skills are in real-time and what types of skills attract employers. They can figure out their own earning potential by viewing what similar candidates are earning. That knowledge gives them more power when the time comes to negotiate a salary package.

Just Go For It

Chuang is incredibly dedicated to her mission to get rid of hiring bias. In March of this year, she moved to San Francisco with a backpack and suitcase for a trial month (or more if all goes well) to see if the city’s startup ecosystem would be a good fit for Responsiblr. She’s Airbnb’ing it for the month, living in a hacker house with eight or so other entrepreneurs.

She sums up her entrepreneurial journey best in her own words: “Just go for it. You’re going to fail a lot of times. It may totally suck. But it won’t be the end of the world. Just pick yourself up, enjoy the ups and downs of your startup journey, and continue to learn. You’ll lose more by not taking the plunge.”