Blinding Résumés makes the problem worse

You can’t stop bias by ignoring it

There’s an old saying about “the elephant in the room” or, my personal favorite version, “the lematya in your house”:

“Here is the first part of the secret,” Surak would write, much later, when people started to pay attention to him. “Cast out fear. There is no room for anything else until you cast out fear. . . . Now, do not mistake me when I speak of ‘casting out.’ Some people will immediately think this means rejection of fear, by pretending not to be afraid. They are not the same thing. Pretending there is not a lematya in your house will not make it go away if there is one. You must first admit to yourself the fact that there is a lematya — you must first accept its presence. Then you can call the animal control people and have them come and take it away. But until you first admit that it is there, you are going to have a lematya in your bed every night. It may save your pride not to admit it is there, but your bed will be increasingly crowded.”
Excerpt From: Diane Duane & A.C. Crispin. “Star Trek: Sand and Stars.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/FTLWw.l

However, if we were talking about résumés and job applications instead of vaguely felinoid beasts with a poisonous bite, there’d be a third option that would involve building a system of carefully placed walls and walkways so that you could avoid dealing with the lematya, yet not have it in your bed causing you problems.

First, let me say that the intent behind blinding is good. To remove the data that causes people to reject job applicants over minor bullshit like name, gender, age, college attended, etc. It is a good intent, and in many cases, it is effective. The canonical example is the blinding of symphony auditions. It had an immediate beneficial effect. The number of women accepted into orchestras when a position in one was achieved in a way that far more resembled a meritocracy than it had rose dramatically.

But did it fix the problem of systemic gender bias in symphonies? Or did it just apply a patch to the problem and then everyone congratulated themselves on “solving” it and moved on.

I would say it did not, nor will it ever. Blinding doesn’t fix the problem, it just makes it harder to affect its usual victims. It’s like discovering a giant pothole in the road, but rather than fixing the hole and maybe the larger problem that caused it in the first place, you just build an overpass so that no one ever goes near the hole. The hole is still there, the problem is still there, but it’s just unable to affect people.

On a certain level, that’s almost a solution. We’ve made the problem immaterial. But have you?

Blinding résumés doesn’t really solve the problem of bias against women, minorities, people who didn’t go to the right schools, older applicants and all the rest. What it does is layer an ever increasing number of abstractions around the core issue in the hopes that if we do this enough, then the problem can’t actually affect anyone.

People making judgments on names? Remove the name and call them all “Applicant-<number>”. People making judgements on schools? Remove the names of the schools and replace them with a “highest degree achieved” and major field. Gender? Remove any hint of gender-specific verbiage. Age? Re…okay, so that’s going to fail. There’s no way to blind for age, because there’s no way to blind for experience.

For example, I’ve been working, continuously in the IT field since 1993. If we include the USAF, I’ve been professionally employed since 1986. So if you want a full résumé, there is literally no way I can do that in a way that will not give you a really good idea that I’m not 25. Right now, even just the one page gives me fourteen years in the field. So at best, I could be…32, and that’s assuming I started working at 18. Given the job assignments I had, the idea I started out brand new is ludicrous:

Lead IS person for UNIX/OpenSystems implementations. Projects include integrating Open Source management tools into our network, implementing a WebSphere/DB2 in- frastructure, integrating IBM’s RAD environment into our CVS infrastructure, the use of blogs and wikis for IS personnel project tracking, and implementing an OS X — based CVS over SSH repository tied into AD. Other projects included updating our Mac OS X systems to work correctly with our Active Directory environment, and executive/board member support.

That is not a entry for a kid fresh out of high school. There is literally no way to blind for age. Even worse, if I am asked about military experience, then the dates of service are kind of a required part of that. (DD 214 FTW) There’s no way to hide I went into the Air Force in 1986 and separated in 1993. I cannot blind my age, no one can unless we start having the experience entries on a résumé carry no information at all that might possibly indicate that one worked there for a non-zero amount of time, and now it’s all just a goddamned farce.

This is not an edge case, ageism is not only real in tech, but it’s also one of the hardest things to prove. Sexism, Racism, and similar are not nearly as restricted in what’s illegal as ageism. So there’s that.

But even more important: It’s not my fault.

The fact that I just turned 50, or as I call it “25 again” is not something I’ve done wrong. It’s not a black mark. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m proud of that. My experience and knowledge, both in breadth and depth, are my best assets, and now I’m supposed to hide that because the hiring process at companies is so bad, is so messed up that any hint that I’m not the result of some Von Neumann-inspired cookie cutter is “problematic”?

No. That’s not my problem to solve.

The same thing for names. Remember this crap?

John Greathouse, a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, outlines his ideas in a Wall Street Journal op-edabout how women might further their careers in the industry.
His suggestion? “Women in today’s tech world should create an online presence that obscures their gender.”

Just in case you’d forgotten, because it was more than ten minutes ago, the reasoning behind it (Bolding mine):

Greathouse suggests women use their initials instead of their real names, not include photos of themselves in their pitch deck, remove photos from their LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and otherwise pretend they’re men.
Greathouse cites blind auditions for orchestras — which resulted in orchestras being more gender balanced, he says — as the reasoning for his suggestion, as well as data that shows that people are more likely to pay attention to someone who has a similar name as them.

Those quotes are from a Business Insider report on the post, but here, from the post itself:

Professional orchestras in the 1970s were comprised of an average of 95% men. Nearly 50 years later, the gender mix of most orchestras reflects that of the general population.
A number of elements played a role in the dramatic transformation of the gender mix of professional musicians, including the overall gains women enjoyed in all professions. However, the single most significant factor was the introduction of blind auditions during the late 1970s, in which a screen obscured the musicians’ age, gender and ethnicity from the panel of evaluators.
In a similar fashion, women in today’s tech world should create an online presence that obscures their gender. A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them. Once they make an initial connection with a potential employer or investor, such women then have an opportunity to submit their work and experiences for an impartial review.
As a reader, I appreciate a book when I don’t know the author’s gender and haven’t formed a concrete image of him or her. If I enjoy a particular work, I then research the writer to better understand how their background and motivations shaped their fiction. It’s a shame that tech investors and hiring managers can’t approach the work-product of women in a similar, nonjudgmental fashion.

What he’s talking about is literally blinding, but done by the applicant instead of the company. Even worse, he clearly had no idea why this suggestion was awful, since it was based on an idea that people seem to love:

I happen to believe that this bias is at least somewhat the result of unconscious factors. But whatever the reason — and however unfair it may be — I would suggest that if you are a woman raising capital, you might consider not including photos of your team in your pitch deck. If you identify your team via their initials (men and women), you effectively strip out all preconceptions related to race, ethnicity and gender. In your LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, email address and online correspondence use your initials (or a unisex name) and eliminate photos.

and:

I am not suggesting that people shun their ethnicity and run from their cultural identities. My point is that many people in the business community are intellectually dishonest. They say that they believe in diversity of thought, but their pattern matching habits cause them to prematurely narrow their aperture before giving certain entrepreneurs a chance to prove themselves.

Except that’s what he was doing. He was suggesting that people shun their ethnicity and gender and run from their identities so they were a tabula rasa of sorts in the minds of those doing the hiring. Greathouse was of course, excoriated for it, and well. He apologized soon after.

But here’s the thing: the only difference, the only difference between the blinding he was suggesting and what people are getting behind as “a great idea” was the source of the blinding. Suggesting applicants “neuter” their names and identities to get a job is bad, but having companies do the exact same thing with applicants is good. Yes, I know there’s a difference. Jacking your entire online identity to remove any hint of difference between yourself and a 25-year-old guy from Stanford is a rather larger problem than having an HR department blind a résumé. But in terms of the end result on the résumé, it’s about the same.

Just as important was why he was excoriated: because instead of working to solve the problem, he just wanted to paper over it so it couldn’t affect anyone.

THAT’S WHAT BLINDING IS YA NINCOMPOOPS!

And it’s going to fail anyway unless you blind the interviews, both in-person and phone, to where no one can tell anything about who they’re hiring. For the orchestral interviews, women were told to not wear shoes so the sound differences between men’s and women’s shoes weren’t noticeable.

How the hell do you do that for a tech interview? Or an interview where you want the people the applicant will be working with to get a feel for them? I can blind the crap out of my résumé, but the instant I walk in the damned door, there’s no way to hide that I’m a bit of a geezer.

Blinding, ultimately, allows companies and HR departments to not have to change. It allows them to be just as biased as ever, just as stupid about hiring as ever, it just makes it harder for that bias and stupidity to cause people problems. Which again, fails once the human actually goes to work. Because then, any bias and other issues in a company can’t be blinded. What, we’re all going to go to work in individual pods that hide any form of difference from the world?

This is a fundamentally wrong system and what it reminds me of, so much, is a Kurt Vonnegut story. To the point we should start calling this idiocy “Glamperism”, because that’s what it is: an attempt to render all applicants identical. That’s not meritocracy, that’s idiocy.

Fix. The. Problem.

Rather than spend money on systems and AIs to blind and evaluate and pretend the problem doesn’t exist anymore, fix the goddamned problem. It’s not easy. Well, actually, it is. Honest to god, if you have someone who is deciding an applicant’s value based on their name, gender or age, either fire them, or remove them from the hiring process completely.

If they went to Framingham State instead of Stanford, who cares? What they learned, what they got out of that education is the important part, not the name on the sheepskin. Fix the damned problem. Admit, for real, not this stupid “Honkie Apologia” crap you see here on Medium all the time, but admit that this kind of bias exists, it is hard to remove, it is prevalant, and it is something we have to be aware of at all times.

Make people explain why they like or dislike a given candidate’s résumé, and if it isn’t related directly to the skills and abilities needed for a position, then discount that opinion and schedule that person for some education on how things should be done. If you want someone who has a lot of experience with say, Go, then that’s what you care about, not their goddamned name.

If you need someone who can travel, then ask them about that, not their family status.

Stop.

Being.

Stupid.

I mean, my god, on average, people are only spending 30 seconds to a minute reading resumes in the first place. We publish think pieces on how because Elon Musk only needs a one-page résumé, everyone else can get by with one page too, but we never note that Elon Musk could spray paint his name on the hiring manager’s car and still get hired BECAUSE HE’S ELON-GODDAMNED-MUSK.

We have at every level screwed up the hiring process, the entire system, and yet every time anyone talks about “fixing” it, it’s never about solving the problem, it’s about creating another layer of abstraction to avoid dealing with the problem at all. We keep adding more and more onto this broken process and pretending that if we just play enough reverse Jenga with it for long enough, we’ll create a properly functional system instead of a pile of crap that will collapse the moment you stop propping it up.

That’s not how you fix problems. Ever.

The irony of this of course is that if we actually fixed the problem, we’d have something far closer to that “meritocracy” everyone wants to pretend tech is.

It will take time, but this problem is absolutely solvable. Blinding however, is not going to do that, and it’s time we admit that all blinding is nothing more than a weird, complicated form of victim-blaming and I’d like to think we’re smarter than that, or at least able to be smarter than that.