Recruiting for diversity: this much we know

Meena Kadri (CC-by-2.0)

At mySociety, we recently put out a call for new trustees that explicitly mentioned our desire for more diversity. Here’s how our CEO Mark put it:

There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.

The interview process is over, those trustees are now in place, and later on in this post I’ll look at how successful we were in our aim to encourage more diverse applicants.

But first, I’d like to take a look at why diversity is important to us — and what we mean by it.

Shari Green (CC-by-2.0)

Diversity: what it is and why we need some

It hardly needs saying that diversity is the ‘right’ thing to do. mySociety works around concepts of democracy, accessibility and fairness, so it would be counter-intuitive, not to mention hypocritical, to pursue a strategy that actively sought to close doors to some.

And yet, sometimes, where there is no strategy, it allows a status quo to prevail. Over the past few years, it has become obvious that this isn’t an issue that will fix itself through good intentions and changes in wider society. It needs focused attention from the people making recruitment decisions.

Let’s establish what we mean when we talk about diversity. There are the obvious factors such as the balance between the genders, and the number of people of colour on the workforce.

There’s also a wider definition, in which we’d also ensure that we include employees from a range of cultural or economic backgrounds, and that we don’t exclude people with, say, disabilities or non-binary gender identities.

Tumble all of this together with the overarching, immovable aim of finding the best possible people for the job, and it is, of course, very easy to do what many organisations would do, which is to talk the talk but give up on the actual implementation.

Warren Rachele (cc-by-2.0)

A little background

There’s no denying that, in part due to the way mySociety was born — originally the project of a friendship group consisting of white middle-class males — we have not always been the most representative organisation in the world.

Not for want of trying (this blog post from Tom, back in 2011, shows some of the angst mySociety has felt around the topic — and the responses demonstrate the mire of confusion around gender equality at the time), and for a number of factors, internal and external.

One such factor? We are subject to the same forces that many tech companies experience. An unusually high proportion of our staff is made up of developers; for many and varied reasons, all much debated elsewhere, more men than women apply for developer positions. And so on, and so on.

Now, we’re the organisation behind Gender Balance, the app that crowdsources data on how many women are in parliaments around the world. While we present the resulting data objectively, not as part of a campaign or to make a point (and we still would have published it whatever the results), there’s no doubt that, in some small way, Gender Balance is holding the world’s legislatures to account.

So: we feel strongly about justice and equality, and people rightly expect this to be carried across into our recruitment. We are occasionally called out for our gender ratios: as people can be quick to point out, our annual team photo always shows more men than women*.

Never mind gender and race biases — what about the positive discrimination towards hoodie wearers?

We’re improving on that front, though. Take a look at the team page on our website, and you’ll see that currently, 10 out of 26 staff are women, and several of those women are working in the less female-typical positions of coding, sysadmin and team management. As we’ve improved, criticisms about our own gender balance have become rarer.

Criticisms about racial diversity? I’m not sure what it says about society that we don’t get many of those… but all the same, we’d really have to hold our hands up about that one. We’re not in a strong position to defend the almost-entirely caucasian range of faces on that page.

Does it help to say that we have had a number of people of colour on the team? No it does not. In fact, doesn’t that open more questions?

Rich Herrmann (cc-by-2.0)

A work in progress

Making these new trustee appointments was a timely task. We’ve evolved since our inception, both in our mission and as an organisation — and it’s important that the makeup of our board reflects mySociety as it is now.

Trustees guide a charity in all that it does. As mySociety expands, working with diverse partners in new and varied territories, we want our board to reflect these values, too. It was time to inject a different dynamic, and, above all, a range of perspectives.

Now, all of that is not to say that we’ve cracked this nut. Far from it. But we can say this: we are actively thinking about this issue, learning as much as we can, and taking tangible steps towards recruiting fairly, in order to achieve that diverse workforce … writes a white, middle class person — yes, I am aware of the irony.

Dustin Oliver (cc-by-2.0)

Here’s what we’re doing

When our CEO Mark put out that call for trustees, he explicitly mentioned a desire to recruit more diversely, but our methods are not always so direct.

We now have a number of recruitment protocols which we’re aiming to implement as standard. Here they are:

Photographs shouldn’t always depict white men

Our recruitment newsletters, blog posts, tweets and Facebook updates are always accompanied by an image. With the help of resources like Women Of Colour in Tech’s Creative Commons photos, it’s now easy for us to ensure that these photos don’t always exclude sectors of society.

We won’t always use a picture of a woman, or a picture of a person of colour — but we’ll do so a lot more often than we have been doing, and if we don’t, the decision will be taken mindfully. Sometimes, we will include an image (like this one) which could be perceived to depict someone who’s male or female, and from any one of a wide range of ethnicities.

The important thing is that no-one will look at it and think, ‘This is not a place where I would fit in’.

Language should be inclusive

It’s been a long time since that 2011 blog post in which Tom was just beginning to wonder: “how do we get more women coders to apply for our jobs?”. It turns out that there are some concrete answers to that, many of which are documented online.

Firstly, there has been research into the kind of wording which encourages or dissuades women from applying to job advertisements. If you thought that the English language was gender neutral, you’re in for a surprise.

You may, like me, have been aware that there are some languages, such as Japanese, in which there are whole vocabularies only ever used by women or men.

You would not have included English as one of those languages.

English is, of course, not so strongly divided: whatever your gender, you can talk about empathy and communication; power or assertion. But there are, according to this research, words to which each gender will react more positively.

It demonstrates comprehensively how words such as ‘competitive’, ‘challenge’ and ‘decisive’ can lead to fewer applications from women (the full list of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words is at the end of the study linked to above).

mySociety likes evidence: reading this research was enough motivation for us to try and make some changes to the way we word our recruitment ads.

Our HR Manager said at the time:

“We’ve heard a few times over the years that our job adverts sound like we’re looking for total rockstar 100% committed workaholic developers, that this might have the side-effect of putting off the less confident from applying at all, and that there is a correlation between “less confident” and “women”. Not good.”

And so we thought more carefully. For example:

Textio is a web tool that will automatically analyse job adverts to see, among other things, how gender biased they are. We have no way of telling how accurate it is, but the SysAdmin job advert we’re currently running scores 97%, and skews female-friendly.

We don’t always have a vacancy at mySociety, but we do have a page about recruitment on our website, and that has been through the same process to try and make it welcoming to all.

Working conditions should be flexible — and that should be explicit

One ironic thing about having to change the wording in our job ads is that we were already operating as a workplace that’s outstandingly — compared to many (most?) other organisations — amenable to women.

More accurately, I should say to mothers. And yes, I recognise that not all women are or will become parents. But having a child is recognised as one of the significant barriers after which career progression halts, and, more anecdotally, can be the source of resentment and guilt in an office environment.

And until society fixes the endemic imbalance around parenting, I think it’s fair to say that the policies I’m about to describe, while being great for human beings, are especially excellent for mothers.

Our human being-friendly policies look like this:

  • We can work from home. As a result, it’s easy to nip out and pick up a child from nursery or school. It’s relatively easy to have your child at home, if they are sick (and more so the older they are). Paired with our flexitime (see below) this policy means that it’s feasible to breastfeed for as long as you wish to.
  • Within reason, we can work flexitime. No-one’s going to thank you if you shift your working hours to midnight — 7:30 am, but so long as you’re around for a core amount of time to discuss important matters with colleagues, you can take a couple of hours off one day and make it up over subsequent days. Or you can work from 10:00 to 18:30 instead of 09:00–17:30, to accommodate the school drop-off. Or you can take off a chunk of time in the middle of the day and make it up in the evening — whatever fits around the rest of your life.
  • We can take holidays at any time So long as you give some decent notice (and sometimes even if you don’t). Take a morning off to see your child’s school play, or a week off to cover the half term holidays: it’s no hassle.
  • We don’t do overworking As explained above, it’s fine to put in some extra hours on a project, but we will hunt you down and insist that you take the time off in lieu.
  • We can go part time or take a sabbatical Almost every position at mySociety can be less than 5 days a week, if that’s preferred; there is also the option of sabbaticals, so you can take as much as a year off to be with your kids, and still have a job when you get back.

These policies were all in place. We just hadn’t explained that to the outer world very well, because they had grown organically as we became a more structured organisation, and there had never been a point at which we were launching the whole bundle together, as a coherent new strategy.

We try to diminish invisible biases

For many of the roles we advertise, we operate a ‘blind’ application process. We anonymise CVs, taking out any distinguishing information.

We’re also careful to use structured interviews, asking each candidate exactly the same questions, so we know that we’re comparing like with like.

This also means that we can’t ask the kind of questions that it’s nominally illegal to base a job decision on (but which are, it seems still often asked, even in this day and age), like ‘Are you planning to have a baby in the next few years?’.

Not that we ever would, I hope! But there is no harm in preventing it from ever happening.

woodleywonderworks (cc-by-2.0)

And here are some things we’re thinking about

As I said, we’re still learning and improving when it comes to recruiting for diversity — so we’re particularly interested to see what others are trying, or suggesting.

Like this piece from Bytemark, in which they operated with complete anonymity throughout most of the recruitment process.

There was also food for thought at the last ECF forum, when in one of the sessions, someone made the point that if you want to get a more diverse range of people using your services (and we do) then you should look at yourselves as an organisation.

To take one example that particularly hit home: if you require a university degree before anyone can apply for a position, then you will end up with a workforce that potentially finds it harder to communicate with a less-educated demographic in their own online spaces and in their own language.

Our work is all about communication (and mine is about communicating the potential of all that communication!) so on the scale of wake-up calls, this was a cold bucket of water.

We already had a policy of putting a university degree under the ‘prefered’ section of our job ads, rather than the ‘required’ or ‘desired’ sections, and of being broad-minded when it came to which disciplines were acceptable — which, I must say worked out great for me, with my degrees in Drama and Illustration.

But we’re now, for some jobs, explicitly stating that candidates don’t need a degree. That’s especially true for junior roles where we expect to train recruits on the job. Plus we recognise that web development is so often self-taught that you would be excluding many promising candidates by insisting that they came university-educated.

Ib Aarmo (cc-by-2.0)

How did we do when it came to the trustees?

So, back to the reason for this blog post. How did we do in recruiting a more diverse board, especially given that we explicitly stated that this was our desire?

Well, you can refer back to Mark’s announcement blog post for yourself to see the results. But let’s backtrack a little to the initial recruitment process.

Bear in mind that the following statistics are, of necessity, based on assumptions rather than hard data. Candidates were not asked to state their gender, so for the purposes of this exercise, it was inferred from the name.

That understood, here are the numbers of people who applied for these posts.

29 people applied to be a Charitable Trustee; 13 were female and 16 male (45% — 55% split)

64 applied to be a Non-Executive Director; 17 were female and 47 male (27% — 73% split)

This immediately raises the question of why women might be more comfortable applying for a trustee role than a directorship.

Some might posit that, by their nature, trustee roles are about nurturing, caring, and contributing to make society a better place. Are women more naturally called to such posts, or do social stereotypes coerce them into taking those roles? It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to make that call — and of course, this is just one small sample.

And so to the final results:

Out of the three new Charitable Trustees, two are women.

And out of the three new Non-Executive Directors, two are men.

Adding the newbies to those remaining on the board, this brings current numbers to:

  • five trustees, two of whom are women;
  • five directors (including Mark himself), one of whom is a woman.

Of course, when it comes down to it, the decision had to be informed by any number of factors, including whose experience was best suited to the roles, and how each board member would complement the others.

And while 3 women out of 10 board members means that we haven’t exactly achieved an epic benchmark in gender equality, it is a step forward from the previously all-male board. It will be interesting to see what — if anything — changes as a result of this shift.

Susy Morris (cc-by-2.0)

There’s still more to learn

I speak sincerely when I say that mySociety is a darn good company to work for, whether you’re male, female, or neither. On a personal level, I’ve never had a job where I’ve felt so valued, a trusted part of a team, and that my work/life balance is fair for both sides.

In fact, all the things that job adverts so often promise, but the job itself so often fails to deliver.

But as noted, there’s still room for improvement across all our recruitment processes. This piece has barely mentioned diversity in terms of disability, and it hasn’t touched on ageism at all; although, since we’re all getting older, and since mySociety seems to be a place where people like to hang around, that may be a problem that solves itself.

So we’ll keep on discussing these issues — and we’d still welcome any other pointers. Especially if you’ve ever looked at a mySociety job ad and thought, ‘No, that’s not the place for me.’

* In fact this is a false measure, because a) we often invite guests to our annual retreat, where the photos are taken, and b) not all staff are always present.