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Combatting unconscious bias in tech recruitment

Hiring tips
Helen Gilroy-Powell

Helen Gilroy-Powell

1st August 2019

The tech industry isn’t known for its diversity, particularly when it comes to gender. One report found that just 17% of tech workers are female, while just 5% of leadership positions are held by women, a fact that most tech employers are keen to address. 

It’s now widely accepted that increased diversity brings a wider range of perspectives, attitudes, experiences and ideas, all of which ultimately contribute to building better businesses. Plus, with a 40,000 shortfall of people with the required STEM skills for a career in tech, bringing in more women could go a long way to closing this gap, which is vital for the future success of the industry. 

But doing so is by no means simple, with numerous reasons lying behind why women aren’t sufficiently represented in tech. The industry is battling with social norms around gender, girls being pushed into more traditionally ‘female’ careers, and the male tech culture that can be off-putting for women. 

Diversity in tech recruitment combatting gender bias

There are numerous nationwide and grassroots programmes doing a great job of altering these ingrained views and behaviours, so more women develop the necessary skills and ambitions in the first place. But there’s one area where all employers have the power to do something, and that’s in combating unconscious bias during the recruitment process. 

Numerous studies have shown the effect that unconscious bias can have on our decisions, but, as it’s not something any of us are aware of or do on purpose, we are usually none the wiser to the impact it can have. For example, implicit bias studies have shown that as many as 90% of Western people have negative associations around the word 'elderly'. 

According to the Tech Talent Charter, which is on a mission to increase the proportion of women in the tech sector, “industries with a high presence of one gender over another are more likely to face challenges with unconscious bias”. Which doesn’t bode well for improving the gender balance in the male-dominated tech sector. 

A study from 2016 shows how big a problem this could be in practice. Researchers analysed submission and acceptance rates at Github, the open source software development platform. They found that contributions from women tended to be accepted more often than contributions from men. Surprised? 

However, when looking a little deeper, it turned out that the pro-women results only happened when the coders were not identifiable as women. When the gender of the coders was more obvious, the acceptance rate for women dropped by a whole 10%. 

Nobody at Github thought of themselves as sexist or wanted to discriminate against female coders. But that kind of result is no coincidence. The problem was not conscious discrimination, but unconscious bias.

This is clearly a problem in need of a solution, so what can tech companies do to minimise the influence of their unconscious bias in the recruitment process? Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to combat unconscious bias: 

1. Anonymous applications

As the Github example shows, asking for applications to be anonymous, at least initially, can have a significant impact on the candidates that it make it to the next stage. Obviously, it’s not so easy at the interview stage, but at least if you anonymise the first step, you’ll ensure the best candidates make it in for interview - regardless of gender. 

2. Set selection criteria upfront

Agree what you’re looking for and how you’re going to test for it, right at the outset. That way you’re more likely to judge all candidates the same, and less likely to keep changing the criteria as you go along. 

3. Don’t schedule interviews under pressure

Unconscious bias is more likely to strike when you’re busy and have less time to make a considered decision. Unconscious bias can help us make fast decisions but it can also bring out prejudices. Ensure you give yourself enough time to carry out interviews properly and don’t decide anything in a panic.   

4. Competency based questions and structured interviews

Interviews should be based around the selection criteria that have been agreed upon upfront, with questions that delve into skills, experience and ask for specific examples of these. Use the same questions for each candidate so that you can make fair comparisons.  

5. Incorporate a range of recruitment methods

Don’t just rely on interviews, but also use aptitude tests, practical assessments, and qualitative references. This way you give yourself a good 360° view of each candidate’s abilities. 

6. Ask for references before you make a hiring decision

It’s common practice to ask for references once you’ve chosen a candidate, but this means you’re missing out on valuable evidence of all applicants’ abilities and fit for the role. Instead, check references at the interview stage or even earlier if possible – you can do this quickly and simply using Zinc. 

7. Use a scoring system

Produce a score system based on your selection criteria and interview questions to reduce the chance that you’ll make decisions based on your gut instinct—a surefire way to let unconscious bias get the better of you. 

8. Only use relevant selection methods

Make sure there is a practical reason behind each element of your recruitment process, i.e. if the role doesn’t involve presenting, then your recruitment process shouldn’t either. 


At Zinc, we’re on a mission to make referencing fairer and more effective, so candidates are considered based on their skills, qualifications and attitude fit, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or any other aspect of their background. 

Our blockchain-based referencing platform gives job seekers verified proof of work which they can view, own and reuse their references throughout their career, not just for a single interview. Zinc also benefits recruiters and hiring managers through delivering qualitative reference data in a couple of clicks, meaning there’s no reason to put off referencing your candidates earlier in your hiring process. 


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