Reducing Pedigree Bias in Recruiting

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Monday, June 21, 2021
By Portia Kibble Smith
Photo by iStock/Jeff Bergen
The four steps that business schools can take to help students from underrepresented backgrounds land interviews—and help companies grow more diverse.

Recruiting bias is present in every industry, but it’s especially prevalent in technical industries. One reason for this is simply the need for efficiency. In STEM fields, each hire is often time-critical—if every candidate who applied for a job went through multiple hours of interviews with multiple engineers, it would be impossible for companies to keep up. Therefore, employers often take shortcuts to make each hire as quickly as possible.

But efficiency has significant drawbacks. For instance, some résumé screeners might rule candidates in or out based on whether they worked at specific employers or graduated from particular schools. Screening candidates in this way demonstrates what’s known as “pedigree bias.” By creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop, this form of bias creates false negatives in ways that remove qualified candidates from consideration before the interview stage of the process. It indirectly acts as a gatekeeping mechanism that excludes diverse talent from the hiring pool. Even more dangerous, if employees come from the same few schools, they could form “in-groups” in which they are even more likely to exclude those unlike themselves.

Simply put, this approach is not equitable. In fact, according to a recent study by Intel and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, full representational racial and ethnic diversity could help the tech sector generate an additional 470 billion to 570 billion USD annually. That indicates just how imperative it is for businesses to make diverse hires. Furthermore, as technologies become more advanced, it will become extremely important for every organization to bring diverse voices, thoughts, and opinions to the table, especially in areas such as artificial intelligence, which could potentially reinforce historical biases that are reflected in the data.

Educators play a crucial role in making hiring more equitable. It’s their duty to prepare students of diverse backgrounds to enter the job market successfully, especially in technical fields where they currently are underrepresented. One of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to help these students fight against pedigree bias at the hiring stage. Below, I outline four straightforward but critical steps that business schools can take to help students from underrepresented backgrounds make it through the initial candidate screening processes in business and tech-based industries.

1. Align Curricula With Industry Standards

One way that higher education institutions can better prepare students in business and STEM fields is to continuously update and improve their curricula. Every year, for example, faculty should ask recruiters how well students from their schools perform in job interviews, so that they can map the skills they teach in the classroom to the competencies employers are looking for on the job. For instance, schools could gather information on these skills on an ongoing basis by creating feedback loops with prospective employers as part of their overall recruiting policies. Without taking this crucial step, both professors and students are left in the dark before each recruiting season.

Unfortunately, professors aren’t always sure what topics they should be teaching to best prepare students for the job market. That’s one reason why Karat, where I serve as head of diversity and inclusion, launched Brilliant Black Minds earlier this year. Designed for Black engineers, the program provides opportunities for participants to practice their interviewing skills based on the competencies hiring managers are looking for; they then receive feedback that will help them improve. They also have access to professional development opportunities such as workshops on résumé building and salary negotiation, hosted by a diverse slate of professional software engineers.

With little transparency between schools and employers beforehand, there was no way for professors to know whether the skills they were teaching met market demand.

In addition, the Brilliant Black Minds program is sharing data and insights with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which make up just 3 percent of U.S. colleges and universities but produce 25 percent of Black graduates in STEM fields. For example, based on the spring interview results at Howard University, the Brilliant Black Minds team identified 25 microcompetencies that are essential for success in coding interviews (from identifying the space complexity of a graph data structure to describing the creation of an adjacency list). The team then benchmarked the class scores for each microcompetency and presented the aggregate data to the faculty, identifying specific areas for improvement and curricula alignment.

It is our hope that many more institutions use this data to better align their curricula with industry expectations. We see this practice as a blueprint for future engagements between academia and the private sector.

2. Be Open With Companies

When company representatives come to your campus for job and career fairs, it’s important to create opportunities for faculty and recruiters to engage in ongoing conversations. Be open about the skills your curriculum teaches. Through these conversations, recruiters will better understand what your students have learned, so that they can make more informed hiring decisions. At the same time, your faculty can discover how to align the curriculum with what employers need.

If students are looking for jobs with big tech companies, professors must set them up for success by teaching the programming languages these companies use most. For example, when Google was looking to recruit from HBCUs, some of the faculty at these schools worried that their curricula, which focused primarily on teaching the programming language C++,  was too theoretical. They were concerned that their students might not be prepared to take on software engineering roles in Silicon Valley.

With little transparency between schools and employers beforehand, there was no way for professors to know whether the skills they were teaching met market demand. But today, many universities are working more closely with technical firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, teaching languages like Python that are increasingly used at modern tech companies and in data science fields. Additionally, those languages have a more succinct syntax that makes them strong choices for candidates in timed interview settings, providing an additional benefit to job seekers in these technical fields.

3. Level the Playing Field

Keep in mind that, today, students from underrepresented backgrounds often do not have as much exposure to some courses—especially those in disciplines such as computer science—as their white peers have. Only 47 percent of Black college students have access to classes dedicated to computer science, compared to 58 percent of their white counterparts. When Black students lack exposure to these courses, it creates an even less diverse talent pipeline into technical fields.

By fostering healthy relationships and constant communication with employers, educators can do more than gather information to update existing courses. They also can use this information to identify gaps in their curricula that put their graduates at a disadvantage. By designing more career-relevant courses, they can close this gap, ensure their students develop the necessary skills, and help students transition more smoothly from college to work.

4. Go Beyond Interview Preparation

Even if students have developed the problem-solving and technical skills that the market demands, they might not have mastered the interviewing skills required to land jobs in technical fields. Without proper training, many students might be blindsided by the daunting interview process.

This is especially true for students from underrepresented communities, who often lack access to interview prep resources. They are less likely than white students to have parents, aunts, or uncles who work in relevant fields and can offer interview advice. Given these realities, educators support greater diversity in the workplace when they simply offer interview prep workshops and inform students of the available relevant resources.

Students from underrepresented communities often lack access to interview prep resources and are less likely than white students to have parents, aunts, or uncles who work in relevant fields and can offer interview advice.

But while interview prep is important, it has a much stronger impact when schools pair it with comprehensive professional development workshops where students can refine their résumés, ask questions, and share experiences with classmates. Schools also should provide students with opportunities to talk to experts in the field and learn what it takes to land interviews at the specific companies where they want to work.

Counteract Bias at the Source

In essence, Brilliant Black Minds is working at the industry level to ensure that underrepresented candidates have the same understanding of the interview and hiring process as other candidates. However, its broader objective is to add greater transparency to the hiring process. If we do not create greater transparency about the competencies graduates need to find jobs—especially in business and technical fields—pedigree bias will remain prevalent within the recruiting process. It will continue to negatively and disproportionately affect nontraditional candidates and candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

So far, several Brilliant Black Minds participants have said that the workshops and prep sessions have improved their confidence levels and helped them know what technical skills to highlight in interviews. This is exactly what we want to hear.

Of course, ending pedigree bias isn’t the sole responsibility of educators. Industry leaders also must step up and create an environment where there is clear communication with higher ed institutions and support for students. This is becoming increasingly necessary for companies in STEM fields, as the demand for candidates in technical fields such as software engineering grows. Because there aren’t enough candidates coming from “top” schools to meet that demand, some companies are being forced to become more inclusive in their recruiting and seek out more candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.

But this change is happening far too slowly. If educators can get ahead of the curve and prepare students to be stronger candidates, it can make all the difference. Higher ed and industry can work together to reduce pedigree bias and build a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Kibble recently spearheaded the launch of the Brilliant Black Minds program, which provides software engineers from underrepresented backgrounds with free practice interviews, feedback, and professional development. 

Portia Kibble Smith
Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Karat
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