6 steps to a more diverse IT workforce (with video!)

From wordsmithing job postings to recasting interview panels, IT organizations are finding new ways to recruit more women and minorities.

group of diverse millennials
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Like many companies, Rent-A-Center has made a commitment to champion diversity and inclusion. The IT organization at the rent-to-own company regularly draws on the talent acquisition team to help with candidate engagement, it has revamped interview practices to be more welcoming, and it has framed job descriptions with an eye toward addressing job seekers’ needs.

Yet even with this highly disciplined approach, things still fall through the cracks. Consider a recent job description for a DevOps engineer, which used language such as “Are you a Gladiator?” While the phrasing was intended to pique interest, the underlying tone undermines the culture of inclusion that Rent-A-Center is aiming to foster, according to CIO Angela Yochem.

“Having awareness of this issue and being able to eliminate it are two different things,” she explains. “We’ve been so conscious about how we phrase things so we don’t specifically target a certain type of candidate or artificially eliminate another. I know this team reports to a female CTO and is an inclusive team that requires people to be change agents and do a lot of influencing — skills you traditionally think of as inherent in strong technology-focused women. Yet few of those women would self-identify as a gladiator.”

Many IT organizations find themselves making similar missteps as they try to put consistent strategies in place to reshape recruitment and interview practices to attract more women and individuals from diverse backgrounds, races and ethnicities. Diversity — whether in sex, race, sexual orientation or nationality — has been an ongoing problem for both the high-profile technology sector and corporate IT departments.

According to Deloitte Global, fewer than 25% of IT jobs in developed countries were held by women in 2016. A 2014 report on diversity in high tech put out by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that, compared to private industry overall, the sector employed a larger share of whites (68.5% vs. 63.5%) and men (64% vs. 52%). The gender numbers for top executive posts were even more dramatic: about 80% of executives are men in high tech, compared to the private sector, where men hold 71% of executive positions.

Injecting diversity into the IT talent pipeline is critical for a number of reasons. For many companies, building equitable, inclusive organizations is a moral imperative, but the practice also makes for smart business, according to Rachel Herter, a consultant at Paradigm, a consultancy that works with companies seeking to create more inclusive environments.

“Research across many fields, from psychology to economics, finds that diverse teams perform better, they make better decisions, and they are better at complex problem-solving,” she says. “For teams that care about innovation or about building new products and solving hard problems, diversity should be a priority.”

Many companies have focused on retention efforts in areas such as mentoring, sponsorship and affinity communities. But they can do a variety of things on the recruitment end to cast a wider net for talent and put everyone on an equal footing. Here are six strategies IT organizations can take to move the needle in that direction.

1. Go where the people are

Posting jobs in traditional, broad-reach job forums is not enough to guarantee a diverse candidate slate. Experts suggest bolstering those initiatives by targeting special events, conferences and even university programs that cater to a more diverse population.

Lisa Depew from McAfee McAfee

Lisa Depew

That’s the game plan for Lisa Depew, head of industry and academic outreach at security vendor McAfee. Depew has made a formal commitment not only to attend events such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the Society of Women Engineers conference, but also to be an active participant, serving as a formal presenter and speaker or teaching a class.

“These are great opportunities to be a spokesperson, provide mentorship and make connections, but it’s also a great place for hiring and getting the word out,” Depew says.

GoDaddy, once notorious for its sexist TV commercials, has in recent years aggressively pursued diversity and inclusion practices. The Internet domain registrar and web hosting company also makes it a point to establish a presence at conferences that are women-focused or cater to specific demographics or ethnicities, such as the AfroTech conference, says Katee Van Horn, GoDaddy’s vice president of engagement and inclusion. GoDaddy regularly hosts mixers, offers up its executive team to moderate forums and invites targeted groups to its headquarters so they can get a direct view of the company and its diverse workforce.

Katee Van Horn from GoDaddy GoDaddy

Katee Van Horn

One population segment GoDaddy is working hard to cultivate is midlevel women managers who had temporarily left the workforce to have a family and are now grappling with re-entry. The company is attempting to raise its profile among such women by partnering with groups such as Path Forward, Van Horn says.

“We are having frank and open conversations with women in that space who aren’t sure they’ll stay in engineering or product management,” she explains. Instead of hosting a hard-core recruiting event, she says, “We provide a forum where they’re able to ask questions and have great conversations.”

2. Use social media

Social media channels such as LinkedIn offer other opportunities to target and engage with select groups. GoDaddy, for example, uses LinkedIn to find qualified female software development engineers, by searching for prospects with related titles and serving up content such as potential job postings and news about the firm that is designed to appeal to them, according to Andrew Carges, the company’s vice president of talent acquisition.

For the University of Oklahoma, LinkedIn provides access to job seekers who might overlook a Midwestern school in a metropolitan area that’s shy of 1.5 million people, says Jeralyn Woodhall, the university’s chief talent officer. UO started using LinkedIn several years back to search for IT candidates, using specific criteria and targeting alumni connections in particular geographic areas. “It helps us find someone who has a relationship with the university or ties to the central Midwest,” she says.

3. Weigh your words

Carefully crafting job descriptions to avoid overtly masculine-centric terms is generally a good rule of thumb, says Rent-a-Center’s Yochem. “If you start off with words like gladiator, you’re never going to get there for a certain set of candidates — it’s Bro Culture 101,” she says.

It’s important to write descriptions that not only convey what the company is looking for, but also reflect what will fulfill the candidate. You can’t just promise what everyone will want from a specific position (competitive salary and good benefits); you need to play up aspects of a job that might appeal to certain slices of the population (a collaborative environment, for example, or a challenging work environment that is constantly in flux).

More than anything, Yochem stresses, it’s important to make everyone feel included and part of the team. “Inclusion is as important if not more important than diversity,” she says. “Everyone, regardless of ethnicity, has something about them that makes them feel different than the pack. It’s important to include everyone and make them feel like they’re contributing in a way that’s unique to them.”

4. Recast job interview panels

One way to signal a commitment to diversity is with diverse interview panels, experts say. UO restructured its interview process several years back, says CIO Loretta Early, moving to a centralized model that ensures that every interview panel showcases the breadth of thought and diversity of people throughout the university’s IT organization. In practice, Early explains, this so-called organizational-fit model means that no female candidate ends up being interviewed by an all-male panel.

Loretta Early from University of Oklahoma University of Oklahoma

Loretta Early

With the decentralized model, she says, “If a female candidate is potentially joining a team that’s all male, she might not see other role models in the organization. With the organizational-fit model, that candidate would meet people of different genders, different ethnicities and different age backgrounds. That way, while the team they’re currently being hired for doesn’t have women, they’d see other women and diverse people in other roles.”

5. Revamp the interview process

Some companies are also taking measures to recast the interview process to make it less intimidating and more inclusive. Companies such as GoDaddy and NTT Data are swapping out standard whiteboarding practices, which can intimidate even the most talented candidates to the point of brain freeze, for more inclusive collaborative programming exercises and solo project assignments.

At NTT Data, for example, candidates are told to choose a project they are passionate about, says Lisa Woodley, vice president of customer experience for the consulting and managed services provider, and then walk interviewers through their ideal process for developing a user experience.

“By giving them something they are passionate about, it takes them out of their discomfort zone, so you get natural responses that aren’t restricted in any way,” she explains. “We’re looking for people with a much broader view, and the only way to get that is to go beyond basic interview questions and get them talking about something they care about.”

There are also ways to ensure that all candidates are evaluated fairly, without unconscious bias — removing names from résumés, for example, or adding more structure to elements of the interview process. Paradigm’s Herter warns that it can be difficult to avoid relying on snap judgments or gut instincts during interviews, particularly when it comes to assessing a candidate’s culture fit. She advises IT organizations to develop a checklist of qualifications (must know x coding languages or have y years of experience in mobile interfaces, for example) that give an objective basis for decisions on whether a candidate should pass to the next round.

“During the interview process, all candidates for the same role should be asked the same questions, and the interviewers should use rubrics to evaluate candidates’ interview responses objectively and consistently,” Herter says.

6. Make diversity a requirement

Some companies are so intent on attracting more women and minorities that they are instituting formal hiring practices that hold hiring managers accountable to meet specific metrics. Uber, for example, recently announced that it is adopting a version of the “Rooney Rule,” a hiring policy popularized by the NFL that requires hiring teams to interview a specified number of minority candidates in every interview slate. Facebook and Pinterest have done the same.

NTT Data isn’t going that far, but it does make it clear to its recruiting organization and hiring managers that they need to actively pursue diversity, Woodley says. “There aren’t certain metrics they have to meet, but it is something we pay attention to,” she says. “Recruiters are accountable for bringing the strongest pool of candidates to the table for every role.”

In the end, though, even the most progressive recruitment and interview tactics won’t hold up if the organization hasn’t committed to shift its culture to be more diverse and inclusive. Says GoDaddy’s Van Horn: “You could recruit the best women and the most diverse candidates, and if you don’t have the right environment and culture, it won’t matter because people won’t stay.”

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