The Wiki Man

Want greater diversity? Try being less fair

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

In its hasty dismissal of James Damore, Google showed a worrying disregard for one of the most important freedoms within a company — the freedom to ask: ‘What if we’re wrong?’

A business culture that can attract and accommodate people with complementary talents benefits everybody. So even if you don’t believe Damore’s theories (in which case you probably shouldn’t hire any systems geneticists), he’s surely right to speak up if he believes the complex question of diversity has been hijacked by wishful dogma. It should be the province of first-rate scientific inquiry, not second-rate social theory. If the diversity agenda is pursued badly, the cure may well be worse than the disease.

Tellingly, among the millions of words written about this affair, no one asked the ratio of male to female applicants for technology jobs at Google. Surely, if there are four times as many male applicants as female applicants for certain jobs, you might expect such departments to be 80 per cent male; such a ratio might not be evidence of bias in hiring, but the opposite. It would also suggest that any action to increase gender diversity significantly needs to start outside the company, not inside.

Only 18 per cent of computer science majors are female. Is this solely the result of male prejudice? To give one counter-theory, people may be influenced most by the opinions of same-sex peer groups — so female reluctance to study STEM subjects could be driven more by the prejudices of their fellow women. Such things are never simple. One scientific paper even suggested women were less likely to pursue STEM careers not because they are worse at those subjects, but because they are better at the humanities; it seems pupils, male and female, who are good at both science and arts overwhelmingly choose to study the latter. More-over, as the work of Thomas Schelling shows, small differences in individual preference may lead to dramatic self-segregation at the level of groups.

This is surely ripe for what Google does best: open-minded experimentation. Before you blame men for everything (and remember, for all our faults, it wasn’t us who bought 125 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey), it might make sense to conduct trials where different decision trees are applied to recruitment. I have a theory that recruiting in groups automatically increases the variety of people hired, compared to hiring people one at a time. Why not test this? Or see what happens if degree class is demoted from the first stage of winnowing applicants to, say, the third (The Spectator does something similar with its internships with apparent success). If enough employers did this, it would loosen the stranglehold of the ‘Higher Education Ponzi Scheme’.

You might also try making your recruitment system less fair. Seriously. This outrages people when I suggest it, but it is worth remembering that there is an inevitable trade-off between fairness and variety. By applying identical criteria to everyone in the name of fairness, you end up recruiting identical people. Should you offer an interview to someone with a rotten degree who was, say, the reigning under-25 UK backgammon champion? The fairness police would say no; personally I’d see them every time. It may therefore pay to randomise your selection criteria, or to look not only at aggregate scores but at people who are extreme outliers on one or two dimensions only.

Remember, anyone can easily build a career on a single eccentric talent, cunningly deployed. As I always advise young people: ‘Find one or two things your boss is rubbish at, and be quite good at those things.’

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