…and why your company terminology might be limiting your diversity agenda.
I have been thinking a lot lately about inclusive hiring and economic inequality, but as a White, British/European, heterosexual male on the wrong side of 40, I’m probably not the best person qualified to talk about diversity.
Born into a working-class family in the North of England and raised in late 1980s and early 1990s, I attended an all-White Roman Catholic comprehensive school where the only ‘minorities’ were a couple of kids with unusual accents who had relocated from Australia. During that time, ubiquitous terms that are commonplace today, such as ‘BAME’ and ‘LGBTQI+’ were simply not used in daily vernacular. In fact, the UK government did not even include a question about ethnicity on the National Census until 1991, and the Disability Discrimination Act did not come into force until 4 years later in 1995. The only ‘exotic’ thing that differentiated the pale-faced White kids I knew growing up was if one happened to support Tranmere Rovers instead of the then hugely successful Everton, or Liverpool FC. It was not until my college and subsequent university years that I was really exposed to various minority cultures and ethnicities. As such, the much-championed diversity, inclusion and equality movements that are prevalent today were seldom discussed.
However, having spent the past 20 years working in the technology recruitment industry, the topic of inclusive hiring, inequality and diversity has continued to gain traction and importance (and rightly so). Yet, despite increased press coverage, general public exposure, changes in regulation, more C-suite engagement, and an abundance of new policies, strategies, training, systems and technologies available to promote more diverse hiring, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest there is a huge inequality and diversity gap in relation to gender, disability, BAME and LGBTQI+ individuals working within the software and technology sectors.
In the UK alone, whilst women taking up STEM subjects has increased marginally over the past 5 years due to more targeted promotion of the subject, the overall percentage of women graduates from STEM subjects has remained relatively flat (1), partially because there has been an acceleration of men also taking up the same subjects. As such, gender diversity in tech is still very low, with only 19% of woman working in the industry, compared to 49% across all UK job sectors (2).
When looking at ethnic minorities, at first glance the statistics look on par with the UK population averages, with 14% of the total UK population classified as non-White (3) and around 18% of the UK tech workforce coming from BAME backgrounds (4). However, looking closer, only 9% of BAME IT specialists work at director level and 32% at manager or team leader level compared to 43% of White IT professionals (4). These specific statistics do not even include other factors such as age and disability discrimination. For instance, in the UK, 16% of working-age adults have some form of disability and only 46.3% of working-age disabled people are in employment compared to 76.4% of non-disabled people (5).
Whilst it’s difficult to find specific industry data on LGBTQI+ professionals working across all roles within the technology sector, in a recent global study by Stack Overflow of over 43,000 software developers, when questioned on their sexual orientation, it indicated that 92.1% identified as straight / heterosexual and 7.9% collectively identifying as LGBTQI+ (6). This is roughly in line with 2017 UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures that indicates 93.2% of the UK’s population identify as heterosexual / straight (7), which suggests the percentage of LGBTQI+ professionals working as software developers is at least on par with the general UK average.
Whilst these statistics indicate some progress has been made in some areas, there is still much to be done. These issues are wide-ranging and are clearly too numerous and diverse (pun intended) to tackle in one article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of themes that you might want to contemplate when hiring, recruiting and promoting your company to drive inclusive recruitment practices and foster a corresponding diverse working culture.
Over the past several years I have witnessed an acceleration in the adoption of jargon used by recruiters and technology companies to describe their company, culture, and job opportunities. I am referring to terms such as Rocket Ship, Ninja, Rockstar, Jedi, Warrior, Superhero etc. Whilst I appreciate companies are only trying to be creative, I wonder if this choice of language is really inclusive and what unforeseen, detrimental impact it may have on talent acquisition. To ensure messaging resonates with a more diverse audience, it is important for individuals and companies to use language and terminology that is inclusive of all persons. Otherwise you risk the danger of creating a less diverse and narrower talent pool to hire from.
For example, could certain individuals interpret the term ‘Rockstar’ as a maverick, someone who is self-obsessed, extrovert and an egoist? Does this have the adverse impact of appealing to certain demographics, social groups, or individuals, i.e. the so-called alpha-males? Are you creating unnecessary bias that is likely to exclude whole sections of society?
Whilst the term ‘Rocket Ship’ is usually used to describe well-funded, hyper growth start-up companies, could it also be interpreted as a more youthful company, where work/life balance is limited and cash-burn rate is high, creating a perception of higher risk of failure? If a potentially great candidate, who is capable of fulfilling your needs interprets these attention-grabbing slogans in a certain way, or does not identify with this language, are you missing out on great talent simply caused by the lexicon you use?
Whilst some individuals might interpret your quirky language as: “that sounds like a fun and relaxed place to work,” for others it might translate as juvenile and unprofessional. You might find that using idiosyncratic language may possibly appeal to, and attract, a certain type of person but may equally discourage, restrict, and limit your overall audience. In fact, software companies such as Textio and Talvista have even created AI tools to weed out unconscious bias language often used in job descriptions and adverts.
Using my own industry and anecdotal experience as an example; many years ago there was an unwarranted perception that certain recruitment agencies would only hire young, overly-assertive, egocentric males. This view was often further accentuated by macho-styled recruitment adverts and career websites displaying offices with beer-filled fridges, table football, ping-pong, computer games consoles and images showing party-weekends trips to Ibiza. Due to the recruitment practices they portrayed, they often struggled to attract and hire outside of the young testosterone-fuelled male demographic. The external perception of the workplace culture they had inadvertently created was based on a self-centred belief of what ‘they’ thought would be appealing, rather than what might appeal to a broader audience.
Globally collected evidence implies that people have unconscious bias, with hiring managers often falling into the trap of ‘hiring in their own image’, which often leads to the wrong candidates being hired. By using non-inclusive language and imagery in your hiring process, are you simply appealing to the same limited talent pool, which ultimately exacerbates the problem. Whilst many companies use this type of creative language to demonstrate the quirkiness of their culture and to increase brand exposure in a crowded digital world, it can often create ambiguity about what you are actually hiring for. Therefore, by simplifying your business terminology, being clear and transparent, and using more inclusive language, you can avoid creating unnecessary barriers and confusion.
References and additional reading…
- Women STEM statistics
- How to achieve diversity in tech
- UK population by ethnicity statistics
- UK tech diversity gap, facts and figures
- UK ONS disability facts and figures
- Stack Overflow software developer sexual orientation survey
- UK ONS sexual identity statistics
If you have any thoughts or comments on the topic that you would like to share with us, or if you are looking for ways to improve diversity hiring within your business, please feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Iain has worked in the recruitment, talent acquisition and staffing industry for over 20 years and is one of the co-founders here at Animate Search, a boutique executive search and senior appointments company.
Over the past 10 years he has worked exclusively in the enterprise software and technology industries enabling fast growing start-ups, privately owned VC/PE-backed, pre-IPO, and publicly listed vendors to scale their sales, marketing, technical and leadership teams across the EMEA region.
To stay in touch, please feel free to connect directly on LinkedIn.