July 24th, 2018

Should tech companies use quotas to increase diversity?

Setting clear diversity targets has become a common practice in tech, whether it’s to ensure that women of color make up half of the speakers at a conference, or that 25% of a company's interviews be with black and latinx candidates.

When it comes to hiring, many companies are implementing diversity quotas. However, it's unclear how effective they are, what hidden costs they might have, and if they’re necessary to achieve more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Truthfully, I didn't know how to even start answering these questions myself, so I set out to learn more. To be better informed, I reached out to thought leaders and experts in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) space. I share their thoughts below:

"Companies need to use quotas in their hiring process in order to promote diversity and inclusion."
Agree or disagree, and why?

Steven Huang

Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Culture Amp.

Disagree, but obviously the real answer involves a lot of nuance. Companies need to have a portfolio of diversity management strategies in order to achieve their goals. Quotas and targets can be a part of an effective strategy, but will have limited effect if done in isolation.

For example, we’re beginning to fully understand the psychological processes behind stereotype threat. If you have employees that don’t understand why setting targets and quotas are effective at making up for systemic discrimination, they are likely to believe that a “white disadvantage” exists in the organization; one that threatens their livelihood. “Modern Racism” is the belief that Black people and other minorities are no longer the disadvantaged group in society and they receive unfair advantages. It sounds wild to me, but it’s a prevalent racial attitude in America today.

Alex Rose

People Programs at DataDog.

Two years ago, I would have said that I unequivocally disagree: setting hiring quotas shifts the attention from building a diverse and inclusive company to doing whatever it takes to hit another number.

I later learned about affirmative action plans for federal contractors and realized that quotas in some instances are actually required. After seeing various stages of D&I initiatives at Series A-D companies, I now think setting quotas is a good place for companies to start. By setting goals at the beginning, companies can build momentum behind their D&I efforts from the get-go.

Research your industry and the locations where you pull talent from to understand the general demographics of your talent pool. Use those benchmarks to set your quotas company-wide, and once you hit those, turn your attention away from the numbers and towards becoming a truly diverse and inclusive company. Cut the data by department, location, and tenure. Challenge your team to think about diversity in terms of underrepresented people in tech instead of diversity candidates. Redefine demographics in an inclusive way by researching the latest categories and even ways to define those that are already commonly measured like gender, age, and level of ability. It's important to remember that D&I work never stops - quotas or not!

Bill Umoff

Director of Technical Recruiting at Flexport.

Agree. If you don't have some type of goals in place, whether it's at the top of the funnel, bottom, or both, you will default to what is easiest and/or in greatest supply.

Aline Lerner

Co-founder and CEO of interviewing.io.

What do we want to accomplish with diversity quotas in the first place? Are we trying to level the playing field for marginalized groups? Or improve optics so the press can write about how good our company’s diversity numbers look? Unless diversity quotas are truly an exercise in optics, I firmly believe that they are at best a band-aid to cover up the underlying problems in hiring. In their worst cases, they do more harm than good, keeping us complacent about finding better solutions, and paradoxically undermining the very movement they’re meant to help.

From a practical perspective, one of the downsides of diversity quotas is the tokenization of candidates, which often manifests as stereotype threat, one of the very things we’re trying to prevent. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I thought I got into MIT because I’m a girl. That feels like shit… in large part because I DON’T KNOW if I got into MIT because I’m a girl. Stereotype threat is a real thing that very clearly makes people underperform at their jobs… and then creates a vicious cycle where the groups we’re trying to help end up being tokenized and scrutinized for underperformance.

Practical failings aside, let’s pretend that quotas work perfectly and bring all the desired results. We still have to ask ourselves if we did the right thing. Any discussion about leveling the playing field shouldn’t just be about race, but also socioeconomic status, age, and the myriad of ways people are marginalized in tech. Since we can’t ask, “Were your parents poor?” in applications and it’s illegal to ask about age, we often focus on race and gender because they’re relatively easy to spot. So even if quotas worked perfectly, they’d still be a band-aid solution that’s not doing enough and ultimately covering up the fact that your hiring process sucks.

Instead of trying to manage outcomes by focusing on quotas, we should get at the root of the problem and create the kind of hiring process that will, by virtue of being fair and inclusive, bring about the diversity outcomes we want. I already wrote at length about how engineering hiring/interviewing needs to change to support diversity initiatives, but the gist is that fixing hiring is way harder than instituting quotas. Low-hanging fruit isn’t going to get us to a place of equal opportunity, but better screening and investments in education will. At interviewing.io, we rely entirely on performance in anonymous technical interviews - not resumes - to surface top-performing candidates, and 40% of hires are people from non-traditional backgrounds and underrepresented groups. The companies that we’ve hired for that have benefitted from access to these candidates have been willing to undergo the systemic process change and long-term thinking that effecting this level of change requires. We know our approach works. It’s hard, and it takes time and effort, but it works.

Michael Kyleand Jane Nguyen

Manager of Talent Success and Head of People Development and Impact at Redbubble, respectively.

Intentions are only worth something if you can hold yourself accountable to them. We do not expect our products to be better just because we intended them to be. We set KPIs, milestones, and release deadlines. There are rewards for exceeding expectations and consequences for missing the mark.

The same level of accountability that we place on the development of our products and user experiences needs to be placed on making an impact with our objectives with building more diverse teams if progress is to happen faster.

We believe in a diverse “top of funnel” strategy that helps us avoid the inherent problems of gaming in a quota environment or tokenizing individuals. When talent is done right, you are cultivating a community for the long term, so focusing top of funnel AND in your actual hires helps sustain progress. Diversity hiring takes longer (because the system wasn’t created overnight), and it can get more efficient with time if you invest in the appropriate short and long term mechanisms to attract people to your brand.

Amy Cherette

Talent and People Operations Lead at Hipcamp.

I agree that companies need to make a real effort and be held accountable to goals and metrics that you’re reporting on. It’s important to remember that no one person is “diverse,” and to avoid language such as “this person is a diverse person.” I think the better language you can use is “this person will help contribute to building a more diverse team.” Anyone can be diverse in the context of different groups. As for metrics, you can start with something simple like the Rooney Rule.

I am not a fan of end of the funnel hiring number quotas as I think it can have the potential to dehumanize a person and make them a number. I do think you can have quotas when it comes to different metrics throughout the recruiting funnel such as how many underrepresented candidates come through your pipeline, how far they make it, where do they fall off, how many did you interview before you made an offer? I also think you can place sourcing metrics around the top of the funnel to again, make sure you’re casting a wide net.

Liz Kofman-Burns

Sociologist at TalVista, a D&I hiring platform.

If you believe the current system is biased, that diversity is beneficial, and you want to increase the representation of underrepresented groups then you should consider using quotas. Call it something else if you want—guidelines, goals, targets, the Rooney Rule—but don’t ignore the concept completely just because it’s uncomfortable.

There is a mountain of evidence that bias exists in hiring, performance evaluations, promotions, and pay. That means tech jobs are not currently distributed based on merit alone. Research also shows that diversity produces positive outcomes for teams and companies. So more diversity would raise the bar in tech. Quotas seem to work in increasing diversity (for example, female representation in government is almost twice as high among countries that have some kind of gender quota compared to countries without quotas).

The current tech jobs landscape is broken. It will take radical changes to make things better. That said, I think the impact of quotas on inclusion is still an open question. It’s possible that quotas will lead to a backlash and feelings of tokenism in the short-term. But that short-term pain might be worth the price of more inclusion in the tech industry in the long-term.

Amber Madison

Founder of Peoplism, partnering with companies to build inclusive workplaces.

Messaging is so important when it comes to any D&I initiative. The second you use the word "quota," you not only risk alienating many people at your company, but you also risk undermining the ability of people in underrepresented populations to do their job well.

There is no point in building a diverse workforce if it's not going to be inclusive. If team members think that someone was hired to fill a quota, they aren't going to be as inclusive of that individual because they aren't going to be able to fully trust that individual's talent, intelligence, and expertise.

If you care about diversity, the most important question to be asking is, "Why are some populations being systematically left out of our company?" Want to change the demographics at your company? Good. But then you have to address the root cause of why your company looks like it does...otherwise you're trying to fill a leaky bucket.

Considering quotas because you want a more diverse company? I'd recommend these steps instead:

  1. Work to confront, challenge, and change your own biases - not just become aware that biases exist.
  2. If you're a recruiter, commit to filling the slate of candidates for any given role with at least 2 people of underrepresented genders and 2 people of underrepresented races/ethnicities.
  3. Make D&I a priority and set goals for yourself. Maybe some of those goals are around increasing representation, but take a wholistic approach to achieving that goal by seeking to understand why certain groups are underrepresented in your company (or on certain teams) and taking a range of actions to address the issue.

If you are reading this with a face palm thinking, "Damnit...we just put quotas in place," balance this out with lots of messaging to your workforce that "the best person for the job is always who we hire," and then go through the above steps.

Before you go...

Several people that I reached out to didn't feel comfortable sharing their views on this polarizing and sensitive topic. In some cases, they failed to get approval from their legal and HR teams to comment. For these reasons, I'd like to give an extra big thanks to the folks who did contribute to this piece:

Your stories, experience, and insights have helped me become a more informed member of the tech community, and will encourage more open discussions about how we, as an industry, can become more diverse and inclusive.

Share image by Patrick Fore on Unsplash.