Tag Archives: hiring discrimination

When a link and a spam love each other very much (26 March 2014)

A couple of quick announcements to start us off:

  • applications to attend AdaCamp Portland (June 21–22, ally skills track June 23) are open
  • the call for submissions to another issue of Model View Culture is out: the Abuse issue. “This issue explores themes of harassment, microaggression, boundary violation, assault, discrimination and other forms of abuse in the tech community”.

Onto the spam you’re waiting for:

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Re-post: Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on November 12, 2012.

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?

Closeup of shredded paper by Ryan Hyde CC BY-SA

Why is someone’s entire adult life relevant to their job application?

Over at Captain Awkward’s advice column, there’s a question about how to deal with a recent name change when potential employees may call references that know you by a former name. The advice moves a little into how to deal with “resume gaps” in general:

Prospective employers will ask difficult questions about gaps in employment, changes of field, etc., but often they are doing it because they want to see how you react to the question before they decide if it is an actual issue. They want to make sure that you didn’t lie on your resume. They want to see if you have a coherent reason for whatever it is. And they want to see if you react with grace under pressure, or if you turn into a defensive weirdo… [P]lenty of people take time out of the workforce to care for kids, go to school, look after aging relatives, etc. and then are in the position of trying to get back into the workforce. If an employer is going to hold your years as a caregiver or student against you in making a hiring decision, that is their bad. Do not apologize! Do not talk about how your skills are “rusty”! If they say “I notice it’s been a few years since you’ve been working in this field, what’s up with that?” say “Yes, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off to care for my mom at the end of her life,” or “Given the cost of day care, it made sense for one of us to stay home with the kids for a while” or “Yes, it was strange to be a grad student-by-day, bartender-by-night, but my customers were great and I learned a lot from having such a public-oriented position” and then ask a question about the position at hand.

It’s possible to disagree for pragmatic reasons with the advice to disclose here (see for example annalee’s comment on that post), but I wanted to move away from the question of what individual jobseekers should do — to be clear: I don’t fault Captain Awkward discussing that, it’s an advice column! — to the general question of why this comes up. Why do resume gaps matter, exactly? Why is a job candidate who has several unexplained years on their resume a worse candidate for a job?

Here’s my hunch about why it matters: because it’s a proxy for discriminating against (former or currently) ill or disabled people and carers, pretty much. And people with a history of institutionalisation, and others. So at an individual level you can disclose on the principle that while it sucks that there are powerful bigoted people out there, it’s better to find out that they’re bigoted against you before you’re working for them. Or you can not disclose on the principle that while it sucks that there are powerful bigoted people out there, you might be able to stay mostly under their radar when you are working for them. Not the most excellent choice in the world!

This seems in some ways hackable to me. This isn’t a new insight, but part of the problem with hiring is the need to choose one person (or N people), and, typically, having more than N applicants. You need some tools to eliminate people, so people come up with petty absolutes about resumes that are in the wrong font, or are one page long, or aren’t one page long, or that cover letters that use “I am writing to apply for” rather than “I am applying for” or whatever you like. And of course it’s easy to fall into bigotry too. The ideal worker bee is young and male and “flexible” and so on. If society has squashed someone down by keeping them out of the workforce, you don’t want your organization to have to pay the price for the squashing, so let’s require an age-21-to-present-time employment history too. Some people have that, after all.

There’s a real problem with resume gaps, which is that they might be actually relevant time that the person doesn’t want to talk about with you (for example, the employer they defrauded), but I think it’s at least worth questioning the idea of pushing down on everyone who has ever been out of the workforce in order to find them, and there’s definitely also a desire to ferret out “flakes” (people who you want to discriminate against) among some employers.

One possibility then is that by consciously letting go of the idea that your hiring skills guarantee getting the single best hire, or the belief that your resume filtering skills and interviewing skills are helping you past a certain point, and choosing randomly from the best M applicants as selected by your hopefully-consciously-avoiding-bigotry hiring process. And by letting go of your belief that you need total control in order to select The One, perhaps you can let go of at least some received wisdom about seeing “red flags” in any sign that someone may have done something with their weekdays other than work, and that they may not want to talk to you about that.

What received truths of hiring do you think are bogus or discriminatory?

Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?

Does my linkspam look big in this? (14th November, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention (twitter uses can use #geekfeminism). Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

The opposite of fun: how would you build an educational game about bias?

A friend of mine sent me a link to this article about a $2 Million Grant To Develop Game That Breaks Bias Against Women In Sciences, and he pointed out that making hard work decisions (as you do in the game) sounds rather like the opposite of fun.

The game will aim to put players in situations that could reveal such bias. For instance a faculty member might be asked by the game to hire a top scientist who requires wheelchair accessibility. Or a resume might have a work experience gap because of child-rearing, with the game asking players to consider their knee-jerk response to such situations.

In that example it also sounds a little too easy as a game. Sit down, think diversely, and make that decision. As commenters have pointed out here in previous threads in unconscious bias, it’s fairly easy to game those tests if you concentrate. You’re being led to a certain type of answer, and figuring out what that is can be very obvious. Just like other unconscious bias tests, you’re learning something in the process of having to concentrate, but I feel like maybe you could do better.

So here’s a question: how do you think you could make a different game that examined bias?

Off the wall ideas encouraged: I suspect thinking too conventionally is part of what results in educational games that just aren’t very different from previous attempts and maybe aren’t that much fun. Could you educate about hiring bias using a platformer? (What would an accessible platformer level look like?) Using a massively multiplayer online game? (Could you cause players to lose points for harassing other players? For telling sexist jokes in the trade channel?) Using a casual Facebook game? (bias vs farmville?) Using a role playing framework? (Could you play the minority candidates and experience bias from the other side and have to triumph despite it? e.g. doing the “same” job interview and discovering that your gender/race results in very different questions from the interviewer.)

Survival of the spammiest (5th August, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Two linkspams, who talk to each other, about something other than a man (26th July, 2010)

  • My Fault, I’m Female is collecting short personal stories of experiences of sexism.
  • The Westboro Baptist Church (famously and aggressively homophobic) protested at Comic-Con for “worship of false idols”. Comics Alliance reports on the cosplay counter-protest at Super Heroes vs. the Westboro Baptist Church and Courtney Stoker has more photos. (Note re triggers: photos are mainly of the counter-protest, the Comics Alliance one looks like it might have a WBC sign in the background.)
  • Speaking of Comic-Con, Kate Kotler reports on the Girl Geeks Tweet-Up at Comic Con.
  • Out of work? Maybe it’s ’cause you’re unattractive: a survey of hiring managers suggests that being attractive is a very important hiring criterion. Right. So education, skills and experience are, you know, sort of relevant, but not as relevant as how you look in a dress.
  • The Invisibility of Women in Computing Jobs: an Intel hiring simulation game had a wee gap. But then, when you went to hire employees…they forgot to include an option to hire any women.
  • Hey, Baby Link Roundup/Open Thread: What I think the detractors are missing is that this is a video game, and it’s helpful to look at it in the context of video games and video game culture. Both Hess and Kesler seem hung up on the violent aspect of the game, but, like it or not, video games are, by and large, violent.
  • redeyedtreefrog is sceptical of another explanation of why so few women in science: …they argue women perceive STEM careers (those in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as largely incompatible with one of their core goals: Engaging in work that helps others.… I admit to considerable skepticism about this. Women and business? Not so altruistic.
  • firecat is wary of completely buying into self-promotion: one argument that comes up is women have to… learn how to play the game and that means learning how to play up their accomplishments.the game often seems to mean trying to crush other people’s contributions so yours looks better in comparison. I think those parts of the game are broken.
  • Heather Albano writes about setting up a court-intrigue/romance game plotline in a gender-equal gaming world.
  • januaryhat: In honor of old-school skiffy: II: In the Golden Age, real sci-fi was brought to you by quality publications such as BoobieShips & TitRockets.
  • The Obscurecast Episode 10 features Pewter of the ‘mental Shaman talking about geek feminism.
  • The solution to everything is a reality TV show. So it shouldn’t surprise you that the answer to women in tech is… a reality TV show.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.