Are Tech Recruiters Dissuading Female Engineers?

An interesting new study from Stanford University finds that company recruiters from tech firms may be putting off female college grads through their behavior–some of it a bit questionable.

The study, conducted by Stanford Professor Shelley Correll and Alison Wynn, a postdoctoral researcher, involved sending a team of observers to 84 sessions where 66 companies recruited for technical roles at a West Coast college campus. The roles in question were mainly for entry-level engineers.

The researchers found that during their informational presentations, the recruiters–no doubt in an attempt to bond with their audiences–frequently referenced “geek culture favorites” such as Star Trek and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, focused the conversation exclusively on highly technical aspects of the roles or referred to high school coding experience. The sessions were overwhelmingly led by men, while the rare female presenters only referenced topics such as company culture.

As diversity experts have pointed out before, geek culture references tend to resonate most strongly with white men while women tend to feel excluded by that culture. As for high school coding experiences, women tend to join technical fields after high school.

“Through gender-imbalanced presenter roles, geek culture references, overt use of gender stereotypes, and other gendered speech and actions, representatives may puncture the pipeline, lessening the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers,” the researchers write.

More disturbingly, some of the recruiters referenced pornography and prostitution in their remarks. Typically, these were made by male presenters, the researchers write.

“A lot of the worst content came when the presenter was speaking off-the-cuff comments, trying to be relatable to students and funny,” Correll tells Quartz. “You wouldn’t want to take a very talented woman who’s getting her degree in computer science and is coming to an info session for your company and do things like this. It’s just counterproductive.”

The bottom line: Bro-recruiters need to understand that the people they’re presenting to don’t just include other bros.

Presentations that included company videos were less likely to be off-putting, the researchers found, as they tended to be vetted for questionable content.

The solution to potential debacles such as these are hardly rocket science: Correll and Wynn recommend bringing along female engineers as part of a recruiting team and having them make technical presentations, and emphasize the real-world impact of the company’s technical work.

You can also follow the lead of Etsy, which grew its number of female engineers by 500 percent in one year by making some changes to its recruitment practices–including emphasizing why the company is a great place to work, adopting a “let’s build great things together” mindset for recruiting interviews rather than a “quick, show me how smart you are” approach (which actually has little correlation to the jobs at hand), and establishing Hacker Grants for talented women engineers to attend a three-month course to enhance their skills.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.