Monday, 9 October 2017

Hiring Quota - Why I disagree with Uncle Bob... I'm sorry.

I don't blog often, because every piece I write ends up being re-drafted at least ten times (which takes entirely too long, and I like sleep too much), but I do read a lot of blogs. Last week I came across the Clean Coder blog, and in particular (memetics and coding, I thought, this will be heavenly).

Like anyone attempting to learn code, in my case about 20 years too late, I've heard of Uncle Bob Martin. He seems like a near mythical figure to me. So I'm a little hesitant to start my first ever blog post about coding by disagreeing with him. That said, in for a penny, in for a pound. So I'm going to write this, and also try not to spend the day re-drafting it.

I've not read the Google memo in full recently, so I'm not going to talk about that. Indeed I don't know if I have a hard and fast opinion on the best reaction to said memo (not least because I have no direct frame of reference). My gut reaction in most cases is to spend a lot of time coming up with something that isn't a gut reaction. I suspect we should all do that more, but I digress.

To get to the point, it's on hiring quotas that I disagree with the content of the post. Hiring quotas are, in my view, an unfairly maligned concept. They are maligned for the suggestion that they are a) a form of tokenism, b) they make it harder to get recognition for one's abilities and c) they don't recognise people of equal ability, in that people with lesser ability (but from a specific group) get hired. There is some weight to the first two points, but the third point is where I think the unfairness exists (in fact the third point is why the other two points exists).

I should add a caveat right at this point. Like any tool, they can be misused. They shouldn't, in my view, be used where there isn't empirical evidence to merit their use. But there are situations where they can and should be used. The question for me therefore, is whether the case has been proven in the tech industry. The honest answer being that I don't know, but that I suspect further research is needed.

Anyway, back to being disagreeable. Hiring quotas don't exist in a vacuum. The current experience of women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, various age groups, and people who come from low income families is that they are discriminated against in various fields. As a white, middle aged, man (we'll ignore mental health and parental income for now), I will find it easier to walk into most careers, and to earn more money throughout my lifetime, than other people do.

The reason I will find it easier is because of unconscious bias (I should note here that the post does mention the need to tackle unconscious bias). That unconscious bias means that when competing with someone of equal ability (I hate the word merit, but I've already blogged about that), I will be more likely to be picked for a role than someone who fits into one of the groups above. It is for that reason that hiring quotas exist, and indeed should exist (whilst we tackle unconscious bias).

Hiring quotas don't of necessity result in people with lesser skills being employed, they result in people with equal skills being treated in a different way, a way that seeks to redress the imbalance caused by existing unconscious bias. And that's even before we consider the journey to get to that point. All of the groups I mentioned above, don't just suffer bias in one job interview. To get to the point of equal skills, they will have had to work much harder throughout their lives.

Let's take a woman in tech as a theoretical case in point. To get to the stage of interviewing for a specific tech job, they might have had to overcome pressure to conform to gender stereotypes from friends, family, educators, peers and previous employers. They may well have had to overcome unconscious bias in education (at every single level) and employment. To do so, to get the same recognition and acceptance as male peers, they may have had to work much harder, to have been much more dedicated. 

In fact, it could be argued that the very determination and work ethic that was required to get to the stage of equal ability to a male peer in itself represents greater ability, and that such abilities are perhaps less likely to be part of an interview process (though one would hope that isn't the case). In fact, there's a case for asking any applicant what barriers they had to overcome to get to the stage of interviewing for a role, but I digress again.

Hiring quotas are not just a means of ensuring that the ratio of a specific group within an organisation reflects wider society therefore. They are a means of ensuring that equal ability results in equal outcome, and that those who experience greater barriers within society experience a lowering of those barriers in a way that results in a balanced (or fair) outcome for all.

As long as there is evidence that they are needed in a particular industry, and for as long as the circumstances that require their use exist, I would contend that they are a means very much justified by the ends towards which they are targeted. It is my hope that I am not alone in this view.

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