a new interview question

I have a new interview question, and you can have it too:

"The industry has a gender balance problem. Why is this?" [ed: see postscript]

This question is designed to see if how a potential collaborator is going to fit into a diverse team. Are they going to behave well to their coworkers, or will they be a reason why people leave the group or the company?

You then follow up with a question about how you would go about improving gender balance, what the end result would look like, what's doable in what amount of time, and so on. Other versions of the question could talk about the composition of the industry (or of academia) in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on.

I haven't tried this test yet but am looking forward to it. I am hoping that it can shed some light on someone's ability to empathize with people from another group, and in that sense I think it's probably best to ask about a group that the candidate does not belong to (in as much as it's possible to know). The candidate will also show who they listen to and who they trust -- how do they know what they know? Do they repeat stories told about people of that group or by people of that group?

Some candidates will simply be weak in this area, and won't be able to say very much. The person would require more training, and after an eventual hire it would be expected that this person says more ignorant things. Unfortunately unlike ignorance about compilers, say, ignorance about the lived experience of women compiler writers, say, can lead to hurtful behavior, even if unintentional. For this reason, ignorance is a negative point about a candidate, though not a no-hire signal as such.

Obviously if you discover a person that thinks that gender imbalance is just the way it is and that nothing can or should be done about it, or that women don't program well, or the like, then that's a great result: clear no-hire. This person is likely to make life unpleasant for their female colleagues, and your company just avoided the problem. High fives, interview team!

Alternately, if you find a candidate who deeply understands the experience of a group that they aren't a part of and who can even identify measures to improve those peoples' experience in your company and industry, then you've found a gem. I think it can easily outweigh a less strong technical background, especially if the person has a history of being able to learn and train on the job (or on the open-source software project, or in the university course, etc).

Successfully pulling off this question looks tricky to me but I am hopeful. If you give it a go, let me know! Likewise if you know of other approaches that work at interview-time, they are very welcome :)

Postscript: The question is a template -- ideally you ask about a group the person is not in. A kind commenter correctly pointed out that the article looks like I would only interview men and that definitely wasn't what I was going for!

9 responses

  1. whitequark says:

    Will you ask this question to women and nonbinary people, too? At least, the entire post is written as if the only people you try to hire are men.

  2. Arthur A. Gleckler says:

    This is known as a political litmus test. I am sure that it will get you a team where your mindset will never be challenged, which appears to be the goal. I, for one, enjoy talking with people with whom I disagree, especially on important issues like this one.

  3. whitequark says:

    Arthur: No. This is known as a test on whether someone is able to put themselves in a position of a person in a situation quite unlike that they are in. (Some incorrectly call this "empathy"; it has more to do with intellectual honesty.)

    To illustrate, you appear to be unable to imagine yourself in a position of a person whose capability to productively engage in a profession is regularly 'debated' as some sort of abstract concept, and the consequences of such.

  4. Arthur A. Gleckler says:

    whitequark: Thank you for the ad hominem attack. Of course I can imagine what that's like, and the consequences. I've seen them in action.

    But do you really imagine that you and your fellow employees can ask a question like this during interviews and judge the answers in a way that is anything more than a litmus test? I have personally conducted hundreds of interviews and have been involved in thousands of hiring decisions based on interviews conducted by other people, and I can tell you that even interviewers with thorough interview training can't reliably judge candidates even on purely technical questions. Asking such a highly politicized, subjective question is only going to test how good candidates are at detecting which way the wind is blowing. And you're still going to have many of the people you worry about working for you, acting badly but parroting the lines you gave them.

    If you want to improve things, make sure that at least one woman employee interviews each candidate. The worst candidates will show their true selves in ways that are unmistakable, and you will have at least some diversity of opinion.

  5. Dave Neary says:

    What's your theory for why this is, Andy? There are many potential theories and contributing factors - what are you looking for?


  6. Simon says:

    > Obviously if you discover a person that thinks that gender imbalance is just the way it is and that nothing can or should be done about it, or that women don't program well, or the like, then that's a great result: clear no-hire. This person is likely to make life unpleasant for their female colleagues, and your company just avoided the problem. High fives, interview team!

    See, this is where I think a question like this - and the thinking behind it - is dangerous.

    If someone thinks that women are no good at coding, then I agree, that's a clear no-hire... they've made it obvious that they have attitudes that are not going to fit well into a team.

    But you seem to be grouping that in with people who simply don't hold strong views on the subject, and that's where I think you're going too far with this. Remember, your goal is not to hire pro-diversity activists - it's to hire people who are good at their jobs, and who will work effectively within the team without causing conflict.

    I say this, because in my experience, it's frequently the liberals - supporting positive causes that I often agree with - who cause the most friction within a team, the ones causing disruption.

    Because my job is to write software, to work with everyone in the team, and on occasion, to help recruit new team members who'll do the same. My job isn't to spend time worrying about whether the gender balance is right... we're not choosing new staff on the basis of their plumbing...

  7. Luke Gorrie says:

    Andy, a blog post idea could be your take on the (dated, etc) "Redefining Professionalism for Software Engineers." http://philip.greenspun.com/ancient-history/professionalism-for-software-engineers

  8. Jonathan Wilkes says:

    As an interviewee, I would be happy to field questions like those. There is a lot of fascinating recent research published on the topic, as well as some groups in FLOSS who are doing a wonderful job giving guidance to both individual developers and FLOSS projects as a whole on fostering an inclusive development environment.

    On a separate level-- after reading your blog here I'd be wary of working for your company. The reason is that you have taken an extraordinarily important topic-- gender imbalance in technology-- and proposed a novel, speculative, and untested approach. There is no evidence in your blog entry that you have consulted with any experts in the field, nor even based your idea on any research whatsoever.

    Moreover, even as a "blank-slate" interviewee I would have no way to discern whether your questions were intended as a) a filter for people who aren't empathetic, or b) a filter for people who are unwilling to take on responsibilities outside of their area of expertise in order to benefit the company. (And the technology sector is *full* of companies that do this.) Are you similarly willing to experiment with untested ideas about pay periods, taxes, health care plans, etc.? If your answer is that you would never experiment in those areas and instead rely on the sound guidance of insurance/tax specialists, why is it any different for the equally important domain of gender imbalance in technology?

  9. Brad Winstone says:

    Before you or anyone includes this question during an interview, I would check with your legal counsel to be sure it doesn't violate any employment laws. Any hiring manager will be aware that you can't simply ask anything you want during an interview. This question is almost certainly not illegal, but it could be easily misunderstood and cause a lot of issues for your company.

    The other side of this is that tech talent is in demand and this is a fringe issue that has nothing to do with the job. This question will immediately put you on the "I don't want to work there" list. It has nothing to do with the subject matter. You would get the same reaction if you asked "How many guns do you own?" or "We cater lunch on Friday and like to keep it simple, do you have a problem eating meat?".

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