Why We All Should Care About the Recent Brouhaha at Google

Opinion

The issues raised by the 10-page memo on the suitability of women for certain engineering and leadership positions at Google (culminating in the firing of its author) have implications for all of us.

They are as much about the requirements for success in today’s workplace—and how to identify and nurture those qualities in all employees—as they are about gender disparity. In fact, I would argue, gender disparity is reinforced by the emphasis that most organizations, including universities and professional schools, focus on educational requirements and specific technical skills (such as programming languages) when there is good research on the importance of personal attributes to professional success. These include everything from integrity and “character” to knowing how to navigate corporate rules and power groups to achieve innovative breakthroughs or great leaps forward in the marketplace.

The importance of these attributes is especially crucial in tech, where advances coming out of R&D and competition driven by the shifting forces of globalization mean the “rules of the game” are ever-changing and the centers of power often fluctuate. In today’s economy, company as well as individual success is more tied to the ability to anticipate new challenges and opportunities, and to adapt to constantly changing externalities than it is to mastering specific skills, accumulating wins, and climbing ladders in an orderly fashion.

We’re relying on cover letters and resumes in a process that is disconnected from the personal characteristics that contribute to success in the workplace and overall advancement.

The problem is compounded by the challenge of speed and complexity in all work environments. Everything is less certain and everything is faster. Even so, most HR processes and hiring practices are based on formal credentials and dossiers of education, skills, and growing responsibilities developed for old corporate models. Today what REALLY matters is not orderliness, but the ability to grasp new opportunities and challenges, pivot product design and development priorities on a dime, re-structure work groups and teams, shift marketing and business strategies, and be confident you have the people with the energy, focus, and enthusiasm needed to execute.

In the absence of learning how to identify such attributes, it is easier to fall back on outdated and stereotypical assumptions of competence and potential. Women are pleasers, not competitors. Women make peace, not war. Women’s domestic inclinations will limit the time and energy they will commit to their work. Their biology makes their anxiety higher and their tolerance for stress lower.

We need examples of approaches that are race- and gender-neutral when it comes to assessing these sorts of essential attributes, and one of the fastest growing Web-based companies in California—Hired—is doing just that. As the dean of UC San Diego extension, I learned about Hired as part of our due diligence for prospective companies that might be part of our planned $42 million “Innovative Cultural and Education Hub” in downtown San Diego.

Matching people with the world’s most innovative companies is Hired’s explicit goal and their specialty is the software engineering, design, and data analytics space—think Google.

They are fundamentally a match-maker, having developed algorithmic tools focused on connecting the right people with the right companies at the right time. No resumes or cover letters here. Instead Hired creates highly personalized profiles, often supported by photos and videos. Of course they include schooling, jobs, and specific skills, such as the ability to program in Java. What is different is how Hired captures the human attributes essential to a “good fit ” between a company and an employee.

To Hired, changing jobs or managing different projects for many companies may suggests openness and adaptability. What a candidate wants in terms of job title and types of compensation (salary versus equity), could be interpreted as an indicator of comfort with risk. Having worked in diverse settings—waiter, charter school teacher, scuba-diving instructor, or bassist in a jazz quartet can be seen as versatility relevant to customer service. Locational preferences and willingness to move may indicate flexibility and openness. All are all part of the algorithm.

Gender, race, and age barely factor into the hiring and promotion tools that capture these essential human attributes. Traditional credentialing institutions, be they Ivy League universities or regional community colleges, often fail to cultivate these attributes. The good student is not always the best employee or leader for that matter. Typical in-house and professional hiring firms  do not capture these nuances, in part because companies are not explicit enough about what they really want and how they “know it when they see it.”

The lessons for me from the Google brouhaha is gender disparities can be minimized if educators, employers, and job-seekers do a better job of capturing the personal attributes and preferences that underlay formal credentials and experience. That way critical individual attributes such as imagination, energy, tenacity, flexibility, and ambition—regardless of gender—will rule the day.

Hired, which is operating in 16 cities around the globe with a company list that is a who’s who of tech, suggests we may be closer to a solution than we think. Achieving equity depends on acknowledging the importance of personal attributes and developing fair indicators of what those are. Formal credentials and mastery of specific skills are necessary, but clearly not sufficient for success. Let’s look to the young entrepreneurs behind Hired for clues.

Mary Lindenstein Walshok is co-author with Abraham J. Shragge of "Invention & Re-Invention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy." She serves as UC San Diego’s associate vice chancellor of public programs, dean of UC San Diego Extension and is an adjunct professor of sociology. Follow @

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