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Is Google adwords holding women back from top jobs?

A really worrying headline caught my eye recently: According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, women are far less likely than men to be shown online display ads for high-paid jobs.

Using a program that simulated male and female browsers, they discovered that adverts for a $200k job were shown six times more often to men than women. Shocking.

My jaw literally dropped. After I’d picked it back up I asked myself, how is this possible? Surely Google’s algorithms aren’t inherently sexist? Or is this just a digital manifestation of the unconscious inequalities that have been around in the real world since women first joined the workforce? As marketers and employers, we need to look at why this is happening and figure out what we’re going to do about it.

To get a better idea of how businesses are using online ads in recruitment I spoke to a friend of mine who runs a digital media agency, Gareth Phillips, Business Director at Audience Store. He’s got first-hand experience of designing campaigns to recruit into high paid jobs for big businesses. Here’s what he told me:

“We definitely don’t start out by targeting a particular demographic when we set up campaigns. The way we operate is to cast a really wide net, as we know good candidates can come from any background, and then up weight spend on the user groups who click the ads most often. ”

This raises more than a few questions about how we got to the damning 6:1 stat at the start of the article: Are less scrupulous agencies employing different targeting strategies and starting out with a particular demographic in mind? Are men more likely to engage with display adverts in general than women? Are men simply more likely to click on ads for high paid jobs than women? And, is volume of candidates the right measure of success for these job adverts?

It honestly beggars belief that diversity is still a problem in the workplace in 2015. We need to stop faffing around and find a way to put this to bed for good. After all, it isn’t just about gender. Only recently stories about Twitter and Facebook (two leading and supposedly forward-thinking technology companies) have emerged, revealing both organisations to have truly shocking ethnic diversity statistics.

So how can we change our approach to attraction and recruitment to create a level playing field for everyone?

Look for the right things

You absolutely cannot start a recruitment process with a target demographic in mind. Ever. Whether this is conscious or unconscious it is both morally and practically wrong - race, gender, and sexuality are obviously not indicators of performance.                    

At ChemistryGroup, we’ve worked with dozens of companies that have gotten themselves stuck in a hiring rut, but have recognised the need to change. One recent example was an organisation who were continually hiring the same demographic (white males) into their teams. Before we started working with this company the percentage of their female hires was around 8%. After working with them and using our screening technology, that number went up to 41% - something they’re really proud of. As are we.

Our advice was: if you create role requirements that reflect what’s needed to succeed, based on factors like intellect, personality values, motivations and natural behaviours, you automatically create a level playing field because all of those factors can be objectively measured and none of them are influenced by gender, sexuality or race.

We’ve also used blind interviewing in the past to great effect and would highly recommend it. If you measure all the attributes above and have a clear idea of what’s needed for the job, by the time you meet them in person you’ll know if they’re right or not - why bother looking at their CV at all?

Target the right people

The team at Audience Store are going above and beyond to ensure there is zero discrimination in their ads. A great example of this is a recent recruitment campaign that they ran for a big engineering firm. For this, they split their budget equally between males and females in order to balance who their ads appeared in front of – regardless of gender, age, race etc. With so many businesses turning to programmatic display campaigns as a key means of attracting candidates, these are the sort of actions we need to take to ensure there's no bias in the process.

The next step for us is to look at how we can work with Audience Store to use Chemistry’s data points to switch from using click rates as a measure of success to using quality of hire.

Gareth said, “This could be a real game changer: if we know where the best candidates are coming from - the ones who’ll perform best when they’re hired - we can up weight budgets to attract more of them. It won’t matter if men are more likely to click these ads than women, we’ll be able to make sure the candidates we refer to businesses are the ones they actually need, in a way that’s completely blind to any discrimination and has never been done before.”

Clearly there are a load of other things we could and should be doing to boost diversity but this would be a great start. We shouldn’t be afraid of using the technology we have at our disposal to combat discrimination, we just need to make sure we’re using it responsibly.