Virtual reality could be a solution to sexism in tech

Interviewing job candidates with virtual reality headsets could remove gender bias.
Interviewing job candidates with virtual reality headsets could remove gender bias.
Image: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
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A new study of software developers has confirmed what women already know too well: Gender bias has big consequences in the workplace.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at acceptance rates for code written by women and men on the massive code repository Github. Developers accepted 71.8% of code written by women when they didn’t know their gender. But when gender was made public, acceptance rates for women dipped to just over 62%.

These results are infuriating—but they’re not surprising. Another recent experiment gave scientists at Yale University the exact same resumes, topped by masculine and feminine names. Scientists extended more job offers, and higher salaries, to the job applicants they thought were men.

Personally, I’ve encountered many founders and executives who warn that they “can’t lower the bar” in order to add more diversity to their tech teams. A woman working at Uber said this to me last month on a phone call; the vice president of engineering at Twitter was famously quoted as saying the same thing. Clearly, many managers continue to assume that people who aren’t white and male must be less talented.

Luckily, the tech world may be on its way to developing a solution. Virtual reality could make the way we hire more gender-blind.

The thought first occurred to me when I tried on a virtual reality headset at a venture capital conference in San Francisco last year. The software instantly transported me to a moonscape. There I inhabited my new avatar—a male truck driver who was tasked with moving cargo across a field of craters. As I played the game, I thought about how my fellow participants were watching me in a completely different body. Their perceptions of my abilities might have been different if they’d met me in person; virtual reality prompted them to value me purely for my brain.

That experience got me thinking: If women could use virtual reality to mask their genders during job interviews, would we see more equality in hiring?

Here’s how a gender-blind interview process might work. As a hiring manager, I’d get a list of candidates who’d already been vetted for their skills through code reviews. These candidates would only be identifiable to me by their avatar names.

I’d invite the candidates, in the form of avatars, to sit with me for an interview where we would view each other in the same virtual space through our headsets. A candidate could choose to project any avatar they chose. Some women might opt for women avatars; others might choose to appear as men or in other forms altogether. Some men might want to look like aliens. It wouldn’t matter. The important thing would be that I could see the job candidates as they chose to be viewed. That’s better than me projecting my own views on them.

A human resources representative would know the candidates’ real names, so they could conduct background checks if they moved to the final round. But I wouldn’t know the genders of the candidates until I decided I wanted to hire them. I also wouldn’t know their races.

There’s solid precedent for this approach. For decades, orchestras in the US hired many more men than women. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the top five symphonies in the US began putting up screens behind which candidates would perform during auditions. Data collected from actual auditions showed that the screens increased the probability that a woman would move out of the preliminary rounds by 50%.

I’m trying out a scaled-down version of blind hiring processes as co-founder and president of PowerToFly, a company that matches businesses with women who work remotely. Many of the women who interview through us never meet their future bosses in person before they get hired. The men—and it’s mainly men who review their applications—rely on the women’s code reviews and read about their past experiences. While they know whether they’re hiring women, they can’t size them up during interviews to see if they’re wearing a wedding ring or how much makeup they’ve applied.

I’ve seen firsthand how this approach can help more women land jobs. One vice president of engineering at Hearst asked us recently if we could find him some men, as his team is now composed almost entirely of women. This VP likes to interview job candidates via text messages. He says it’s the fastest way for him to find out if they have the skills to do the job. But texting is a fairly one-dimensional way to get to know someone.

Virtual reality could be an even more palatable option for gender-blind hiring. It’s time the tech world used its own tools to solve its inherent biases—and stop denying itself talented workers.