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Ask the Headhunter: How overcoming bias in hiring women and minorities can solve tech’s biggest problems

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


It might take a computer scientist to solve a Human Resources problem.

Virtually every article and report I encounter about diversity in the workplace — and particularly about hiring and developing female employees — is a pep talk loaded with political platitudes and HR-ese. You can just see some corporate bureaucrat checking off the boxes on the “We R Diverse!” and equal opportunity forms, before they go back to business as usual.

Then along comes Rick Howard, chief security officer at Palo Alto Networks, one of the leading enterprise and network security companies in Silicon Valley. A computer scientist and ex-military guy, Howard has stepped out of his technical role to solve the problem of filling jobs. He lays out some practical reasons for employers to get off their duffs and hire women and minorities — without turning diversity into a catchphrase.

Howard is also a hard-boiled businessman who understands the systematic biases that lead managers to not hire women.

Listen up, corporate leaders

After reading “Hiring Women Is One of the Ways to Fill the Cybersecurity Shortfall,” only a dope of a corporate executive would walk away from this short, deft treatise without marching orders to get more women and minorities hired.

Certainly, cybersecurity is a highly specialized field that requires serious education. Not many will choose it or invest in a technology career. But Howard does such a nice job explaining how to solve the hiring problem in cybersecurity, that managers in other, less-specialized fields should be able to put his suggestions to work readily.

Why employers don’t hire available candidates

There are a few problems behind the hiring problem in cybersecurity that also apply to other industries.

Talent shortage: “According to the ISACA, a non-profit information security advocacy group,” writes Howard, “there will be two million cybersecurity professional jobs unfilled globally by 2019.” And only 11 percent of such jobs are filled by women even today. The real problem, suggests Howard, is that employers are not hiring available candidates in part due to unconscious biases. (I think there are some very conscious biases, too, but that’s for another article.) And the only way to fill all those jobs is to tap the female half of the population. (See “How to Say It: Women need not apply.”)

Hiring errors: Howard suggests employers fail to hire women and minorities because of well-documented cognitive errors: “conformity bias, beauty bias, affinity bias, and confirmation bias, just to name a few.” In other words, employers often don’t even realize they’re rejecting good job candidates for wrong, unconscious reasons. (For a good discussion of cognitive biases, see behavioral economist Daniel Ariely’s excellent book, “Predictably Irrational.”)

Intersectionality: The article cites research that asserts women are less likely to be hired if they’re also members of another minority category. Howard emphasizes that such “intersectionality” contributes to even more unconscious bias against hiring women, and that this makes it seem even harder to fill key jobs.

What strikes me about Howard’s analysis of the overall dearth of candidates for cybersecurity jobs is that he’s not making a political case. He sticks to well-documented issues and then suggests how to start filling those jobs in his industry.

How to hire more women and minorities

Need a specific tip about how to actually find and hire good candidates? Howard offers up a strategy that I talk about all the time: Don’t wait for the talent to show up on your recruiting app. Go where the talent hangs out and actually recruit them!

We live in what’s arguably the biggest talent glut in history. There’s more talent looking for good jobs than I’ve ever seen in my long career. So why are HR executives whining that there’s a “talent shortage?”

The answer is simple and embarrassing, and it’s been well-documented by Wharton labor researcher Peter Cappelli. Employers don’t get off their duffs to go find the talent.

Cappelli says there are two other answers to “the talent shortage.” Employers:

  • Fail to train and develop both employees and new hires. This means employers have no internal pipeline to fill important jobs that come along later.
  • Refuse to pay market rates to hire the talent they need.

But the most valuable advice from Howard is this. He doesn’t sit in front of a LinkedIn screen waiting for every job applicant on the planet to submit a resume for every job on the planet. He goes out to where the best candidates are — in a place where they’re not even looking for jobs. (See “Recruiting: How to get your hands dirty and hire.”)

He reports that he “recently returned from the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, in Orlando. It is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists; some 18,000 attended this year. It was inspiring because I met so many talented and highly technical women there that I couldn’t capture their resumes fast enough. An event such as this unquestionably proves that a pipeline of qualified technical women exists.” [emphasis added]

Now, 18,000 women are not going to fill 2 million jobs, but who says this one technology event is the only place a smart manager goes to recruit?

Any employer that is not out in the field actively meeting and recruiting the best talent is never going to solve its talent problem — no matter what LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter and Indeed claim.

The article goes on to detail a five-step plan to hire women and minorities. The beauty of Howard’s case is that he’s not preaching primarily about diversity politics like HR wonks do. He’s trying to solve for 2 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs.

It’s time to take this away from HR

I take a no-prisoners position. As a profession, HR has demonstrated it cannot solve the problem of recruiting and hiring effectively.

Howard puts it more mildly: “Our ability to fill the open two million cybersecurity positions in the next couple of years is no longer just a human resources problem.”

But he does accuse employers of blowing it: “For myriad reasons that are way more nuanced than you might have thought, executive leadership has not been able to reverse this non-hiring trend… You can’t solve for female without considering race, class, sexuality, and/or ability.”

I say it’s time to take recruiting and hiring tasks away from HR and let HR process payroll and benefits. (See “Why HR should get out of the hiring business.”) Corporate leaders must turn to smart managers who know how to solve problems without bureaucracy and politics getting in the way. Rick Howard shows that a business-minded scientist with a bit of common sense can accomplish a lot — especially if he or she is willing to get their hands dirty by going where the talent hangs out to actually recruit!

Dear Readers: Rick Howard says 2 million tech jobs can’t be filled unless half of the hires are women. What do you think? If you’re a manager who needs to fill key jobs, where would you go to fill them?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2016 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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