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!