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Can technology aid in recruiting a diverse education workforce?

Baljinder Kuller, Founder and MD of The Supply Register discusses the tech tools available to help avoid unconscious bias

There is no denying that the education system is heavily lacking in diversity. Currently in the UK, 31% of pupils come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME), compared to just 13% of teachers. The situation worsens at senior level, with 93% of head teachers coming from white British backgrounds. Clearly, schools need to examine ways to recruit more teachers from underrepresented groups. Rectifying this problem is not just an issue of representation for representation’s sake. In fact, studies have shown that teacher workforces which accurately reflect the demographics of their classrooms perform more effectively than those that do not. An American study, The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers, found that by assigning ‘a black male to a black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grades significantly reduces the probability that he drops out of high school.’

So, what barriers are preventing BAME teachers from entering teaching and progressing professionally? One factor may be a lack of candidates applying in the first place. Certain job postings and school websites are just not appealing to some minority individuals. A simple lack of diversity in company imagery can be enough to dissuade some from applying. By including photos of diverse employees in communications, schools can take a firm step towards at least bringing in more applications. Diversity attracts diversity, and according to Glassdoor, 67% of jobseekers said a diverse workforce is an important factor when weighing up companies and job offers. The same research also found that a diverse workforce is more important to minority groups, with 89% of black respondents and 80% of Asian respondents claiming so.

However, within the hiring process, in our experience, one of the biggest barriers is unconscious bias, or homophily. Homophily is the tendency for people to develop trust to those with similar characteristics to themselves. An inclination toward people who you share characteristics with is a natural human tendency. This can be an especially pernicious bias as it’s usually unintentional, hence the term unconscious bias. However, the prevalence of homophily in today’s society has been proved numerous times, with a recent study finding that CVs with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to be selected for shortlists.

Recently, there have been many technological advancements in recruitment to help combat hiring biases.

The question then, is how can these biases be overcome? Recently, there have been many technological advancements in recruitment to help combat hiring biases. However, there is also plenty that can be done with existing technology. For instance, better use of workforce planning. Be it through HR technology or more traditional means, the first step to addressing a diversity problem is recognising it and tracking it. With better workforce planning, schools and recruiters can become acutely aware of where they are lacking in diversity. By using systems that log data on staff or candidates’ ethnicity, race, and gender, one can easily measure the diversity – or lack thereof – and implement a strategy for change.

Most advancements in recruitment technology for tackling diversity are aimed at removing as many layers that may be open to bias from the application and making it solely about candidate suitability through determining ability objectively. A fascinating development in this regard is the use of ‘cognitive gaming’, where short video games or interactive puzzles are used to evaluate cognitive traits such as memory and the ability to understand job-related complexities. Not only is this a far more effective method of attracting applicants, with 88% completing these games, compared to 40% finishing assessment tools such as psychometric tests, but it also assists with diversity. By whittling down jobseekers in this way before they’ve reached decision makers, potential biases can be offset as recruiters can assume that all candidates making it past the initial stage are sufficiently capable, regardless of demographic.

No amount of technology will help the process without a concerted desire to change.

AI can also be key in creating a more diverse workforces. Robots can screen and analyse candidates purely on job suitability whilst ignoring factors such as race and age, removing unconscious bias. Other areas where AI is being used to help is through natural language processing. This has helped recruiters remove biased language from job descriptions, making them more appealing to a wider range of candidates. For example, studies have shown job descriptions including masculine-type words such as ‘dominant’ and ‘challenging’ are less likely to attract females. However, despite its potential, we must be careful when appointing AI the all-purpose saviour for workplace diversity. With AIs being trained on historic company data, they may actually pick up on existing biases. Evidence of this can be seen in a study of the facial recognition software of Microsoft, IBM and Face++. The systems were shown 1,000 faces, and told to identify each as male or female. All three did well discerning between white faces, and men in particular. However, when it came to dark-skinned females, there were 34% more errors.

Borrowing the use of ‘reputation tools’ from companies like Uber and Airbnb can also diminish bias. A 2018 Stanford study of Airbnb showed that favourable personal reviews offset social biases. The study found participants were significantly more trusting toward users with characteristics different to their own who had positive reputations. Therefore introducing systems where candidates can be recommended or referred by others would go some way to levelling the playing field.

The vast array of technological advances in the HR and Recruitment sector can be confusing, and no amount of technology will help the process without a concerted desire to change. However, if put to good use, technology can be instrumental in addressing the diversity shortage in education. It’s important to remember that there’s no catch-all solution, but by staying up to date with the latest developments and trends, schools can slowly integrate technology into their hiring processes, and create more diverse, inclusive and effective workforces, beneficial to both teacher and pupil.