Technology Transforming the Recruitment Funnel
Helen McGuire, founder and CEO of Diversely, came in to talk to me about how their product uses technology to help organisations bake in diversity from the very top of the recruitment funnel.
Helen McGuire founded and now runs Diversely. It’s a platform to help identify and remove bias from sourcing talent that then provides the data to help organisations measure or monitor progress on diversity and inclusion.
I invited Helen in for a conversation because I have a chapter about cyber in my book Inclusive Growth. In the chapter, I write about how technology can help organisations deliver on diversity and inclusion because, increasingly, there are more exciting applications out there. The main point that I make is that technology can help organisations embed diversity and inclusion at scale. Organisations need to understand what is available to them and how it will help them. Using technologies like Diversely helps to make a greater impact.
Before we got into what Diversely does and how it helps businesses, I asked Helen to let me know more about herself, her background, and what led to creating Diversely?
‘Thank you, Toby. I’m Helen McGuire, the CEO of Diversely. Before this, I worked in communications in London at the BBC for about ten years. I then moved into advertising in the Middle East. At the end of 2014, when I’d had my first child, it dawned on me that opportunities had started to narrow considerably for colleagues and friends and other women in the Middle East like me who were having children.
I came across a group of women who could not find work despite their incredible career backgrounds. They were previously heads of department or ran their own businesses, or had taken on very senior opportunities in their home countries, but couldn’t find similar opportunities in the Middle East, which led me to set up the first women’s career platform in the Middle East and then expand that over to Asia in 2018, which was called Hopscotch.
I ran that for about four-and-a-half years and had two more children in the meantime. Eventually, I just became frustrated with the problem of it not being scalable. We grew to a group of around 20,000 women globally. We worked with clients like Facebook and Nestle and HSBC, and so on, but we were only scratching the surface. We were only helping women and it just felt too small. The problem is so much bigger than that; it’s global.
To cut a long story short, Hopscotch dovetailed into Diversely, which is a very different way of tackling the problem because it is a tech solution. It’s a platform that involves data, analytics, and hiring tools to remove bias from the initial sourcing process. Essentially it tries to achieve the same outcome, which is better opportunity for everybody regardless of what colour you are, what school you went to, whether you’re disabled or not, whether you’re male or female, etcetera.’
The way I look at it, it’s like your talent sourcing process is like a funnel. You’ve got many people going in at the top of the funnel. Only a few make it to the bottom, where job offers are made. When I was working at the BBC in technology, I was looking at gender imbalance and we were trying to get more women working in our design and engineering department. When we looked at the data, if a woman got to the job interview stage, she had an equal chance of being offered a job to a man. When we tracked the data back, we weren’t having enough women applying in the first place.
That led us to look at things like our employer brand, for example, and how attractive we were as an employer, particularly within the technology space, competing with Amazon, Facebook and Google for engineers.
I asked Helen to explain a bit more about how the Diversely platform works if it’s focused on the top of the funnel at the talent attraction and sourcing stage?
‘That’s where Diversely starts. Number one, we help businesses to understand where the gaps are. Let’s say you are working in technology. You might be struggling to attract people of colour or people from particular ethnic backgrounds. You are almost definitely struggling to attract women historically. Diversely helps businesses to understand where their gaps are. It looks at qualitative elements and asks questions. Is there any trackback to employer branding? What are your policies and practices? How are you putting those across? What’s your accessibility like for different people? What is the language like that you use in your job adverts?
So there’s looking at those types of things and helping understand those elements. Then secondly, we are across the data asking questions. Where are you in terms of percentages for ethnicity? Where are you in terms of gender? Where are you in terms of able-bodied and non-able bodied? Things like age and sexual orientation and what do those look like for you? Where should you be on a geographical and industry basis? These indicators will look different depending on where you are within the country, let alone within the world, so we ask what a good benchmark for you and your industry is?
Diversely gets that data reflected onto a dashboard that helps everybody understand and make sense of the complete picture. Once we’ve done that, we then move into elements of helping you to source more diverse talent, so how are you attracting that talent? What is the language in your job ads? All this all happens within about five seconds, by the way. It’s a tool that we’ve built that is completely automated. Where you look for that talent is crucial. Are you just posting out to LinkedIn, or are you just posting to the big job boards. Are you relying on your networks, in which case your funnel is pretty narrow since there are many other places you can start to look for talent.
Then finally, how are you deciding who’s making that shortlist? Is there bias creeping in at that point? If you’re reliant on people’s decisions, and it doesn’t matter who you are or your background, there’s always an element of unconscious or conscious bias. Everybody has it. I would definitely have it, despite knowing a bit about this topic.
So there are various stages that you can go through within the platform to help you find more diverse talent, understand whether you’re getting to your hiring goals and be more inclusive about the whole process.’
Technology is the key to this. When working at the BBC, I piloted some software to remove bias from the recruitment process. It was the first stage of the recruitment process, actually, in terms of CV screening, and we had a 130% increase in people from an ethnic minority background being selected for an interview compared to the conventional way of screening. That was before we had put our recruiters through unconscious bias training. That experience showed that, as with a systemic process intervention, the technology that we plugged into the process had a much more profound impact on the outcome.
Going back to what Helen said about this happening in a matter of seconds, I asked her how exactly Diversely performs this function so quickly?
‘That’s probably a better question for my co-founder, Hayley, our Chief Product Officer who works on the tech side. But in my non-tech way of explaining it, we have several ways in which we’ve created algorithms and AI that essentially help our platform to understand biased language and communications. For example, it takes out any identifying factors around someone’s identity. So instead of just completely anonymising a CV, the platform creates a fresh profile. That profile can also tell whether you are likely to be male or female and your racial and ethnic background and age with around 80% confidence. All of that data is then fed back into your dashboard.
There are several clever tools and ways in which we’ve created this product. We’ve collaborated with the University of Nottingham Centre for Applied Linguistics. They collected over five years of data on bias in job ads and who’s more likely to apply based on how those job ads read. That helped us create the AI and the algorithm around the inclusive writing tool that’s the first step of the process.’
I like the description Helen gives of creating a fresh profile. I would say more organisations nowadays anonymise CVs. They might remove names or which university they went to, but my experience is that hiring managers still try to read between the lines.
Helen agreed. ‘There’s a lot that creeps in there that you don’t realise. When you look at somebody’s CV, your brain tries to make sense of it. Whereas when you create a new profile and you’ve taken out things like schools and university names, because in places like the UK and the US specifically, that can have a massive impact on whether somebody is selected for an initial interview or not. It has nothing to do with whether you can do the job in many cases. So we focus on skills, strengths, and experience instead of what colour you are, what age you are, or what school you went to, which gives everybody a fair chance. I think we’ve seen within the platform, as you said, with your experience of the BBC, that more diverse candidates then get through to the next stage.
When a candidate is thinking about applying for a role, they often take a lot away from how a job ad is written or what a website looks like and the language used there. They might notice whether there’s an equality statement or even, to be honest, how open a business is about what it’s trying to achieve. So even if they’re not where they want to be as a business in terms of diversity and inclusion, at least set that out. Say this is where we are; this is where we’re trying to get to and this is how we’re trying to do it. Even an openness around that is attractive to candidates. As we all know, it’s a very competitive market out there, so anything you can do to set yourself apart on this front will make a massive difference in attracting some different talent.
We focus on the inclusive candidate journey and the D&I aspect for a business at the very start of the funnel. There are so many other businesses out there that focus much more on the culture aspect, retention, data around employees, and even the conversations they’re having internally. So I think that is super important too.’
I wondered if Helen could tell me about some of their results with organisations that use the platform. What do they see in the short, medium and long-term particularly?
‘How we work with big organisations is to help the entire organisation understand this journey. We don’t just give them the keys to the platform. There’s an implementation process, as we call it. These are three steps: clarify, measure and achieve.
The people we speak to within an organisation, Cisco or KB Snacks or McCann, who are some of our clients, are not the people using the software. So it’s vital to make sure that everybody is on board with this. The first step is to ensure everyone understands their internal data, goals, and how unconscious bias can play into this if they’re not using tech that takes that out as much as possible.
The second step is then to broaden their minds a little bit. You might have gone through your conscious bias training, but unfortunately, your job ad is still only scoring 60% in terms of the bias that’s still included there. You might think that you’re being diverse in your outreach, but you’re still only posting to two job boards. So that education piece. And then they start to see up to 70%, in some cases, more diverse talent applying once they’ve posted that job out to wherever they need to post it.
Finally, we’re a very early stage company, so we’ve been in the market for about six months, but we’re now starting to be able to track who’s being hired and how that’s changing the overall diversity of businesses and their goals and their original benchmarks and scores. We probably wouldn’t expect to see those results for about a year. We sell to businesses on a minimum yearly basis for that reason. With hiring and retention, that data takes a while to trickle through, but that’s what we’d expect to see over the next three to six months for our key clients.’
What I like about the process Helen describes is that, firstly, there’s taking stock to get that clarity, and then there’s opening up minds to think about all the different possibilities and all the levers that you can pull so you get more talent or more diverse talent into the organisation. That’s before starting data collection and analysis. It seems like a logical process to follow, which I appreciate.
Diversely is seeing some great results and got some brilliant clients on board. Helen told me they are heading into their next funding round in the next couple of months to raise £2 million to further growth. This is a great success story for a startup organisation within the diversity industry.
There are so many organisations focusing on diversity and inclusion now, and there have to be technological solutions out there because if you don’t have the technology to help you, it is a hard slog. I keep saying to my clients that we have to have an evidence-based approach to diversity and inclusion. You can’t just write a wish list and get busy doing stuff, only to find that the things you’re busy doing have no impact, which many organisations do.
Helen agreed, adding, ‘What we’re always quite astounded by is the lack of data. Even in the very large organisations that we speak to. We know there is an awful lot of GDPR, PDPA data and legal compliance around collecting data, specifically around D&I data. It’s hugely sensitive, so historically, many organisations have not collected it or are not allowed to. Data and legal compliance look very different depending on where you are in the world.
In the US, for example, where some of our clients are, it can look different from state to state. So we’ve built all of that into the platform, which means that wherever you are in the world, you will be data and legally compliant. D&I is a relatively new industry, and if you look at any other department in a big organisation, ROI is such a massive part of it. ROI relies on accurate data and tracking and measurement. Until recently, there just hasn’t been that around D&I. So how do you, as a D&I person, justify your job after a year or two years if you can’t track and measure where you’re making progress? To track and measure, you need the data, so it’s a kind of chicken and egg thing.
There are certainly businesses out there that are starting to pivot into this space. I’m certain more technology businesses will be coming up in the D&I industry. It’s a market that’s growing at 12 to 12.5% a year. It’s pretty attractive for startups and investors as well.’
What Helen said touched on two of the biggest frustrations that my clients tell me. Firstly it’s about data collection. Either the lack of data in the organisation of the existing data is fragmented. For example, employers have to collect gender for HMRC payroll purposes in the UK. They may or may not have data around ethnicity, and they might be missing data on, say, sexuality or disability. If they have data, it might not be a complete data set, and therefore it’s potentially unreliable. If they’re an international organisation, they might not be able to collect specific data in some areas of the world, which gets really messy.
Secondly, the other point Helen made is demonstrating impact. Whether it’s about that return on investment or ROI or more about a return on effort. In my work with heads of HR or diversity and inclusion leaders, it’s more about the impact they’re making. Many organisations come to me because they get so busy doing stuff like running career development programmes or awareness days and then they sit back and take stock and ask, ‘Why are we doing this? Like, we’re just not seeing the dial shift.’
‘Exactly. What’s it achieving? I think those are usually the businesses that we work with because you have to go through that process, I think, number one, to get yourself in the right frame of mind to understand what it is, to see what else is out there, to get everybody kind on the same page with it.
I couldn’t let Helen go without asking the question that I ask everybody when they come on the Inclusive Growth show. So to round off our conversation, I asked her, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’
‘When I moved from Hopscotch into Diversely, I joined an accelerator programme. I was living back in Singapore just before the pandemic in January 2020. They asked what is the business problem that you want to solve?
For me, inclusivity means opportunity for all on an equal footing. So that doesn’t mean that it looks the same for everybody or that everybody should be trying to or can achieve precisely the same thing, but it’s about giving people the opportunity to do so and prove themselves on a level playing field. And that’s what we’ve built with Diversely.’
To learn more about the Diversely platform and what it can do for your organisation, head over to their website diversely.io where you’ll find free resources like guides, downloadables, information on the platform and how it works. To reach out to Helen directly, you can contact her on LinkedIn, where she’d love to hear from you.