Facebook: leaking info about gender bias damages our ‘recruiting brand’

Facebook is disputing a former employee’s analysis that female engineers have their code rejected 35% more than male engineers, telling employees internally that leaking such information damages its “recruiting brand” and makes it harder for the company to hire women.

The original analysis, first reported by the Wall Street Journal and independently confirmed by the Guardian, was conducted by a longtime Facebook software engineer last year. The engineer studied the company’s code review process, looking at the number of times code was rejected, commented upon, or updated; how long it took for code to be accepted; and demographic data about the coder, such as gender and length of employment.

Female coders received 35% more “rejects” and 8.2% more comments on their code, the engineer found. The engineer also found that the disparity in rejections for male and female coders was “consistent across time at company”.

In October, Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering, told engineers internally that the company had conducted its own analysis of the code review process “using confidential employee data so we could gain a better understanding of what is happening”.

The Facebook analysis took into account engineers’ “level” within the company and found “no statistically significant difference” between female and male engineers within the same level.

Parikh attributed the difference that the original analysis found to “the difference in gender distribution between levels”, meaning the fact that Facebook has more female engineers at lower levels than higher levels.

The Guardian was not able to review the underlying data or methodology for either study. A Facebook spokesperson said that the first study was “incomplete and inaccurate – performed by a former Facebook engineer with an incomplete data set”.

The spokesperson added: “Any meaningful discrepancy based on the complete data is clearly attributable not to gender but to seniority of the employee. In fact, the discrepancy simply reaffirms a challenge we have previously highlighted – the current representation of senior female engineers both at Facebook and across the industry is nowhere near where it needs to be.”

Though both sets of data were shared internally at Facebook last year, they became a new topic of conversation at the company after today’s Wall Street Journal report.

Lori Goler, the head of human resources at Facebook, posted a confidential internal response to the report on Tuesday that was seen by the Guardian. Goler wrote that the company was “disappointed by many things related to this story, but mostly that there might be anyone who is not having the experience we would want everyone at Facebook to have”.

Goler also addressed the leaking of internal conversations at Facebook, arguing that they were counterproductive to improving diversity.

“A key factor in our ability to recruit more women in engineering is our recruiting brand,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, a story based on factually incorrect data that paints us in a negative light will almost certainly hurt our ability to attract more women, and it isn’t great for those of us working here, either. In other words, this moves us in the exact wrong direction.”

Along with the rest of the tech industry, Facebook has been under internal and external pressure to improve its gender and racial diversity for years. The lack of diversity is most acute in technical and engineering roles. According to its most recent diversity report, 17% of technical employees at Facebook are women, while just 3% are Hispanic and 1% are black.

Discussions about gender in the tech industry often revolve around two questions: whether there are enough women in the “pipeline” to engineering jobs or whether women are actively or unconsciously discriminated against.

Last year, a study of coders on the open source repository GitHub found that code written by women was actually more likely to be approved by fellow coders than code written by men – but only if the female coders hid their gender. Female coders with profiles that made their gender “identifiable” had their code rejected more often than male coders.

In his October post, Parikh rejected the idea that Facebook should move to a blind code review process.

“As engineers, we might be tempted to build tools to deal with bias, but I don’t believe that this bias is easily addressed in mechanical ways,” he wrote. “Hiding the identity of authors or reviewers is counterproductive from an engineering perspective. Instead we should learn to recognize cases where reactions are affected by bias and move to correct them.”


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