AI Tools
June 6, 2024

Case Study: How Amazon’s AI Recruiting Tool “Learnt” Gender Bias

“You’re hired!”

When Amazon launched its AI recruiting tool way back in 2014, the company hoped that it could potentially help their HR team revolutionize hiring practices and reach their hiring verdict more efficiently.

But sadly, that wasn’t meant to be. The tool quickly developed a clear gender bias which automatically limited the number of female candidates selected for the next stage - All due to a lack of strong female candidates in the training data provided to the AI model.

With AI tools entering every facet of professional life, this can become a major problem for HR departments who are often required to lead the charge against any potential bias. 

A Gartner, Inc. survey of 179 HR leaders on January 31, 2024, revealed that 38% of HR leaders are piloting, planning implementation, or have already implemented generative AI (GenAI), up from 19% in June 2023.

Stats from a Gartner, Inc. survey of 179 HR leaders on January 31, 2024.

At present, 38% of HR leaders are considering or have already implemented AI in human resources processes. To avoid repeating the mistakes of before, it’s vital that HR professionals understand what led to Amazon’s HR breakdown.

Key Takeaways:

  • AI learns everything, but only what we feed it.
  • Algorithmic transparency is crucial to prevent and detect AI biases.
  • AI output should be closely evaluated before it goes live.

How Amazon used AI to find top talent (or not)

The company created this AI tool with the objective of automating the entire resume screening process, to efficiently identify the best talent across the globe. Therefore, it trained the AI tool on resumes submitted to Amazon over a ten-year period, with a focus on those of successful candidates. 

The team shortlisted approximately 500 computer models, which crawled through top-performing resumes from the previous years to identify around 50,000 key terms and attributes. These were deemed to be prerequisites for specific job positions, with the tool using these terms as a criterion to identify suitable candidates based on a rating scale of 1 to 5 – similar to how products are rated on Amazon.

However, the shine swiftly faded away when the company realized that the tool had imitated both the strengths and weaknesses of a manual screening process.

How did Amazon’s AI recruiting tool fail?

Reuters was the first to report on the failure of Amazon’s AI recruiting tool, where by 2015, it had become evident that the AI was not rating candidates in a gender-neutral manner. 

  • Resumes with the word “women’s” (as in “women’s chess club captain”) were downgraded. The AI had effectively taught itself that male candidates were preferable, reflecting the male-dominated data it was trained on. 
  • The technology also favored candidates who used verbs such as “executed” and “captured”, which were commonly found on male engineer resumes. However, this also led to unqualified candidates being recommended for roles, simply for using these words in their resumes. 

Oxford University researcher Dr. Sandra Wachter says:

“You ask the question who has been the most successful candidate in the past [...] and the common trait will be somebody that is more likely to be a man and white.”

Amazon attempted to adjust the algorithms to be neutral but ultimately decided that the tool could not be reliably unbiased and scrapped the project.

Amazon’s response

Amazon stated that the tool “was never used by Amazon recruiters to evaluate candidates.” However, it did not deny that their recruiters had a look at the recommendations provided by the AI tool. They apparently now use a “watered down version”.

  • Amazon explained that women and other minority groups were not adequately encouraged in STEM, leading to less number of women applicants to such jobs.
    Data shows that only 27% of STEM graduates are women.
  • Interestingly, in the same year as the release of its AI recruitment tool, Amazon released its first-ever workplace-diversity figures, which suggested that a whopping 63% of its employees were males.

Stats of Male vs Female employees in technical roles across the top giants like Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Data as per Carnegie Mellon University news article dated 2018.
Stats dated 2018, source

What are some key learnings from Amazon’s tool?

  • Training data is everything: Since AI tools are trained on specific datasets, they can pick up human biases like gender, race, nationality, etc., found in this training data. If Amazon’s training data had included a balanced ratio of male and female profiles, this bias could have been avoided. It might be prudent to have independent checks on your training data. 
  • Account for macro factors: The Amazon tool failed to account for changing trends and policies in the recruitment industry, such as the increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion. We’re a different world from the 1990s and the data should account for that. Focusing on specific words can also lead to a skewed result, as seen with the verbs “executed”.
  • Human intervention: The tool's reliance on automation led to a poor recruitment processing journey, which candidates found frustrating and unengaging. It was also limited in its ability to assess non-measurable skills and qualities, which are often critical in professional settings. This is where human intervention is key. Creating a system that balances both is vital. 
  • Algorithmic transparency: Transparent algorithms are essential for identifying and correcting biases. Companies might be hesitant to share their data or code-base with the larger community, but this might help identify problems before it’s too late.

While Amazon’s AI fail acts as a warning story, companies across the globe have already started integrating AI into their HR tools. You’ll find a bevy of enterprise tools that are changing the face of how we approach HR - You just need to find the right one for you. 

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