How to Solve the Tech Hiring Problem: Ask Women

Posted by Tim Fernholz

Though women make up half the U.S. workforce, they hold only 25 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—a disparity that’s especially disconcerting given frequent complains from tech executives who can’t find enough qualified applicants.

To help connect companies with talented women, the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology released a report containing specific and actionable advice for companies. If you’re in any kind of hiring position in the tech world, you should read it and start correcting the common mistakes it identifies, whether a narrow recruiting process that fails to reach qualified candidates or a company culture that doesn’t welcome female employees.

I contacted my friends at the Tech Ladymafia to put the report in perspective. The group, which was founded in Washington, D.C. but exists primarily online, brings together and supports women interested in technology work. Here’s an edited collection of their ideas about the report, getting women into tech jobs, and how dudes can help.

Aminatou Sow, digital strategist and founder, Tech LadyMafia: We started the Tech LadyMafia because we were tired of hearing about "the woman problem" in tech instead of hearing about solutions. TLM is a place to support tech women, promote each other's work, provide resources, and get paid to do what we love. When I moved to D.C., my friend Reihan Salam, a smart, generous human, gave me this great piece of advice: "Meet awesome people and build an awesome team.“

Kate, attorney: I joined because after six years in the tech policy world, I was still having trouble finding people to answer my engineering and [computer science] questions without making me feel like an idiot. TLM is a way for me to get deeper into the science side of the legal work I do without the condescension I kept hitting when I reached out to tech guys I knew.

Jeanne Brooks, community & digital innovations expert: [It's] based on a philosophy of horizontal loyalty versus mentorship [that] I learned from my friend and colleague Robert Hernandez of USC Annenberg. [M]entorship is often seen as a one-way vertical between an expert and an early career worker. Horizontal loyalty recognizes that every worker has skills and knowledge to share and creates space for the relationship to be mutually beneficial. Using this as a basic foundation for organizing yields positive and inclusive results. 

Christine Corbett Moran, theoretical physicist: I was plagued by gender stereotypes as a child but was lucky enough to be admitted to and later attend MIT where I found my groove in a freshman class of 50 percent brilliant women and studied computer science. I've since worked in a variety of technical fields and believe technology is the key to changing the world, and only men changing the world means a worse world. Ergo, we need ladies in tech. The first and simplest step is to care about the problem—agree that it is a problem that is important to solve. So many in the valley and the world don't take this step and as a result we have inferior projects, products and engineers.

Nicole Aro, organizing director, Sunlight Foundation: The issue isn't that companies don't know what to do to recruit women, it's that they're rarely proactive about it.

Pam Selle, developer: I like the [Anita Borg] report because it's a hard-and-fast answer to the constant whining, "Oh, I can't find anyone." I can't tell you how many times in organizing I hear that, yes, they know there's a problem, but what's the point of talking about it before there's a solution. That's basically the stupidest shit I've ever heard. Aren't we engineers? Isn't finding solutions what we do?

Aro: There are a lot of articles out there about what women can do to fit in better in tech and other heavily male-dominated industries, but there need to be more about having a management culture that prioritizes listening to women and people of color. Changing that management culture will ultimately lead to a better, more diverse organization that is adaptable to the needs of different communities they serve.

Jean Yang, Ph.D. student, MIT: Women will be more likely to enter and stay in tech if they can picture themselves fitting comfortably into tech positions. It is important for companies to cultivate a culture that is friendly to women and to communicate this to women. There was recently an excellent piece in BusinessWeek about the rise of the fratty "brogrammer" culture in tech companies, especially smaller ones. Cultivating a non-brogrammer culture, hiring women, and making the women an important and visible part of the culture (without putting too much pressure on the women) are important steps towards getting more women into tech positions. In environments where men are the majority, the men have a responsibility to examine their culture for how it can become more welcoming to women. My friend Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe, has given a lot of thought to building a company that does not have a "brogrammer" culture. He tries quite hard to recruit women and minorities and establish a culture welcoming to them.

A., project manager: I manage a team of 7 male developers. My immediate bosses are male. They are all very smart and well-intentioned men, but I cannot tell you the amount of general bro-grammery I have to duck on a daily basis. When a friend told me she was starting a group for women in tech to support each other in their work, I said "I'm in."

Selle: So many hires are 'oh, I know a guy’ and of course, that guy looks, sounds, and acts like the rest of the guys already at the company, so he must be a good hire, right? People in general don't embrace what they don't understand or find unfamiliar, and that's how we end up with companies full of white, same-aged, men.

Leslie Bradshaw, president and co-founder, JESS3: We leverage women's groups like DC Web Women and Change the Ratio to help us during our recruiting efforts. We recently hired a designer, out of 60 applicants, who came via DC Web Women (she was the most qualified and also happened to be a woman—double win!). Three out of our four executives are women and as a result we have set the tone for the company: We support men and women equally, with the best candidates rising based on ability, fortitude, attitude and output. [It] has created an environment where women want to work and have role models and mentors at the highest levels of the company.

Brooks: Women-positive HR departments are also critical. Sexual harassment and discrimination are very real barriers to participation in technology fields and these concerns should be handled sensitively. 

Corbett Moran: Once you get one lady on your team, it'll be easier. Once you get more, it's a piece of cake. So shoot for critical mass, not tokenism, and do that not by lowering the bar but inviting the ladies to the match in the first place.

Mercedes Kraus, writer, editor, web strategist: Dudes are great. Dudes can also be terrible. Because—ignorance. I have many dude friends who just don't get it. They don't understand feminism, and they don't see what is wrong with the boys club. I have one friend who is incredibly well-read but didn't understand why many of his friends thought it was a problem that he didn't own any books by women. 

Erin Holloway, art director: After a nerd weekend in the mountains, I was talking to another tech lady about getting a group of women together to learn code. Immediately, one of the dudes on the trip became upset about shutting the guys out. We both shot back our ideas on the community aspect and the need to elevate women in the field. He then proceeded to teach me some remedial html into the night, unsolicited. I learned another lesson: It's not us v. them. Know your cause, know your allies.

Kraus: I think some of the problem, though, is that many women don't have tech dreams. They don't see themselves in tech. And so it's important that we start seeing ourselves there. Push yourself to dream by seeking out the stories of tech ladies.

Mandy Jenkins, journalist: Be aggressive in self-promotion. It may seem jerky, but we have to be the ones to trumpet out skills and assets to get onto the radar of the companies we want to work for.

Selle: Embracing the Women in Tech community did a lot for me. But part of that is what we do—when someone says "I want to do X," it's awesome for them to have someone out there who says "X? You could've been doing X 3 years ago. You can do it, and furthermore, I'll connect you to people who can help." The secret success of empowering communities (not just women in tech, but other ones as well) is not that we are really a 'mafia' and making secret strings move the marionettes (although that's fun too) it's because we're enabling people to draw on their own power, punch through their own walls.

M, technology specialist: Here's the deal: Very roughly speaking, 50 percent of your users are women. When your development team doesn't reflect that, you could miss things that are obvious to your users. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user brewbooks