Tips On Hiring More Women Developers, From A Man

Posted on Aug 22 2016

So this happened over the weekend:

I subsequently started sharing my thoughts with Nick via twitter, then realised it wasn't a great forum to discuss a topic this complex. I initially offered to share more detailed thoughts with Nick via email, and it ended up being blog post worthy. And here we are.

This blog post is focused on the challenge of hiring women into software development teams. There are many other diversity issues inside IT that vary from country to country, including things like under representation of people from different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, religions, or castes. I am not saying that diversity inside IT should be focused purely on gender, however this is the area I know most about, so it's what I'm sharing. I also think that it is important to start somewhere - the only way to fix a big problem is to break it down into smaller bits and start there. In your own situation you might decide that tackling a different aspect of diversity is a better idea - good for you! In which case some of what I share here might be useful, or might not.

I am also focusing this post on hiring more women, rather than talking more generally about creating a workforce in which they will be happy and successful. There are a bunch of things to consider about creating a safe, welcoming and productive space for women and other historically-disadvantaged groups, but that is a topic for another time.

I also don't want to dwell too much on why improving diversity in your organisations is a good idea, mostly because I hope that to many of you that it just seems like the right thing to do. However I will point out that in an age where we talk about our software developers having more understanding and empathy for their customers, that having a development team which bears little relation to their customer base can't help. You can also, if you want, read up on the many studies out there which show how more diverse teams perform better. I've included links to three such reports at the end of this piece.

But before we start…

I Am Not A Woman - Tip #1: You Should Speak To One

I am not a woman, I haven't lived as a woman or experienced the problems they face in the IT workforce. I haven't even dressed up as a woman for the stage (that time you're thinking of I was actually an androgynous alien from outer space, and we won't speak of it again). This means you should take a lot of what I say here with a pinch of salt. I have shown this post to a real-life woman (my awesome wife, who works in IT and has done a huge amount in the area of improving gender diversity in my previous company, ThoughtWorks) in order to make sure I'm not talking out of my behind.

And this is the first tip. If you are not a woman, go and find one and chat to them about the fact that you want to hire more of them. Even better, find more than one woman to talk to. Even better, find some that work as developers! Talk about what you currently do. Talk about what you're planning to do. Listen to them - take on their advice. Don't do this as a transactional thing, do it as an ongoing part of adapting and refining how you hire.

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Shut Up And Listen

Oh, and by 'talk to a woman' I really mean do a very small amount of talking, and lots of listening.

Do you work at a startup, and right now it's all male? Why not make it a priority to find a female advisor for your company who can help? Perhaps you have a local girl geek group you can chat to. Maybe you can afford to hire in a firm that specialises in this sort of thing.

Also, if you do reach out to a woman in the industry to talk about this stuff, and they say 'That's the last thing I want to talk about!' don't be surprised. I know a lot of women in IT who get pissed off that this is all they get asked about when they'd much rather talk about functional programming, infrastructure automation, or whatever. I don't blame them, and neither should you. If that's the case, go find someone else and stop bothering them - women in IT have enough shit to deal with without men assuming they have to always be a spokesperson for their gender.

Ultimately, each of us has our own set of biases, agendas, and built-in assumptions. Get people into your network who can help you challenge your assumptions.

MOVE THIS UP: why study after study has shown that highly diverse teams outperform less diverse teams (see this Deloitte Study, or this report from Talent Innovation, or this (PDF) paper from the American Sociological Review).

Tip #2: Hiring Women Might Be Harder Than Hiring Men…

You can do it. But you need to put the work in. You'll need to recruit in different ways, change how you advertise jobs, do more research, build different networks. If you don't care enough to do different things to build a more diverse team, then stop reading now and go back to your mono-culture, and be prepared to be outperformed by competitors who do care about this. Also don't be surprised when your employees decide to leave and go join some other, happier workforce. Trying new things will definitely mean more work, and may require more investment, and you need to be prepared for this. But this is often the case for any worthwhile change.

Or, you can just sit around and complain that this is really hard. Then you can just blame someone else for the problem:

This "it's a pipeline problem" idea is something I see often trotted out by people to try and justify why they aren't able to create more diverse teams. That this particular example comes from a large, well known company's head of diversity, a company with such a woeful representation of women in technical roles, is pretty sad, but unsurprising. Don't be like them.

These sort of claims often fall apart when you ask them 'So, what did you change?' and find out that just thinking about it but not doing anything new isn't a recipe for success. Stop claiming industry-wide issues are a reason why you can't make a local change. How do you think the problems of the industry get fixed? By bloody doing something about it. You should also read this excellent post by Rachel Thomas - "If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention".

Tip #3: …But It Gets Easier

A few years ago I was chatting to a chef in a London restaurant. I was interested in the fact that although the cuisine was what would be classed as modern English, his entire kitchen brigade was Italian, and mostly communicated in Italian.

"It's simple" he said. "I hired Marco, and he was great. When we needed someone else, he recommended them. And here we are!"

Hiring In Your Own Network Can Be Problematic

Any recruiter will tell you that the best way to hire is via referrals, via people you know. This means that if you have good networks, you can bring great hires in. This is problematic though if you have limited networks. Male developers tend to know lots of other male developers. Female developers are more likely to know other women. So, the more women you have inside your organisation, the better your hiring networks will be.

Another thing to consider here is the experience of a woman coming in for an interview. If she sees no other women in the organisation, is she likely to feel at home there? As Kellan Elliot-McCrea, ex-CTO of Etsy says: "Simply saying that you value diversity internally isn’t enough — there’s just no reason for an outside observer to believe you if they come and see a scarcity of women in the organization." On the other hand, if a potential hire sees a more diverse workforce, and the potential co-workers who are interviewing her include female developers, that's definitely going to help her consider joining your company.

Tip #4: Check Your Job Spec

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Is this the image you want for your company?

Calling all Rockstars, Ninjas and Brogrammers! Yes, you know who you are. I know plenty of male developers who would not associate themselves with those descriptions, so perhaps keep them out of your job adverts?

While we're at it, its pretty easy to keep gender specific pronouns out of your adverts (they rather than she/he for example). These are simple steps that help an applicant feel like they could actually work for you, and that you'd welcome them. Let's look at this gem from a (now changed) post over at Expensify:

Ouch. Stuff like this sends messages, and while I can't comment in the specific case of Expensify, use of gender specific language in communication like this can often be indicative of how the company thinks about who might join them. Even non gender specific words can still resonate very differently with men vs women, and make them feel differently about whether or not the job might be right for them.

It doesn't stop there though, it's also how you phrase the job description. Research has shown that in general men will apply for a role if they meet a subset of the criteria, whereas women are more likely to only apply if they meet all criteria. So make sure that your job descriptions are worded to attract a broad array of candidates.

Tip #5: Check what you're offering

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Being child and family friendly will help attract more talent from more diverse groups

Women are more likely to have childcare responsibilities than men (at least this is the case according to recent data here in Australia, and I suspect you'll see similar things elsewhere). Therefore jobs which afford some form of flexible working are more likely to be viewed well by women who need to do things like pick up children from school. And of course flexible working that helps a working mum is going to help a working dad too!

Having sensible, generous paid maternity and paternity leave can help as well - not just in terms of helping recruit women, but also in helping retain them (see this recent Business Insider piece). In some countries the rights of workers to paid maternity and paternity leave is poor to non-existent (hello, USA!). One way for your company to stand out amongst the crowd, and be more attractive to a potential female candidate, is to have a generous maternity and paternity policy.

Tip #6: Grow Your Network

As mentioned earlier, hiring from inside your network is a very efficient way of finding awesome new people to join your company. But if your network is the same network of friends, colleagues, user groups and conferences that you've had for ages, how will you find interesting new people from different backgrounds and minority (in IT terms at least) groups? So go to new user groups, and perhaps think about sponsoring them. Chat to new people. Follow new people on Twitter. Watch new talks, read new things.

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Consider attending, or even sponsoring, conferences with a good track record of encouraging diverse speakers at attendees

Go to new conferences, and perhaps pick those conferences that do a good job of ensuring a diverse range of speakers and attendees. I spoke to Aino Corry recently regarding how she and others help the GOTO and YOW! conferences do just that (disclosure: I've spoken at both YOW! and GOTO, and have been a track host on several occasions at GOTO conferences). Maybe consider sponsoring conferences like this too! It can get you visibility at an event where you will meet new people who might be interested in joining you.

Etsy's Hacker Grants program has helped bring more women into the industry, and helped them hire a lot of them too!

You can also invest in other sorts of programs to help reach new people. Etsy launched their Etsy Hacker Grants to provide scholarships to women engineers enrolling in Hacker School, and ThoughtWorks have experimented with more than one program aimed at bringing women back to IT after periods outside the industry

Tip #7: Set Targets

Knowing that what you have now isn't good enough is one thing, actually making sure you'll do something about it is another. Targets, especially targets that leadership care about and focus on (see next tip), are a great way of keeping your company on track and making sure you'll actually do something about it.

Having concrete goals focuses the mind. Otherwise, when things are difficult, don't be surprised if your hiring team falls back into the same old set of processes they have always used. Saying you'll try really hard to do something new rarely works, as it's just too tempting to fall back into your old, easy behaviours, and do just enough to get by.

Setting hiring targets for people for different from under-represented groups can sometimes get push back because of concerns that somehow this leads to lowering the bar, and that you'll end up with a company full 'diversity hires' that only got the job to meet some quota. In practice, this rarely happens. Why would a company hire someone who can't do the job? As Kellan Elliott-McCrea puts it: "Lowering standards is counter-productive — the idea that “it’s hard to hire women engineers therefore we won’t hold them to such a high standard” is noxious. It reinforces the impression that women aren’t good at engineering, which is obviously a downward spiral."

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Setting quotas for graduate recruitment was hugely successful at ThoughtWorks

Given the rate at which women leave IT, finding more experienced technical women can be difficult, especially if you don't have the networks. Hiring women earlier in their careers, and creating a great working experience for them can be one way of arresting this brain drain. It was partly for this reason that in 2011 ThoughtWorks decided to institute a policy of 50/50 hiring for men and women in graduate roles. This quota (let us call it what it is!) came along at the same time as a period of strong growth for the company globally, during which there was a goal to increase the number of graduates being hired each year.

Having both a gender quota in a growing company can lead to tension. If I want to hire 20 graduates, that means I need to find 10 women and 10 men. If I find hiring women really hard, I could decide to let the quota slip in order to find the number of people I need as quickly as possible. This has often been a challenge at ThoughtWorks as the company leadership were unwilling to let either the gender quota or the overall hiring targets go. The only solution was to invest more in finding female candidates. They did this by building new relationships, investing in different types of events, and all the other things I've talked about previously.

Over time, this idea of 50/50 hiring has been hugely successful in ThoughtWorks' impressive change in the gender mix in technical roles. Many of the women who were hired as graduates are now playing leadership roles inside ThoughtWorks and elsewhere in the industry.

Tip #8: Change Comes From Up Top

The larger the organisation, the more important it is for clear direction to come from the top. Much of ThoughtWorks' success in terms of improving the gender diversity of its workforce was down to the fact that the then CEO and founder were both very clear in setting out what they thought was right, and putting plans into action to make things happen. A strong leader will call out things that aren't good, and do the right things to make change happen. If you want a great example of a leader making a clear statement about how a organisation should behave, and what is acceptable, I ca't' think of a better example than the statement by Chief of the Army Lieutenant General David Morrison in the wake of some pretty serious issues inside the Australian army.

Being extremely clear and crisp in your communication, as General David Morrison was in this particular situation, is key. But it needs to be followed up with action too. Changing the gender mix of any organisation in a meaningful way is not a quick task, and can take many years. This needs to be an ongoing focus area for the senior leadership in your company.

Tip #9: Keep Data, And Keep Tracking

Decide on what is important to you, and what to track. Numbers are a great way of seeing how you are doing, and how you are tracking towards your goals. Reporting on a simple gender mix may not be enough though. You'll probably want gender breakdown by role and by seniority. Some companies just report top-line gender mix, and will often say things like '% of women in a technical role' without saying what a 'technical role' is (Google, I'm looking at you!).

Track your progress! Google's own diversity numbers

These numbers should be shared openly inside your organisation, talked about, and explained.

Even better, publish your data externally. You can do this with a yearly diversity report, as Facebook, Google, and Apple now do. Or you could just share your data with someone like Tracy Chou who makes gender diversity stats visible for a number of organisations, and whose data is frequently used by many across the industry.

Parting Thoughts & Further Reading

We keep seeing big companies share their terrible diversity stats, and they seem to collectively throw up their hands and say 'It's really hard!'. I think that's a total cop-out. Many companies, like Etsy and ThoughtWorks, are showing that change is possible.

Just because Facebook, Google and Twitter seem to suck at this, doesn't mean you have to as well. Try something new, speak to people, go be better, and create a much better, more welcoming, more productive and successful company while you're at it.

And now for some further reading:

Finally I'd like to thank my wife, Lindy Stephens, for checking my content, tone, spelling, and ideas. The good stuff is hers, the mistakes all mine.

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