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How to Hire Women in Tech
Etsy launched an initiative to hire more female engineers, but does it treat the real problem?

Image via Flickr

A few years ago, Etsy (yes, the online crafting marketplace) decided to make more of an effort to hire female computer engineers. This effort was mainly spearheaded by the company’s CTO, Kellan Elliott-McCrea, who restructured the entire engineering department to hire for more diversity in general, but gender diversity in particular. While 80 per cent of Etsy customers are women, there was a fairly toxic environment at the company, where the technical side was filled with male employees and other departments were staffed by females. It was creating an “us vs. them” environment that did not result in healthy or productive collaboration.

However, just saying they were looking to hire more women wasn’t working — in fact, they even saw a 35 per cent decrease in gender diversity in their engineering department during a period where they were actively trying to recruit more females. At a recent First Round Capital talk, Elliott-McCrea outlined what Etsy had to do to up their gender diversity by 500 per cent. The methods they used may surprise you.

What wasn’t working

The traditional method of posting a job ad and having a coding interview, where the applicant solves algorithms on a chalkboard on command, simply didn’t work. For starters, those types of interviews are not a very good indicator of how someone will perform in the job. They also found that trying to poach female engineers from other companies didn’t work either — they would come in, see no women, and feel like the move wouldn’t be worth it because of hostile environments they dealt with in the past. Etsy also found that most women were even hesitant to apply for the position, because they didn’t feel they were qualified enough. This is actually fairly common for women in any workplace, not just in the tech industry.

“Sheryl Sandberg has some great examples of things that hold women back in her book, Lean In, which apply to all industries, including technology,” says Heather Payne, of Toronto’s Ladies Learning Code. “For example, Sheryl mentions that when jobs are described as powerful, challenging and involving high levels of responsibility, they appeal to men more than women. Because programming is challenging, job descriptions for these roles often describe these roles as such — or worse, they state they they’re looking for a “ninja”, “rockstar” or an “expert,” which have also been shown to turn off women. Also, it’s been shown that women will generally only apply for jobs where they meet 100% of the criteria listed, but men apply if they think they have 60%.”

The main reason for this is, of course, socialization. Girls are taught from a very young age that being vocal about your achievements and showing dominant leadership qualities are not valuable. Boys on the other hand, are not. “When boys brag, it’s seen as acceptable, or at least in line with expectations for their gender. When girls show leadership, even as children, we’re often labeled as ‘bossy,’” says Payne.  Women simply don’t value their accomplishments in the same way, and a lot of companies maybe have unrealistic expectations of what positions might require. All these factors combined keep women away from tech in particular, where the environment can be very much ‘look at how smart I am,’ but the reality is you should be working as a team.

Etsy did eventually figure some of this out, mostly by talking to people who turned down the job. So they decided to take a completely different route.

What did work

Last year, Etsy decided to partner with New York’s Hacker School and create the Etsy Hacker Grant, a needs-based scholarship for women engineers who enroll in the program, which is designed to increase hands-on coding experience. Hacker School itself is free, but the scholarship helps pay for room and board for the duration of the program. They decided to aim for a 50/50 gender split for last summer’s program, based on studies that show people perform better in math and sciences if there is an even split between men and women. Female graduates of the program were given a standing offer to work at Etsy afterwards, if they wanted it. It worked, and Hacker School saw a record number of female applicants.

The reasons this worked are pretty simple; it helped to give women the practical experience they felt they lacked, and it showed that Etsy was serious about hiring women. It also gave Etsy the opportunity to get to know their candidates better, and vice versa. In the end, it made women candidates much more likely to want to work at Etsy in the first place, when maybe they didn’t even consider it before.   

“If anyone is confused about why the Esty Hacker School initiative is working, or why it’s important, I’d urge them to consider one thing: because of Ladies Learning Code, I have the opportunity to speak with many female software developers, as well as women who opted out of careers in technology. It’s really interesting to hear from them the exact moment that they opted out,” comments Payne. “Almost every single time, it’s because they simply didn’t feel welcome or that they belonged, and at some point, it just became too much. More than anything else, Etsy’s initiative said to women everywhere, ‘You belong at Etsy, and you belong at Hacker School, and we’re going to go above and beyond to help you get there.’ What an incredible statement. And because it’s so rarely heard in the technology industry, it was heard far and wide. “

However, that doesn’t mean the move was without its own adjustments. Elliott-McCrea says they have to make sure there are either two women or no women on an engineering team in order to for it to run effectively. That’s because if there’s only one woman on the team, she’s seen as a female engineer and not just an engineer. It’s not explicitly stated what happens if there are more than two female members on a team, which makes me think that too many women on a team probably makes the male members feel outnumbered. If that’s the case, it obviously isn’t good.  (Please note: I did contact Etsy for comment, particularly about this aspect, and they declined).

Women’s lack of confidence when it comes to their programming skills out of college or university should also spark concern. Do programs not provide enough hands-on experience in general, or do they not provide enough for women in particular? It’s a good thing that bootcamp programs like HackerYou and Hacker School exist, but shouldn’t higher education already be doing this? (As someone who had to take a specialization program to figure out how jobz work, and isn’t even in a tech field, this is by no means just a problem in STEM programs).

Etsy’s initiative does a good job addressing the gender differences that keep women away from ‘hardcore’ tech jobs, but what it doesn’t do entirely is address why women feel that way. A lot of it has to do more with ingrained, systemic factors that will take a lot of effort and time to eliminate. But things are changing, and (hopefully) for the better. This year, 41 per cent of Harvard’s computer science graduates are women, but if more companies like Etsy can’t get their act together and figure out how to attract female applicants, nothing is ever going to change. My advice to tech companies who are also looking to up their gender diversity? Be willing to think outside the box and address women’s differing needs. It’s not rocket science.


Megan Patterson is the Science and Technology Editor at Paper Droids and currently a Toronto Standard intern. She also tweets more than is healthy or wise. 

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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