How Etsy Attracted 500 Percent More Female Engineers

Want cognitively diverse teams? Want women engineers? Do what Etsy did: Change who you target, and change how you train them.

How Etsy Attracted 500 Percent More Female Engineers
Image by Sarah@Pingsandneedles on Flickr

Want cognitively diverse teams? It’s not as simple as hiring more female technologists. When Etsy stopped poaching and started training junior women to be rockstars, more senior engineers–men and women–saw the company’s progressive policies and started calling.


In Silicon Valley today it’s not possible to hire more women simply by recruiting them. Good engineers today have their pick of jobs, and good female engineers are being stalked like the last antelope on the African veldt.

For Etsy, diversifying wasn’t just about good citizenship–it was vital to the product. Eighty percent of Etsy customers are female, but the company itself used to be known in startup circles as engineer-centric and something of a dude-fest: As of January 2011, the company only had three female engineers out of 47. Despairing, management gave up searching for senior female engineers and set about training junior prospects. Today, Etsy’s engineering team is 20 ladies to 90 guys, or 500% more women than two years ago.

Hiring female engineers is a chicken-and-egg problem

In 2011 the company decided to make recruiting women a stated core value for the year, but by December, they had only added one female engineer out of the 40 technologists they hired, driving the gender balance down 35%. “This is over a year when we were saying it’s really important, we’re working really hard on this,” said Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea, in a talk at First Round Capital’s annual CTO Summit. “Something wasn’t working. This was deeply broken.”

Women hold just one quarter of engineering and computer-related jobs, and at many of the supposedly most innovative companies, the ratio is much much lower. There’s lots of embryonic efforts to get girls into coding and entrepreneurship, like Change the Ratio, Rails Girls, and Black Girls Code, but many are too far up the pipeline to help a company that’s hiring now.

Then there’s a chicken-and-egg problem. How are you going to pull in senior women candidates when they look at your staff and see all the women in support roles? How do you make a female engineer feel welcome when almost every single coder is a dude?

“Great women engineers are not only NOT looking for work,” says Elliott-McCrea, but also, they’re wary of being burned by the culture. If all they see is men, “there’s a decent chance, based on their experience, that your workplace is going to suck.”


Less headhunters, more hacker school

So instead of shopping for senior engineering talent to poach, the company risked an investment in training junior women with an eye toward hiring them. When the company changed its focus, it grew from just four female engineers to 20 in a single year, 2012.

The key, says Elliott-McCrea, was partnering with other companies to fund a training program that would attract candidates ready to learn. Etsy, together with 37Signals and Yammer, kicked in for $7,000 per student in grants to cover women’s living expenses for a Hacker School session held at Etsy’s offices in the summer of 2012. (For the uninitiated, Hacker School is a three-month intensive free coding training program in New York that trades on its culture of mutual respect.) Over 600 women applied, which Hacker School narrowed down to 23 attendees, or nearly half of the session for that semester.

Education researchers have shown both genders feel most comfortable when there’s a balance. And the evidence was in students’ reactions. “I never realized the impact of being the only woman in the room until I wasn’t,” blogged Martha Kelly, one of the participants, about her first day at Hacker School. “Can you imagine STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] being a diverse and supportive community building amazing things together? I can :)”

What senior women engineers want to see

At the end of the summer, Etsy hired Kelly and seven of her classmates from Hacker School, five of them women. While the company is taking a risk on some less experienced hires, it is already paying off elsewhere. After word spread in the engineering community about Etsy’s Hacker School grants, they attracted some very high-level candidates, men and women “whose names you would know,” who weren’t explicitly job hunting, but loved their initiative, leading to two senior-level hires and three more who are in talks.

As for Hacker School, they just announced a new round of grants for women–Dropbox, GitHub and PhotoShelter are joining Etsy to sponsor the 2013 class.


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation.