As a woman with a humanities background who covers the tech industry, I often wonder myself about the path not taken. My husband is a software engineer who likes to pose me interview questions and math problems–he says I could have done well in his field, but I never seriously considered it as an option. What will it take to get our daughter, who was born on Ada Lovelace‘s birthday, excited about crushing code?
Clearly there is a strong feeling that women’s talents are needed in STEM fields and in the technology industry especially, but there’s very little consensus on how to get there or even what, exactly, the problem is. Is it recruiting? Hiring? Training practices? Company culture? Other structural issues? Jezebel called Etsy’s idea of supporting junior women to attend Hacker School for a summer “revolutionary yet simple.” Other people think there’s no problem to solve.
Some women engineers commented that they love working in the male-dominated field just as it is. “I am a female engineer who has worked in Semiconductors for 13 years and I enjoy working with men,” wrote a Huffington Post commenter. “In general, they don’t care what outfit I’m wearing, what my hair looks like, that I don’t wear make up or high heels, etc.”
A Jezebel commenter said: “Does a female engineer really want to go work for a company where she’s the only woman in the office? As a female engineer who is the only woman in the office, yes, yes I do want to work here. It comes with the territory and is honestly part of the reason I chose the field.”
Conversely, some men said they appreciated a more diverse environment. “As a male programmer, I find it way better to not work in a 100% male environment because it cuts down on brogramming, one-upping, machismo, etc–all things I’ve seen rapidly vanish if there are women around.”
So one paradox is that by making a company a more stereotypically women-friendly place, you might alienate the pioneer women who were there first and used to having the place to themselves. “It is bad enough to break into a company with no other females, even harder if that one woman there thinks of herself as Queen of England,” said another Jezebel commenter.
Etsy’s first step was to shift their interviewing and training approach from a “”quick, prove to me how smart you are,” confrontational interview style, to getting to know someone over a longer period. Some argued that this could lead to more quality hires of both men and women.
“…actually seeing someone’s work over the course of a few months, like Etsy did with Hacker School, is a much much better way to predict how someone will actually perform at work. We have a lot of interns who become full-timers based on how they performed during their internship, so I’m pushing my company (where I am a software engineer) to consider giving more internship opportunities to women.”
Others, however, took issue with an additional tactic, which was to try to hire more junior women (and relax standards for experience) as opposed to recruiting and/or poaching and/or promoting more senior women. As with other affirmative action programs, this might contribute to the perception that women are just not as talented.
“The bias that women face is after entry level,” wrote one commenter. “Women do enter tech jobs, but they do not get promoted. Women have been in the pipeline in tech for decades. I give the side-eye to entry level, nonthreatening hires with a big PR press release. Me thinks it is too self-congratulatory. Send the press release when you increase management, architecture and lead tech positions to 20 women. In many places, a woman cannot get promoted from entry level, and THAT’S the problem. They go to interview for a leadership role and get turned down because ‘they just can’t see her lead a team of all or mostly men.’ They have a dudely way of thinking of leadership. A woman can be a project manager at many tech companies, which is not a power position, or she can work, perhaps in marketing or HR, and sometimes they count these as tech hires, but the power positions like lead, lead architect, management, director, VP: nope.”
This commenter sees just another glass ceiling: It may be easier to hire more junior women but they still have trouble moving up. This is the same observation made in one of the best-informed responses to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In that I’ve seen, an essay in Dissent magazine by Kate Losse, who worked at Facebook for five years, rising to a position as Mark Zuckerberg’s speechwriter. Losse quotes Sandberg’s anecdote that when she was wavering over joining Google, CEO Eric Schmidt told her, “If you get offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask which seat. Just get on.”
Not so, says Losse. If you’re not on the right seat, you get the long hours, the cutthroat competition, the putting your life on the back burner–and not necessarily much of the upside.
“Unlike Sandberg, most women who work in tech startups do not have seats in the front of the rocket ship. Women in tech are much more likely to be hired in support functions where they are paid a bare minimum, given tiny equity grants compared to engineers and executives, and given raises on the order of fifty cents an hour rather than thousands of dollars…what if women, even in a company like Facebook, are still paying a gender penalty that nothing but conscious, structural transformation can cure?”
Talking about structural transformation takes us pretty far from a discussion of what individual organizations, or individuals themselves, can do to combat the gender divide. My instinct is that the solution lies on all three levels at once. Where should we go next in reporting this story?
[Exploding Computer Keyboard: Stoupa via Shutterstock]