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The Way To Close Tech’s Gender Gap?

Silicon Valley companies are searching for women to hire, but a new staffing firm says the solution is simple: hire remotely.

The Way To Close Tech’s Gender Gap?
Copilots: PowerToFly founders Katharine Zaleski, left, and Milena Berry. “We have a lot to teach people about this way of working,” Berry says. [Photo: Samantha Casolari]

After years of deflecting or ignoring criticism about its male-dominated culture, the tech industry has finally come to a moment of introspection. Companies now say they want to hire more female programmers, and Dana Kelemen would seem to fit the bill. She’s a 34-year-old Perl developer with a decade of experience. There are just a couple of problems: She’s a new mom who would prefer to work from home, and that home happens to be in Romania. Try as she might, the job offers weren’t coming in. And that makes her a prime example of just how complex it will be to truly even out Silicon Valley’s staff.

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“Everybody talks about this problem, that there aren’t enough women in tech. We actually have women,” says Katharine Zaleski, cofounder of Power­ToFly. The recruiting startup vets, coaches, and then places female tech applicants, most of whom live, as far as potential employers are concerned, in the cloud–in places like Egypt or North Carolina, far from big tech, media, and startup cities. “The big issue is that if companies want more women, they have to change themselves.”

Katharine Zaleski, cofounder of Power­ToFly

PowerToFly believes that if companies truly want a more female staff, they can’t just expect to lure women to places like New York or Silicon Valley. They need to rethink who a prospective employee is, and embrace remote working. So far, clients who have hired workers through Power­ToFly include a small but impressive list, including publishing companies BuzzFeed (CEO Jonah Peretti is an angel investor) and Hearst, and the startups RebelMouse and Skillcrush.

PowerToFly is trying to sign bigger Valley firms, but the Googles and Facebooks of this world won’t be easily convinced. This fall, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt dismissed remote work in an interview with MIT Technology Review: “The reason [employees] need to show up at work is because of the water cooler effect. A lot of the conversations are informal; the entity moves forward when people are around. It’s very difficult to do that, even with modern communications technology, when people are remote.”

PowerToFly cofounder Milena Berry doesn’t buy that argument. She built a completely remote, 20-person tech team during her seven years as CTO of the activism group Avaaz. “We enabled efficient handovers and really tried to master remote communication,” she says. “It was fun to give a task in the afternoon and wake up to it being done [the next morning].” She conceived of PowerToFly in 2013, and asked Zaleski to join her. Zaleski understood the problem in a personal way: She had recently given birth to her first child and was frustrated by the difficulty of going back to work in an office. In a prior life, as the Washington Post’s executive director of digital news, she watched her employer struggle to hire qualified developers because it had insisted on in-office workers. (The Post is now a PowerToFly client.)

“Women spend 10 years working hard to build experience, and then you either have to go back in for 12 hours a day or pull out. Why can’t there be something in the middle?” says Zaleski, who is 33. She believes companies are missing out on a valuable type of worker: “You spend a lot of time cajoling [people in their twenties]–taking them out to drinks to get them to do things, working on ego issues. Working mothers, they don’t care about that stuff. They get in, they get out.”

PowerToFly launched out of beta in August and has placed more than 50 women in jobs. Both Berry and Zaleski work in New York, but their staff of 23 people–22 are women and 9 are parents–is spread across seven countries.

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The platform is heavy on individual attention. Promising candidates are coached on résumé-writing, office skills such as how to ask for a raise, and even their English competency. Their pay is higher than typical remote workers, though the PowerToFly cofounders admit that a programmer like Kelemen in Romania might not earn as much as one inside an office in, say, Palo Alto.

Kelemen first heard about PowerToFly on Twitter. She had quit her job at a local company and was hoping to find work at a bigger employer abroad. With PowerToFly’s help, Kelemen was placed on a two-week trial at BuzzFeed, and afterward was brought on full time–which, because she is not in the U.S., meant being hired by Power­ToFly and contracted out. The media company has picked up numerous employees through PowerToFly, and its tech and product team is now 40% women, far more balanced than most.

Today, Kelemen is working mostly regular hours from her home in Romania, and she’s happy with her pay. “I’m learning a lot,” she says. “Of course, the kind of connection you have when you’re face to face, it’s not here. But I’m fine with that. I think they are fine with that.”


Illustration: Justin Renteria

Make It Work–Remotely

The PowerToFly cofounders on the keys to telecommuting success

Workers should…

1. Overcommunicate. Supervisors will trust you more if they’re not busy worrying about what you’re up to. End each day with a note that details what you worked on that day and what you’re focusing on tomorrow.
2. Schedule face time. Set a weekly one-on-one with your supervisor over video chat. It helps to be seen in the office, even if it’s from thousands of miles away.
3. Escalate medium, but not message. When you need to reach your employer and she’s not responding to email, try Skype. Then phone. But never sound frustrated; your mode of contact is urgency enough.

Employers should…

1. Hire with caution. Don’t hire a candidate you’re not convinced is self-motivated. If you can’t fully trust her from the start, you’ll drive yourself (and your remote worker) nuts by constantly monitoring her work.
2. Assign a buddy. Each remote worker should have a designated in-office person to talk to (and a backup one, if the main buddy is out). That way, the remote worker has a peer–and not just the boss–to relate to.
3. Do a reality check. Remote workers tend to feel more pressure to produce than office regulars, just to show they aren’t slacking off. Go out of your way to make sure your employee isn’t overworking herself.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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