How to Recruit and Retain Women in Tech

Despite improvements in gender equality in the workplace, the tech industry continues to lag behind. Women make up over 50 percent of today’s workforce in the United States, but they’re still noticeably absent in the tech industry. Even more than simply having stagnated in outdated gender ratios, the tech industry gender gap is worsening. According to a 2013 American Association of University Women study, the percentage of computing jobs held by women in the United States was down from 35 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2013.

Women in TechPart of the problem lies in the pipeline. According to Girls Who Code, 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM fields and computer science. However, only 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees and 26 percent of computing jobs are held by women. Something is happening between early childhood and early adulthood that is discouraging women from choosing to go into technology, or is preferentially encouraging women to go into other fields.

As an employer, fixing the pipeline problem is probably not your priority. We leave that primarily for initiatives in education and nonprofits focused on getting more girls to stay in technology through university. The gender gap in technology is not, however, entirely a pipeline problem. From job ads with male-biased language like ‘rockstar’ and ‘ninja,’ to male-biased perks like free beer in the office, to unconscious gender biases in interviewing, the hiring process for tech jobs is fraught with deterrents for women and aids in maintaining the status quo.

Even if closing the gender gap in tech weren’t an important social issue, it would still be an important business issue. Diversity improves business results and that holds true for gender diversity.  According to a 2013 Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology report, when Fortune 500 companies have at least three female directors, return on invested capital jumped over 66 percent, return on sales went up 42 percent, and return on equity increased 53 percent.

It’s infamously difficult to recruit women for tech positions and just as much of a struggle to retain them. Some companies, however, are excelling at doing so. Read on to find out how companies like ThoughtWorks manage to have hiring classes composed of up to 57 percent women, without sacrificing quality of hire or resorting to outlandish tactics.

1. Hire junior female tech talent and develop them.

Recruiting women in techAfter making gender diversity a hiring priority, Etsy saw minimal results. One year, Etsy even experienced a 35 percent decline in gender diversity. Finally, Mark Hedlund, Etsy’s VP of Engineering, launched ‘Etsy Hacker Grants’ to provide need-based scholarships for women enrolling in Etsy’s Hacker School, a three month course to teach people how to be better engineers.

By switching their approach from try to recruit female senior engineers to recruiting junior engineers and developing them in their Hacker School, they became successful in improving gender diversity on their tech team. After running the program in summer 2012, Etsy hired eight female engineers — free of recruiter contingency fees and already somewhat integrated into the company.

ThoughtWorks applied a similar approach to increase its number of female employees, but took it even further. By actively recruiting in industries outside of computer science and offering extensive training to those unconventional candidates, ThoughtWorks nearly doubled its percentage of women in tech roles, from 17 percent to 32 percent. “We do not just look at education and the typical boxes when meeting a candidate” says Joanna Parke, the managing director of the company’s North America division. “We look at the whole picture. Their life journey, their curiosity and of course their technical proficiency.”

With self-taught coding becoming more and more common for career changers or recent grads finding their original industry of choice less than lucrative, considering developing these unconventional candidates can be a great way to widen your talent pool, both for female developers and generally.

2. Bias-proof your interview process.

ThoughtWorks’ interview process is partially to thank for their great success in increasing the amount of female tech talent that they hire. They deliberately combat the unconscious biases of interviewers with their untraditional approach to interviewing. Each candidate is interviewed by at least two employees and they strive for having at least one female interviewer involved in every interview.

The interviewers then discuss their thoughts on the candidate and any vague statements, like stating that a candidate didn’t seem like a good fit, are challenged. If those statements cannot be properly supported, they are ultimately dismissed and not included in the assessment of the candidate.

3. Create a talent diversification strategy.

To bring about real change, you must be aggressive in seeking out female candidates for your tech positions. If they haven’t considered your company before, you must be proactive in bringing your company to their attention and making it clear that you are interested in developing greater gender diversity at your company. There are many different talent diversification strategies that can work.

Building marketing and sales content that is directly targeted at women can help bring your company to the attention of female developers. Alternately, advertising open positions on media and social media outlets that are focused on women more directly puts working at your company on their minds. For a more personal touch, attend women-focused career fairs, especially if they have a tech spin. You’ll be surrounded by opportunities to diversify your tech team!

Once you have gotten your company in front of female tech talent, you need to offer them what they want. That brings us to number four.

4. Offer generous paid parental leave for both men and women.

Women in TechThough women make up over 50 percent of the US workforce today, women still tend to hold a disproportionately large role in the household and in parenting. Offering generous paid parental leave allows female tech talent to stay on your team, even when growing their families. However, offering generous paid maternal leave isn’t enough if you have a stingy paternal leave policy, or don’t offer it at all.

"Equal paid leave is critical because it can help weaken the stereotypes that lead to gender inequality in the workplace," says Jen Dulski, COO of Change.org. Due to historical precedent and the still uneven distribution of household labor and parenting responsibilities among the genders, employers assume that new mothers will take longer leave than new fathers. This assumption creates biases in hiring, salary, and promotion decisions. Equalizing parental leave between the genders will help reduce those biases and promote a more gender equal workplace.

Offering generous parental leave has further benefits for your company, beyond attracting female tech talent. "If they [parents] take leave available to them, they feel the company is more supportive and is invested in their future, and they will more than likely return to the same company," says Chris Duchesne, vice president of global workplace solutions at Care.com. Inspiring greater loyalty in your tech employees can only benefit your company, especially in the poaching-prone, high churn tech industry.

5. Showcase your company’s flexibility.

Because women often occupy a larger role in family life, being able to maintain a good work-life balance is often more important to female employees than male employees. Emphasizing your company’s options for telecommuting, flexible work schedules, part-time work, and transition programs for employees leaving or returning from parental leave can help you attract for women to apply to join your tech team.

The tech industry is already ahead of the curve in focusing on results over hours spent on the office. “As an industry [IT and Technology], it tends to afford much more freedom as far as work-life balance, which can be really appealing to women who are often juggling career, children and home responsibilities” says Leslyn Broughton, research vice president at Modis. “The IT Industry is also much more forward-thinking as far as remote working, virtual environments, flexible schedules, work-sharing.” Showcasing that flexibility, instead of focusing on kegerators and other male-biased work perks, can help attract more female developers.

6. Offer equal pay for equal work.

Recruiting women in techIf you want female developers and engineers to feel valued by your company, you have to actually value them. According to the World Economic Forum, women in the US make only 66 percent of what men are paid for similar work. That has to change for true gender equality to exist and paying your female employees fairly is the most basic requirement for satisfying and retaining them.

"I had one of my female reports in my office for our weekly one-on-one conversation” says Jen Dulski. “We were discussing how she'd be recognized for a major success she'd had and she said this to me, 'Just pay me more. Give me a bonus. Don't send a company-wide email; I don't want to have cake, I don't want a comp day, just pay me more.'" At the end of the day, all the recognition and celebration doesn’t mean anything to female tech talent if they’re still being paid less than their male coworkers.

7. Hire and promote women to leadership positions.

A mere five percent of leadership positions in the tech industry are held by women. You can boast a workplace with equal opportunities for and treatment of men and women, but the composition of your executive board tells a very different story if it’s all male.

"Once we had Lara [Fields, chief product architect] on board, we absolutely began to get more resumes from other women” says Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software. “Now, 30 percent of our engineering group [is made up of] women. I don't know if other women are looking at us and saying, 'There's a woman at the helm, there are a number of women in leadership positions. Hell, yes, I want to apply!' but that's the feeling I get." Consciously hiring female executives and promoting your best female talent into leadership positions is necessary if you want women to believe that your company practices the gender equality that it preaches.

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Danai Kadzere

Danai Kadzere

Danai is a Content Marketer at Happie. Before Happie, she worked as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and children's book author, after graduating from Harvard University with a BS in Human Evolutionary Biology. If she's not working, she's probably reading, baking, or getting lost.