How To Hire (And Keep) Female Developers
By Rebecca Gatesman
Leaders from Audible, LinkedIn, and more explain how they have pushed past unconscious bias to change the ratio.
Let’s say you’re a software startup founder, and you’ve come under fire for having a gender-imbalanced developer team. You’ve been aware of the problem for years–especially after the slew of stories about sexism in Silicon Valley–but as you built your team, you ended up hiring anyone who was interested and had talent, without paying attention to your demographics. Now, all of a sudden, your founders–and your customers–care. And, because you want to have a healthy workplace, you do, too.
So how do you hire female developers?
A common crutch that struggling companies lean on is blaming their candidate pipeline. The assumption is that female developers simply aren’t seeing their postings, for one reason or another. More often than not, the real culprit is their gender-biased job descriptions.
For example, consider an often cited statistic that originated with an internal study from Hewlett-Packard, which found that women only applied for a promotion when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications, while men applied when they met 60% of the job requirements.
The finding was backed up by a study from the Harvard Business Review, which adds that it’s not that women don’t think they can do the job; it’s that they assume the hiring manager’s expectations are so lofty that they’d be wasting their time.
The lesson from all of this? Stick to the actual requirements, and avoid phrases like “ninja” or “guru.” While they may seem like a reflection of a relaxed company culture, they’ll drive away a lot of the best candidates. If you’re unsure, have females in your company–preferably in the position–review the applications and mark off-putting language or unnecessary requirements.
“For female candidates, it feels very welcoming to see ‘others like you,’ so we have a gender-balanced interview panel,” explains Sajal Choukse, a software engineer at Audible, and one of their first female hires for her office. “Once we interview a candidate, we put our feedback into the system, and once we submit it, we don’t read anyone else’s or discuss what we thought until after all of the interviews for that candidate are done.”
How can you make your interview process this healthy? Create a system that prevents interviewers from tampering with each others’ opinions or focusing on qualities of the candidate that are irrelevant to the position they’re interviewing for.
It’s a proven statistic that employees who have mentors stay longer. By assigning a mentor that has likely faced the same challenges, employees will feel more comfortable discussing problems and coming to them for help.
Janaki Kumar, VP head of design and co-innovation center for SAP’s Palo Alto offices, says that at SAP, women actually not only have both a mentor, who coaches the employee and is there to discuss any problems, but also a sponsor, who is tasked with finding every opportunity for their charge to take on new challenges and responsibilities.
“When women were not rising up in the ranks, we found that their mentors were not advocating aggressively,” generally because of remnants of unconscious bias that held them back, says Kumar. “The ultimate result is that as more women rise up through the ranks, the biases reduce. The goal is to get rid of the ‘token woman,’ and have it just be normal.”
Christine Chapman, another software engineer at Audible, and founder of the Boston branch of Amazon Women in Engineering, explains the criticality of management taking the reins of company culture: “You can really tell that management is supporting diversity initiatives. Just last week, one of the VPs here, in an all-hands meeting, talked about Amazon Women in Engineering. It really shines a light on how this is a company thing that everyone is working on, not just some women over there.”
By putting in place groups that support women and assist in communication across teams, you’ll provide a strong support network. As importantly, it’s imperative that your management supports those initiatives–and all diversity groups–to make them feel that they aren’t trying to “break in,” but are instead welcome at the table.
“Women can be their own best advocates,” says Pat Wadors, SVP of global talent organization at LinkedIn. “Make sure that the company addresses the need to include women in the company culture, as well as their own personal career.”
“I think companies have to say that it’s not about really changing our culture, it’s about enriching our culture,” says Rachel Bitte, head of HR at Jobvite. “Be really conscious of the power of diversity of thought. Just as you wouldn’t want all of your developers to come from the same school, or necessarily the same community, having representations from both genders and multiple cultures is extremely important.”
Rebecca Gatesman is a freelance writer based in Boston. She focuses on technology, finance, and cultural change.