The balancing beam of diverse teams: On hiring women in tech

Matt Buckland | |

I’ve been incredibly fortunate, as the employers I’ve worked for, not only recognized the importance of diverse teams, but were also prepared to invest both the time and sometimes the money that was necessary to source candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. Yet, there’s a significant shortage of women in technology jobs and women in STEM, and the industry is well aware of that.

There are some brilliant initiatives in this area, and most importantly, some truly inspirational female role models for women entering employment. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to work with just a few of them, including Rachel Bates, Workable’s SVP of Sales & Marketing, who shared her own strategies in building a gender-diverse tech sales team.

It seems as though the more forward-thinking of employers have woken up to the realization that a diverse workforce is a boon to productivity and the collective intelligence of teams. Yes, these are leaps forward but, while we should not become complacent, it’s in the implementation of these initiatives that I’ve seen some actions which are becoming counter-productive. Some recruiters, despite best intentions, are actually doing more to alienate potential female candidates than encourage them in the drive to hire more women in tech. That balancing beam can be a hard one to master at times.

Communicate, but don’t pander

I’m very interested in the candidate experience – which I spoke about extensively in a recent panel – and that applies specifically to the woman’s experience in the process as well; so whenever I get the chance, I ask female candidates for feedback. I’ll ask them: “How was the hiring process?” “What did you enjoy or appreciate about it?” “What could I improve?” These are questions I ask all the candidates I shepherd through their recruitment process. I’ll always find ways to improve the overall process, not only for experience but for results; in this case, a diverse and balanced workforce.

At a previous employer, we had a kind-of focus group of female developers and business analysts set to explore one question: “How can we hire more females?”. Whilst there were a lot of ideas in the room, there was one recurring theme that often stopped potential ideas in their tracks: no one wanted to feel or make others feel that the bar was being lowered for them. They didn’t want women-only interview days, they didn’t want women-targeted advertising and they didn’t want to be commoditized with the offer of increased referral bonuses for female candidates.

It is in trying to work against the stereotype of the “programmer” that recruiters often fall into the trap of pandering to an equally divisive stereotype. Whilst stand-out cases of obvious crassness make news, like the ad posted to the Ruby User group offering female co-workers as a perk or, at the other end of the spectrum, LinkedIn’s ban of a job ad showing a female web developer because it was “offensive”, it’s apparent that even when the industry thinks it’s doing the right thing it often just gets weird. From pink adverts to adverts featuring photos of lipstick and high heels (really), there have been some truly odd attempts to attract female candidates when filtered through the lens of a recruiting department.

Gender isn’t a checkbox

Recently, I met with a representative from a university women’s group. She described a meeting with the Diversity Recruiters at a large investment bank. They wanted to be involved with the women’s society and wondered what would be the best thing they could do. The women’s group leader suggested that they might like to sponsor a scholarship for one of the female students. A relatively modest award would ensure that a student would be “theirs”, branded as such and available for publicity. This would also ensure that the lucky recipient would be relieved of some financial burden, maybe give up a part-time job, devote more time to study, even fare better because of it.

The diversity recruiters at the bank didn’t agree that this would be the best use of the money. They wanted, in their words, a greater “return on investment”. So what was their suggestion?

Afternoon tea in a posh hotel.

The budget? The same as the scholarship.

This is a perfect example of not knowing your audience, of not understanding or at least not empathizing. It was the twee sensibilities of an HR department woefully out of touch with the audience they were trying to engage. A true opportunity to help was squandered in favor of cream teas. It’s exactly the brand of corporatism that sees a company say they do work for the environment because they have a photo of the CEO planting a tree on their website. It may well be benign but it’s also pointless. Gender, like any diversity characteristic, is too often treated as a checkbox item. It’s as though some recruiters, in looking to hire more women in tech, are more looking for Pokemon than people…

So how do I hire female programmers?

When I was a recruiter, I aimed to hire highly-skilled, passionate people. The adverts I placed aren’t for “Ninjas” or “Rockstars” or other “brogrammer” terms. They are for software engineers, for people who like solving problems, and who like having their work make an impact.

So how do I ensure I’m reaching out to technical women too? I source, a lot. As women are a minority of the greater tech population – both in the US and in the UK – you have to look through more of that population to find them. It’s labor-intensive but women in STEM and women in tech are there; you just have to look. I have still run women-only hackathons, and relied on the advice of organizations like Women in Technology and advertised in media aimed at a female audience, even increased the bounty for the successful referral of a female developer.

However, as a recruiter, first and foremost the thing I try to do is appeal to a passion for technology and find the best people I can. If I’m looking for highly-skilled people who are passionate about technology, I know that I’m going to find some females in that group, and I’m going to do my best to ensure that when I do talk to them it’s with a relevant and interesting opportunity.

But, then, that’s what I want for every candidate. It’s about putting in that extra effort – beyond intent – to ensure you come up with a healthy gender balance in your technology candidate pool.

Parts of this article were taken from an earlier post by Matt Buckland on The King’s Shilling blog. 

Related:
Gender inequality in the workplace: A lack of women in leadership

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Matt Buckland

Matt is the VP of Customer Advocacy at Workable. A Workable customer-turned-employee, he was previously Head of Talent and Human Resources at a fast growing UK startup. Find him on Twitter at @elsatanico.

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