Getting women into technology jobs

Saturday, February 10, 2007

My post earlier this week about Alec Saunders’ sexist demo scenario at DemoCamp 12 (criticism that he took quite gracefully) led to both a blog post on his part, then an email and Skype discussion between us.

The topic of our private discussion quickly turned to that of hiring women in technical jobs, with Alec admitting that they have no women in their company except in support and admin, and asking what I would do to attract female engineers to an organization. This is a subject that has come up on the TorCamp Skype back channel, mostly in conjunction with the question of how to make the TorCamp community more women-friendly.

My response to Alec was as follows:

The issue of women engineers within organizations is a tough one. I went through engineering in the bad old days (U of Waterloo, Systems Design 1984), and was recently shocked to find out that the proportion of female engineering graduates isn’t significantly higher now than when I was there. What reigned in the engineering faculty at that time, and what exists in many of the technology companies that I see now, is a cowboy attitude that is a real turn-off for a lot of women. We’ve had some discussion on the TorCamp Skype chat group about this, since that attitude also prevails at DemoCamp and likely prevents a lot of women from even attending, much less presenting. DemoCamp is a sort of microcosm of what a tech startup is like: lots of bravado and showing off, which are traits that are socialized out of most girls at a very early stage of their development. As a woman, I can either choose to act like one of the boys in order to gain acceptance, which is not comfortable for most women, or just choose not to play.

I feel that the key to attracting technical women to your organization is to get some senior technical women in place. Most technology firms have “token” female VPs in finance and HR in order to appear to be non-discriminatory, but never leading technical parts of the organization. Put in a woman as VP of engineering/development, get her involved in recruitment, and you’ll see things change. I owned and ran a 40-person systems integration firm up until 2000, where I was both CEO and chief architect. My entire technical management team, and many of my developers, were women, although I didn’t select them by gender; it was an issue of technical women being comfortable working in the environment that I helped to create. I’m not saying that you should discriminate in favour of women — I am strictly opposed to reverse discrimination because it only fosters resentment — but widen your search net when you are recruiting high-level people to be sure that you’re including enough women in the selection pool.

Alec thinks that the problem is that they’re a startup; having grown a startup to 40 people and recruited a great selection of women engineers, I don’t think that’s really the problem.

I’d love to hear other opinions on this.

4 Comments

  1. pat says:

    Testosterone levels.

    They show up in job ads. Things the guys think are innocuous s enticements, like co-ed teams in what are usually masculine contact sports (might be co-ed, but there aren’t many women trying out for the team — or gay men, either)..

    Things like guy toys in the break-out rooms. Candidates getting a tour of the facilities see these things. They may not register consciously, but I suspect that the pervasive maleness of the atmosphere comes across.

    For a woman, it’s a bit like going into Calvin’s tree fort.
    http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2007/01/19/
    only without the punch line.

    …pat.

  2. I don’t think it’s those things, Pat. We don’t even get many women applicants.

    A

  3. pat says:

    Alec, it doesn’t have to be guytoys at your place: it could have been at places they interviewed previously that turned them off small start-ups, or it could have been at University.

    But that raises another issue: have you looked at your ads and your corporate personna: are they doing things that turn women off?

    Are they doing anything to turn women *on*?

    Have you had a woman in technology review your ads or your website?

    Our society’s use of language and imagery is full of subconscious and non-verbalized assumptions that actually transmit themselves quite clearly to identify a desired in-group and out-group in many pieces of communication.

  4. sandy says:

    Alec, maybe it’s the “wanted poster” type page that you have showing the team: like your presentation, probably supposed to be funny, but not likely to make women feel like they want to be part of that particular team.

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