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.