Do’s and don’t’s for changing the ratio of women in tech

Etsy's Marc Hedlund shares the tactics he's using to boost the diversity of his engineering team

You’ve probably heard of Etsy, the bustling online marketplace for crafters and artists. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of its customers are women, both buyers and sellers. Ditto that the Etsy team is a pretty good representation of the Earth’s gender ratio.

Yet when Marc Hedlund took the helm of Etsy’s Product Development & Engineering department, 97% of the engineering department were men. Hedlund realized that in his nearly two decades in IT, he’s hired no more than 20 women for engineering positions. This began to bother him. Especially after his daughter was born.

“You’re in a position of authority. What have you done to make it better?”

While she’s only four, Hedlund imagines this is the pointed question his daughter will ask him when she’s old enough to follow in his footsteps in the computing industry.

Impatient to change the gender ratio before his daughter enters the workforce, Hedlund decided to take action. Last year, he partnered with Hacker School to create a training program to address the engineering shortage in general and the lack of gender parity in particular.

The result: women now make up 15% of Etsy’s engineering team.

How did he do it? In his video interview, Hedlund offers concrete advice for companies who want to hire more women in technical roles.

A good first step, he notes, is admitting that lack of diversity is a problem and talking about it openly at the company.

He starts with a list of “Don’ts”:

  • Don’t start late. Take diversity seriously and take action to make it a reality as you build your company.
  • Don’t lower hiring standards, or make exceptions or compromises.
  • Don’t leave women out of the hiring process.
  • Don’t use identifying language that might unintentionally marginalize minority candidates such as “women engineers”—-they’re just “engineers.”
  • Don’t let “making progress” mean “we’re done.”

On Marc’s “Do” list:

  • Bring in as many candidates as possible.
  • Involve high-level team members in the recruiting and interviewing process to demonstrate that your company takes diversity seriously and that it will be a supportive work environment.
  • Get momentum for your diversification efforts in order to reach potential candidates: contact journalists who have been critical of gender disparities, partner with an appropriate group or organization to create a new program, dedicate a budget for the project.
  • During the interview process, you’ll get the best from both women and men by using language that isn’t confrontational or competitive.
  • Make sure your candidate knows she’s valued from the get-go; be direct if they are negotiating a salary that is too low-—and another angle that applies to men as well.

Taking his own advice, Hedlund doesn’t feel that the progress means parity has been achieved at Etsy. For 2013, Hedlund will focus on hiring more women in senior technology positions. His daughter is getting closer to her first job interview every day.

Putting Developers to the Test


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  • John

    What is an example of competitive language used in a job interview? This sounds a little like, “make interviews easier and more friendly for women” which to me would sound insulting if I were a woman…

    • Bo Meson

      “Are you a dynamic and thrusting team-member?” Whilst most sensitive people recoil at that sort of question you still hear it from insensitive clods – mainly men, often from hugely competitive fields where they have benefitted from being overly convinced of their own capabilities. Friendly isn’t insulting and often gets more convincingly accurate answers than formulaic macho approaches.

    • Binary

      And yet a) you’re a man, so you’re probably not sure how it would sound if you were a woman and b) He said “you’ll get the best from both women and men by using language that isn’t confrontational or competitive”. Both women and men.

      • Gene Novak

        Can’t we just separate the sexes already? Men and women don’t work the same and this idea we do is part of the reason for the problems of boys in schools today. We focus on women exclusively and expect them to just follow along like good little surfs.

        • Why NotWhat

          If we separate the sexes, we will fail to propagate as a species and die out. Brilliant.

          • Gene Novak

            I’m obviously referring to at school and work. I believe males and females function differently and a homogeneous environment is unfeasible. The environment always adjusts to accomodate the females and I believe the males start to underperform. Males are naturally more competitve and don’t like to compete w/women.

    • Janice Taylor

      The article recommended non-confrontational interviews for both men and women. Other than that I would guess it’s asking questions that are directly questioning the person. It’s the difference between asking “Could you tell me what are your skills?” and “Are you sure you’ll be able to handle the job?”

      Why women don’t want to be put in a confrontation? Because men are almost always physically stronger and confrontation feels threatening, even in safe conditions. It’s the very same reason why taller people are more respected in authority positions. It is emotionally much more difficult to argue with a stranger who is obviously physically stronger for anybody. So, no, I don’t think it is insulting to act non-confrontationally in a job interview, I think it should be normal. Behaving this way would take nothing away from men, it would simply level the playing field.

    • rainyfriday

      The female engineers I know deal with discrimination on a daily basis that started in their undergrad and shows no sign of stopping now that they are mid-career. Finding a work environment that does not automatically discriminate against them would be welcome.

  • Mastro

    When I call anywhere for tech support and get a women, I hang up and call back.

    • hellmet

      a women?

      • Why NotWhat

        Yeah, kinda says it all right there, doesn’t it?

    • e-juggler

      While in university, I did a brief stint at Microsoft, doing phone support of their system language tools and the Windows tool kits. The smartest people in those groups were the few ladies there. As in, when the rest of us were stumped, we went to them for advice. If you had hang up on one of them, it would have been your loss.

      Since then, I have moved on to doing design on the cutting edge of electrical engineering and the women I work with are some of the best and brightest people I know. You have to understand, these women want to do what they do. Also, they tend to be better at it than the average man because they have to be. Otherwise, they would have been run off by male engineers who see females as someone to fetch beer for them / have sex with them and nothing more.

      Why not let each person demonstrate their ability or lack there of before making a premature judgement?

  • squidflakes

    Wait wait wait… the secret to increasing the number of women in IT and engineering positions seems to be to hire more women? My god. That’s just so crazy it might work!

    • Gene Novak

      Yeah, never mind there are fewer of them so the talent pool might be a little shallow. We need to hire them anyway, but that’s not affirmative action that’s diversity.

      • Joe Tennies

        Actually, he did say “Don’t lower hiring standards, or make exceptions or compromises.”

        I think it can be boiled down to a few things. Say you are going to treat everyone with respect. Set a standard to treat everyone with respect. Actually treat everyone with respect. Get the word out that you treat everyone with respect to places the people you are looking for might actually see it. Oh, and being interesting to the group you are trying to get is helpful too.

        • Gene Novak

          Everyone deserves respect as a person, however respect as a developer (in my opinion) is earned by showing off your skills to your peers.

  • minstrelmike

    Seems to me it makes a lot of sense to hire developers (good ones) who also tend to use the software or like the people who use it. It seems as if much software is developed by geeks who don’t appreciate their users.

    • Calum Benson

      While you’re right that too much software is written by developers without a good understanding of its users, it’s also the case that (somewhat paradoxically) users often aren’t very good choices to design or implement it either– Henry Ford’s quote about faster horses still rings true today.

      You’ll often get some weird and wonderful suggestions from users in usability studies about how to improve your software, which would never see the light of day for all sorts of reasons. The real skill of a good designer is to figure out from that feedback the essence of the problems they’re really having, and solve those in the best way possible within the constraints of the product (and there are always constraints). Quite often, as it turns out, the sort of people who are best at doing that are neither the developers nor the target users.

  • Mark Rego

    So what is he doing about age discrimination? Guess that’s not an issue. One he gets beyond a critical mass of women he will see that the women will be ONLY hiring other women. Then the women’s club will take over and the company will be 80% women soon. (No worse than the golf-buddy club.) Will he then affirmatively try to hire more men??? Doubt it.

    • John Cowan

      The best is the enemy of the good. That’s why we can’t get easier-to-climb stairs in the NYC subway system — all the improvement money is tied up in wheelchair access.

  • hobgoblin11

    How about you just hire the BEST PERSON FOR THE JOB.. and ignore their gender or age. Has it occurred to ANY of you that the reason there arent as many women is because so few women start down this career track in the first place greatly reducing the pool of applicants??? DUH.

    • Xyzzy

      He didn’t say that they aren’t hiring the best person for the job. What he said is that the company is using outreach to get a higher percentage of female applicants, that they’ve restructured the interview process for *all* applicants to be more respectful & friendly rather than confrontational, and that they’re not taking advantage of applicants that lowball their salary (that tendency is what causes much of the gender wage gap).

      Has it occurred to you that the way women are treated & regarded within the tech community and what’s expected of them as kids have a huge impact on whether they decide to pursue their interest in computers/programming beyond the hobby level?

      To be less snide, the situation is the result of old stereotypes that hurt *both* sexes from an early age… Just as a starting point:

      – Girls are assumed to want toys focused on caring for a baby/family or looking attractive, and that a lack of interest is due to not being mature enough (or being gay). The result is that adults continue giving them the same sort of stuff or a different feminine toy. In most cases, if they do get the toys they want, it’s a pink-shaded subset that often still has the caregiver/primping theme. Meanwhile, they see the toys they’d wanted given to boys their age.

      – Boys are automatically supposed to love sports, cars, technology, etc. and likewise, an interest in things aimed at the opposite sex is regarded as immaturity or a sign they’re gay. As with the girls, most given “gender-appropriate” toys regardless of what they ask for, and have to watch as kids of the opposite sex get what they wanted.

      That sends a powerful message which then reinforced by the comments/reactions of other kids. Many (most?) learn to play with “appropriate” toys in order to fit in and, since their initial interest never gets the chance to progress beyond what was appropriate/appealing at that early age, it fades and becomes forgotten.

      There’s an excellent book that explains it in a much more interesting way by a veteran programmer called “Gender Inclusive Game Design” by Sheri Graner Ray. (You can often get it for free through Bookmooch, as a hint.) It basically follows various facets of the computer/video game industry’s history — characters they created, what went on behind-the-scenes, advertising style, game structure, etc. — and makes you look at each element in a slightly different light from the way you usually would, provoking a “whoa, I never thought of it *that* way” reaction every few pages.

      The attitude of a lot of geek guys *is* also a massive factor. I mean, consider this: women within the community consistently post that sexism is what drives females away from pursuing computer-related careers or hobbies and that they’ve personally experienced it, and instead of reacting by trying to identify & improve things, most of the guys demonstrate the sexism by insisting we’re naturally not interested or capable.

      Look at it from a female undergrad’s perspective… She loves CS, but many of the guys/profs openly look down on the girls, and some creep her out by fawning over & staring at her. She stops at the computer lab to see if the senior tutor on-duty might clarify part of the homework, but he’s perpetually too busy for any lowerclassmen that aren’t bold enough to demand his attention, so she leaves. Back at the dorm, she reads an article about “girl geeks” at a popular tech site and finds hundreds of comments saying women are less capable, gold-digging, etc. Her roommates & their male/female friends from other departments pop in to ask if she wants to grab dinner just as she starts browsing geek wallpaper, notice the sex kittens dominating the site and flip out. Their disgusted comments startle her into noticing that the guys/girls treat one another similarly regardless of their gender, then it dawns on her that most of the folks in her non-CS classes are like that — and she starts to wonder if she really wants to spend the next 3+ years (or her life) dealing with the CS guys…

      (That’s based on many comments that past friends & acquaintances have made out of frustration the past decade or so. You might see why most of them switched majors and thus their career paths even if they were more than intelligent enough to have earned high grades.)

  • Cop Car

    The place to start encouraging women’s interest in Science/Technology/Engineering/Math is at birth. It is crazy to dress boy babies in blue and girl babies in pink. No wonder the row is so hard to hoe!

  • Rev Trader

    I was intrigued by what he said about the less confrontational style of interviews. When I’m looking for a gig, I will decline any offer that mentions “superstars” or worse “rock stars”. It looks juvenile. And yeah, if the interviewer is too confrontational then I often decline because, again, it feels like a locker-room filled with braggarts rather than a professional workplace. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but these are also stereotypical behaviours of young jerkish men so I can see how it would drive away women and also more mature men.

  • Roxanne Skelly

    He forgot a do.
    Do train your interviewers. Make them aware that people who are not exactly like them may be quite valuable.

    The fallacy: It’s only natural to assume someone like oneself is the best candidate. To think otherwise would call ones own value into question.

    Think carefully about what characteristics make for a good engineer, and why they do.

    • iJimJones

      Excellent point. The dirty little secret of recruiting (that recruiters themselves are often unaware of) is that recruiters are drawn to people who are like them or someone they feel they connect to– laugh at their jokes, feel comfortable with, imagine playing on the same company sports team, or having over to their house. If a recruiter tells you that you didn’t get the job and gives you a reason, it is unlikely to be the full reason. For instance, if told you lacked X and you go out to get X and return, you are likely to here that you lacked Y the next time. Diversity requires enlightened recruiters who can see and then promote (in their oral or written evaluations) the strengths they see in most anyone… so that the next person will see with new eyes too.

  • Tom Graham

    Is this saying that a man who has worked harder, learned more, and is a more competent programmer should step aside so that a woman can be hired instead in the name of “diversity”? That seems unjust– the ideal should be a pure meritocracy, with equal opportunities for all, not a status-based spoils system.

    • John Cowan

      “Pure meritocracy” winds up meaning “white/Asian male like me.” It’s just amazing how many more female musicians got hired by symphony orchestras when they started having everyone audition behind an opaque screen.

      What’s more, at least there are reasonably objective performance standards for classical musicians. There are *none* for programmers. Nobody has the slightest idea who will turn out to be competent, or we wouldn’t be hiring and firing so many obvious incompetents. Google for “FizzBuzz”.

      • Remy Marathe

        Your argument assumes that a smaller percentage of female job applicants are successful.

        I help out with interviewing a few dozen programmers a year. My experience is that there are simply far fewer female applicants.

        And if anything, a larger percentage of them are offered jobs than are their male peers.

  • Angie Chang

    Hackbright Academy is changing the ratio of women in engineering. Graduating classes are 100% women engineers quarterly!

  • Frank Cathey Jr.

    How about starting programs that encourage high school female students (or all minorities) to consider engineering? I have been trying to get help from businesses in my area and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) to help me do this at my school, but I rarely get responses. Nissan is offering a Summer Engineering Program for high school students, and two of my students were selected to attend. If more businesses would offer this type program, and maybe scholarships to women and minorities to study engineering, it would help.