The Maddeningly Simple Way Tech Companies Can Employ More Women

We recently set up an interview at a major company for a senior African-American woman software engineer. After meeting with the hiring panel, she withdrew her application, telling us she felt demeaned by the all-white male group that failed to ask her any questions about her coding skills. She described how one of the men had made it clear to her that she wasn’t a cultural fit and that therefore they didn’t need to proceed with technical questions.

.. executives don’t give as much thought to are some of the simplest determinants of how successful a company will be in hiring diverse candidates.

  • Will women have any input in the hiring process?
  • Will the interview panels be diverse?
  • Will current female employees be available to speak to candidates about their experiences?

Many times, the answer to each of these questions is no, and the resistance to make simple changes in these areas is striking.

.. I often see companies work to make themselves appealing to candidates by emphasizing perks like Ping-Pong tables, retreats and policies that let employees bring their dogs to work. Those things can be appealing to candidates of any gender. But one size doesn’t fit all:

We have to tell these companies to talk just as proudly about

  • their parental-leave policies,
  • child-care programs and
  • breast-pumping rooms.

At the very least, they need to communicate that their workplaces have cultures where women are valued

.. I remind them that when it comes to gender, they have to play catch-up, after long histories of eroding trust by grilling women about how they’ll be able to do the job with children at home

.. Silicon Valley companies are in love with themselves and don’t understand why the love isn’t always returned by the few women to whom they extend employment offers.

.. they’re so proud of so-called boomerangs — candidates who have left a company for reasons that may or may not be related to how it treats women and, after advancing their careers elsewhere, return.

.. Last year, we worked with a company that set a goal that women would make up 50 percent of the engineers on one of its teams. They did it by holding a webinar led by female employees, with 100 female candidates who asked questions about how the organization was changing to become more inclusive to women.

Jeff Atwood: We Hire the Best, Just Like Everyone Else

Most startups, statistically speaking, are going to fail.

And they will fail regardless of whether they hired “the best” due to circumstances largely beyond their control. So in that context does maximizing for the best possible hires really make sense?

Given the risks, I think maybe “hire the nuttiest risk junkie adrenaline addicted has-ideas-so-crazy-they-will-never-work people you can find” might actually be more practical startup advice.

.. If your hiring attitude is that it’s better to be possibly wrong a hundred times so you can be absolutely right one time, you’re going to be primed to throw away a lot of candidates on pretty thin evidence.

.. Perhaps worst of all, if the interview process is predicated on zero doubt, total confidence … maybe this candidate doesn’t feel right because they don’t look like you, dress like you, think like you, speak like you, or come from a similar background as you? Are you accidentally maximizing for hidden bias?

.. One of the best programmers I ever worked with was Susan Warren, an ex-Microsoft engineer who taught me about the People Like Us problem, way back in 2004:

I think there is a real issue around diversity in technology (and most other places in life). I tend to think of it as the PLU problem. Folk (including MVPs) tend to connect best with folks most like them (“People Like Us”). In this case, male MVPs pick other men to become MVPs. It’s just human nature.


  • .. Using screens to hide the identity of auditioning musicians increased women’s probability of advancing from preliminary orchestra auditions by fifty percent.
  • Denver police officers and community members were shown rapidly displayed photos of black and white men, some holding guns, some holding harmless objects like wallets, and asked to press either the “Shoot” or “Don’t Shoot” button as fast as they could for each image. Both the police and community members were three times more likely to shoot black men.

.. It’s not intentional, it’s never intentional. That’s the problem. I think our industry needs to shed this old idea that it’s OK, even encouraged to turn away technical candidates for anything less than absolute 100% confidence at every step of the interview process. Because when you do, you are accidentally optimizing for implicit bias. Even as a white guy who probably fulfills every stereotype you can think of about programmers, and who is in fact wearing an “I Rock at Basic” t-shirt while writing this very blog post*, that’s what has always bothered me about it, more than the strictness. If you care at all about diversity in programming and tech, on any level, this hiring approach is not doing anyone any favors, and hasn’t been. For years.

.. I would argue, quite strongly and at some length, that if you want better diversity in the field, perhaps a good starting point is not demanding that all your employees live within a tiny 30 mile radius of San Francisco or Palo Alto. There’s a whole wide world of Internet out there, full of amazing programmers at every level of talent and ability. Maybe broaden your horizons a little, even stretch said horizons outside the United States, if you can imagine such a thing.

.. The most significant shift we’ve made is requiring every final candidate to work with us for three to eight weeks on a contract basis. Candidates do real tasks alongside the people they would actually be working with if they had the job. They can work at night or on weekends, so they don’t have to leave their current jobs; most spend 10 to 20 hours a week working with Automattic, although that’s flexible. (Some people take a week’s vacation in order to focus on the tryout, which is another viable option.) The goal is not to have them finish a product or do a set amount of work; it’s to allow us to quickly and efficiently assess whether this would be a mutually beneficial relationship

Another Manufactured Diversity Spat

When Streisand talked about diversity, she meant a diversity of attributes — sex, ethnicity, skin color, etc. — but not viewpoints. It’s like when Bill Clinton insisted he wanted a Cabinet that “looks like America” but whose members all thought the same way.

.. In it, he extolled diversity and praised many of the company’s efforts to hire more women. But he argued that many of these efforts were counterproductive and at odds with other forms of diversity.

.. Whether for reasons of culture or biology (or both), women are more reluctant than men to pursue degrees in engineering and computer science. The data are on his side. More than 80 percent of computer-science and engineering majors are male, while women receive about 60 percent of biology degrees and 75 percent of psychology degrees.

.. It’s absolutely true that women were once blocked from many careers. But since those barriers were lifted, women have flooded into, or even have come to dominate, all manner of fields. Is it really plausible that sexism is the primary, never mind sole, explanation for female under-representation in computer science and engineering?

Sure, sexist bigots in medicine, law, journalism, the clergy (!), and almost every other field saw the light. But the He-Man Woman Haters Club that is engineering raised the drawbridge to prevent women from designing drawbridges?

Why I Was Fired by Google

James Damore says his good-faith effort to discuss differences between men and women in tech couldn’t be tolerated in company’s ‘ideological echo chamber’

How did Google, the company that hires the smartest people in the world, become so ideologically driven and intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument?

.. We all have moral preferences and beliefs about how the world is and should be. Having these views challenged can be painful, so we tend to avoid people with differing values and to associate with those who share our values. This self-segregation has become much more potent in recent decades. We are more mobile and can sort ourselves into different communities; we wait longer to find and choose just the right mate; and we spend much of our time in a digital world personalized to fit our views.

 .. Google is a particularly intense echo chamber because it is in the middle of Silicon Valley and is so life-encompassing as a place to work. With free food, internal meme boards and weekly companywide meetings, Google becomes a huge part of its employees’ lives. Some even live on campus. For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”
.. Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
.. But echo chambers also have to guard against dissent and opposition. Whether it’s in our homes, online or in our workplaces, a consensus is maintained by shaming people into conformity or excommunicating them if they persist in violating taboos. Public shaming serves not only to display the virtue of those doing the shaming but also warns others that the same punishment awaits them if they don’t conform.
..In my document, I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment. When I first circulated the document about a month ago to our diversity groups and individuals at Google, there was no outcry or charge of misogyny. I engaged in reasoned discussion with some of my peers on these issues, but mostly I was ignored.
.. Everything changed when the document went viral within the company and the wider tech world. Those most zealously committed to the diversity creed—that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and all people are inherently the same—could not let this public offense go unpunished. They sent angry emails to Google’s human-resources department and everyone up my management chain, demanding censorship, retaliation and atonement.
.. Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views.