Why should I care about having more women software engineers?

This is probably the question I get asked the most.  It’s usually not this blatant, but it’s often the motivation behind someone asking me, “Why are you starting a women’s group”?  If you haven’t been the only minority on an engineering team or user group, you may not understand the feeling.  Now I’m at a point in my career where I have grown some thicker skin, but at first, walking into a user group or a new office as the only woman was extremely intimidating.  It usually went one of two ways: I’d be asked if I was a recruiter (side note about how terrible the whole tech recruiting process is in the next post) or I’d be instantly tested to make sure that I was a “real” developer.  If I wasn't in the mood to deal with those kinds of questions and ignorance, I'd get frustrated and leave.  If I had gone into NYC for a meeting and left, I'd spend the whole train ride back to New Jersey sulking.

I Almost Wasn’t a Software Engineer

When I finally finished my college coursework in December 2011, I started the job search, but my options were limited.  Many recruiters called me for technical support positions that all promised the ‘opportunity to move into a development role’ -- after a few years of course.  I interviewed for a few of them and I was incredibly tempted.

I was extremely lucky that during one of the interviews, one of the VPs of the company pulled me aside.  I don’t remember his name, but I will always remember our conversation and how it changed the rest of my life.  He very politely asked me why I was looking at this support position.  I responded that that was what the recruiters told me I was qualified for and that I would switch to development once I had more experience with the company.  He very honestly replied that if I really wanted to do support or quality assurance (QA), the job was mine, but if I wanted to program, I should find a developer role.  He stressed that so many people take an initial role in support or QA with the intention of moving into development but never do.  I’ve now seen that to be very true.  It’s very difficult to switch tracks once you’ve started and if you aren't in a job that makes you happy, you're much more likely to give up and leave.  Even though his company didn’t have any openings for junior developers (most companies including that one only hire after graduation in the spring), he encouraged me to keep looking elsewhere.

I’m really glad that I took his advice.  It wasn’t easy though.  The first developer job I got was as a contractor.  The contracting company convinced me to take an hourly rate that was nearly 20% less money than the support/QA positions I was looking at and had no benefits.  And that was after negotiating.  Very few companies were willing to take a risk on a new graduate and I took what I could get.

I am so grateful that my first contract had women in leadership positions.  My tech director was a woman; the CTO was a woman, and even the CEO of the parent company was a woman. It’s amazing the effect that having these amazing women as role models helped at such a crucial point in my life.  At times when I wanted to give up, I looked at my role models in the company and saw what I could be -- if I just gave it time.  I also saw the hardships that they faced.  I saw the men who talked over them and ignored their ideas openly during company-wide meetings.  It made me angry; somehow though they always remained calm.  I gained an incredible amount of respect for these women and the issues they had been fighting long before I came around.

Now, I am now earning much more; I have amazing benefits and much better job satisfaction.  However, I'm at a critical point where many women leave the industry.  I have had a lot of terrible things happen in my life -- some directly related to my job and the tech industry.  There are days that make me want to quit, but if you haven't met me, I'm very determined and very stubborn.  I'll stay in it as long as I can handle it.  One of the most helpful things for me has been to stay actively involved in the community and around other women with whom I can commiserate and lean on for support.  I often wonder how many more women would be software engineers if they had the same opportunities and didn't have to fight so hard for it.  We'd be a heck of a lot closer to gender parity and closing the skills gap.

Ok so you’re probably thinking; that’s just my personal story.  But it’s not just about making your developers feel better and providing positive role models, there are some serious business impacts and research to back up having a gender diverse engineering team.

Business Implications of Diversity in General

Across various industries and countries around the world, businesses with gender ratios closer to parity earn greater revenue and rank higher across various performance indicators1,2,3.  Performance increased even further when the minority group was represented in upper management3. It’s also important to note that not all of these studies are about women as a minority.  In some companies in the Gallop study women were a majority (like at some large retail stores) and by bringing more men into the company, the businesses increased performance1.  The combination of different perspectives is what is crucial to the overall success of the group.
The Gallop study includes some interesting theories as to why gender diversity increases performance:
  • Men and women have different viewpoints, ideas, and market insights, which enables better problem solving, ultimately leading to superior performance at the business unit level.
  • A gender-diverse workforce provides easier access to resources, such as various sources of credit, multiple sources of information, and wider industry knowledge.
  • A gender-diverse workforce allows the company to serve an increasingly diverse customer base.
  • Gender diversity helps companies attract and retain talented women. This is especially relevant as more women join the labor force around the world. Companies cannot afford to ignore 50% of the potential workforce and expect to be competitive in the global economy.
The last bullet point touches on a valuable concept.  Increasing the number of women in the workplace is an easy way to reduce talent shortages2.  Especially within technology, there are employers everywhere looking for skilled developers.  By increasing the number of women in the pipeline, there will be a smaller gap in skills.  However, it’s also important to change the field so that women can succeed and remain in skilled jobs.

On Tech Teams

Overall gender diversity is great but do the same principles apply to tech teams specifically? As a direct benefit, “A study of 272 projects at four companies found that gender diversity on technical work teams was associated with superior adherence to project schedules, lower project costs, higher employee performance ratings, and higher employee pay bonuses.”3  On the other side, when women are forced out of the tech industry, there are high costs (est. $150k - $200k) associated with losing valuable employees mid-career3.  Last year, the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) published a great summary of research studies showing technology specific benefits of gender diversity.  I’ve listed it as #3 of my resources. I encourage you to read it and the original sources if you are looking for specific numbers and examples.

How do we fix this?

My goal with each of these articles isn’t to whine about the way things are, but to suggest and discuss ways to improve the situation.  I have found that many of the people reading this blog and listening to me speak are already supporters.  They understand that there is a problem, and telling stories that continue to make them feel bad isn’t my goal.  They sympathize.  They hire women and act appropriately in a professional context. They actively invite me and other women to speak at conferences and help pay our travel to get there.  Yeah, they may say “you guys” every now and then, but so do I! I don’t mean to alienate the individuals who are actively helping to reach our goal of gender parity, so I need your help.  Before we continue on, please reach out, comment, or tweet at me how we can reach the individuals who don’t understand the reason why we care about gender diversity and the plight of minorities in the tech industry?

Next Steps

Next up is #3 Isn’t promoting women through these organizations, preferential hiring, and funding opportunities depriving males of the same opportunities?