Inclusivity Is Not A Double Standard: Why Forbes is Wrong about Women in Tech

Photo: HTTPS talk by Seth Schoen @hackerschool, by jolly_sonali (Flickr) Photo: HTTPS talk by Seth Schoen @hackerschool, by jolly_sonali (Flickr)

E verybody’s talking about Etsy’s success in recruiting women engineers – they’ve increased the number of women in their engineering department by 500% in one year – and that’s awesome to see. I wrote a post about them last summer, discussing the key lessons I thought other tech companies could learn from their approach, and it was gratifying to see many of my arguments echoed in Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea’s talk at First Round Capital’s Annual CTO Summit.

His talk is great, and jam-packed with important takeaways for companies looking to up their gender diversity of their technical teams. I won’t try to replicate all of his points here; I’ll just strongly encourage you to go check them out yourself. There’s tons of good stuff on why Etsy has prioritized gender diversity, and some good tips for anyone in charge of recruiting.

Much of his talk focuses on Etsy’s partnership with Hacker School, which has played a huge part in Etsy’s diversification strategy. In brief, Etsy provided scholarships for several women to attend Hacker School, and hosted the Summer 2012 Hacker School at Etsy’s offices in Brooklyn. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the scholarships (which cover living expenses for the duration of the program – Hacker School itself is free) are an important acknowledgment that many women have financial barriers to entry in the tech world; since we still earn less than men across the board, many of us can’t afford to take unpaid leave to improve our skills.

But as I also argued, using the Etsy location for Hacker School mattered, too. I suggested that because Etsy’s overall staff is 50% women, and because the company’s customer base is 80% women, that bringing Hacker School to Etsy brought it into women-friendly space. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was how hosting Hacker School gave Etsy’s senior engineers a huge recruiting advantage: They got to observe the Hacker School students at work, and could thereby see for themselves who the stars were, who was great to work with, and who had the skills they were looking for as an employer.

In my experience as an employer, no technical interview in the world beats the ability to observe coders working on projects. You learn far more by watching them work on real-world projects than you ever will watching them try to perform a test under pressure.

Not surprisingly, Etsy hired eight women graduates from the Hacker School program. And my guess is that their on-ramping process was smoother than it would have been for the average new recruit, because they’d been prequalified on all kinds of levels.

Meanwhile, over on Forbes, Meghan Casserly has labeled Etsy’s approach a double standard. Her take on Elliott-McCrae’s talk critiques Etsy’s recruiting strategy as though any change to the industry-standard, gladiator-style, last-man-standing interview process risks alienating male coders and leaving them jobless:

“Don’t lower standards,” Elliott-McCrea says, but isn’t exempting women from the same brutal challenge-based interviews their male colleagues undergo doing just that?

Later, she refers to ditching technical interviews – which Elliott-McCrea notes are widely criticized throughout the tech industry, because everyone knows they aren’t reliable tests of candidates’ skill – as “hiring like girls.” (It’s worth noting that he never says women are exempt from anything men have to go through; rather, he seems to suggest that Etsy has overhauled its recruiting strategy for everyone.)

Casserly’s critique extends to Etsy’s Hacker School scholarships as well:

But are cash-rewards or pinkifying the recruiting process the answer? While Etsy pats itself on the back I’ll be sitting here still scratching my head. Is reverse sexism in recruiting to reverse sexism in a company’s ranks a case of the ends justifying the means?

I admit, I’m scratching my head, too, because it’s not clear to me how Etsy’s approach constitutes any kind of discrimination towards men. Yes, the Hacker School scholarships were earmarked for women – but one assumes that if Etsy saw a kick-ass male candidate amidst the Hacker School grads, they’d be happy to pony up the $20,000 placement fee to recruit him. (And perhaps they have – but that wasn’t the subject of Elliott-McCrae’s talk.)

As for “pinkifying the recruiting process,” the only place that Etsy has changed their hiring standards (and it’s worth noting they goes out of their way to say that lowering standards was not an option) is that they are hiring junior engineers without significant industry experience, which they normally consider a risk factor. But in this case, Etsy sees it as a lower-risk option, because they have observed the candidates over the 12-week Hacker School term. But to be clear, all the candidates were committing code to open-source projects and were working on significant, serious coding challenges.

The deeper concern I have with Casserly’s argument in Forbes is that she seems convinced that the underlying problem could be solved if only women would learn to be more like men (none of this “hiring like girls” business!), rather than questioning the wide variety of factors contributing to totally out-of-whack gender ratios, which Etsy has committed to analyzing and problem-solving.

This, frankly, drives me up the wall for a whole host of reasons. I’m all for encouraging women being competitive, but we also need to acknowledge that the tech industry’s intensely competitive culture could be a contributing factor here. This Forbes piece assumes that the current norms should not be questioned; it assumes that men don’t want change as well; and it assumes that women are entirely responsible for solving the problem of  our low numbers in technical fields. Her argument seems to be: “The industry doesn’t need to change; you need to change” – which creates a false dichotomy. Might there not be solutions to be found on both sides?

Is relying on open, semi-public competition – the old technical interview model, i.e. “prove to me that you’re smart” – a reliable indicator of coding ability? And is it ungendered, just because it is the standard? I would argue that it is gendered, to the extent that an ability to assert oneself competitively is rewarded far more in boys than girls – and I would furthermore suggest that there are many, many men who find that type of competition deeply uncomfortable.

And to be clear, Casserly doesn’t point to any data that suggests that the old way of doing things works better; she just resorts to using feminized language like “pinkifying” to argue for everyone adopting one style of competing – public displays of prowess, or in other words, pissing contests – and dismissing other, more collaborative styles of assessing people’s skills as “girly” and therefore weaker and less reliable.

Here’s my view as someone who has done her fair share of hiring, and who is tired of the notion that men don’t benefit from diversity, too. By adopting the old standard recruiting model, you will attract both men and women who can work within its constraints – who are willing to prove themselves via tests and hurdles –- and you will exclude those who can’t, or prefer not to. (This reminds me of the way Canadian companies discovered that instituting a government-supported one-year maternity leave policy opened up conversations with male employees who finally felt comfortable saying that they wanted parental leave, too. Women aren’t the only people who benefit from “women-friendly” HR policies.) Importantly, Etsy’s Elliott-McCrea points out (at 5:18 in the video) that engineers who are excited about diversity as a goal, be they men or women, are “generally better at listening, better at group learning, better at collaboration, better at communication – they are the people you want to be your engineering managers & technical leads.”

So let’s stop the name-calling. Inclusivity is not “Reverse Sexism.” Experimenting with new approaches is not setting a double standard. Indeed, experimentation – particularly the kind that gives companies access to better talent – is what capitalism and competition rewards. You’d think Forbes would appreciate that.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of Casserly’s attack is that she serves up no data to support her assertions. I think Etsy’s whole approach has been admirable not because they have succeeded, but because they are trying & iterating based on results. They are basically running lab tests to see what works & what doesn’t. So I don’t have a lot of time for those whose arguments boil down to, “Oh, they tried this & it worked? They shouldn’t have even tried that.” I’m more interested in, “Huh, that worked? Why did it work? What does that say about how we did it before?”

What I love is that Etsy’s engineering team is tackling this like an engineering problem: Lack of diversity is a critical bug, so they are putting their best minds on the problem, and allocating serious resources to fixing it.

Perhaps we’d be better off asking how we can improve results further, instead of attacking Etsy for destroying the sacred temples of tech interviews – whose effectiveness is questionable at best.

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22 Responses to “Inclusivity Is Not A Double Standard: Why Forbes is Wrong about Women in Tech” Subscribe

  1. Martha 13 Feb 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    THANK YOU (says student in that batch of Hacker School and current employee of Etsy)

  2. Lianne 13 Feb 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Doing a little happy dance in my chair, Lauren. Such a treat to read a superbly executed analysis.

    What I love about your articles is that even though they are circumstantially about tech issues – they represent issues that show up in so many industries.

    As an educator, I am so OVER the false equivalency of a one shot test (or interview) = rigour. In fact, the opposite is true. the paradigm must change if we are to harness the gifts and potentials of humanity.

  3. rone 13 Feb 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Maybe the problem is with the “brutal challenge-based interviews” that we’ve been putting up with for decades which results are inconsistent and inconclusive, Meghan Casserly. Interviews aren’t a rite of passage from which we emerge into adulthood, nor are they supposed to be some sort of crucible. “pinkifying”… holy crap. Imagine if a dude had written that Forbes article.

  4. Chad Dickerson 13 Feb 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Lauren,

    You nailed it. Thank you.

    Chad
    (Etsy CEO)

  5. Vanessa leBourdais 13 Feb 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    The whole world of business needs to change in multiple ways – clearly the old models are all in need of revamping and questioning. Congrats to Etsy for doing just that in such a key area as hiring.

  6. Ricardo de Abreu 14 Feb 2013 at 4:13 am #

    Hey Lauren, you make me happy. =)
    I think that this is the future. Creating companies in male-dominated fields of study, tech companies, engineering companies etc. And then emphasize women recruiting instead of male recruiting. This is an effective way of diminishing the gender gap and making the market more humane, less aggressive.

  7. Dani 14 Feb 2013 at 10:58 am #

    “like “pinkifying” to argue for everyone adopting one style of competing – public displays of prowess, or in other words, pissing contests – and dismissing other, more collaborative styles of assessing people’s skills as “girly” and therefore weaker and less reliable.”

    THIS. EXACTLY. I have a very different work style form most men. Doesn’t make it wrong, or bad. Just different. And if you want your workforce to reflect your customer base, you need to recognize and adapt that not all of us are like Bill Gates (able to write firmware in the morning and negotiate with government heads in the afternoon) or that our drives, passions and assertiveness may be more subtly expressed.

    • Julia 16 Feb 2013 at 1:53 am #

      Did anyone actually think what’s better for customers, collaborative style or pissing contests?

  8. Katherine Gray 15 Feb 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Lauren, thank you for this. In conversations I’ve had with engineers who are actively trying to change the ratio in their own organizations, I’ve heard deeps sighs of relief that we may be able to change the way we hire. It’s not that the gladiator trials hire better engineers, it’s that they hire a certain kind of engineer. You need diversity of skills, temperaments, experience — as well as gender — to have a team that can scale and meet new challenges.
    Thanks to Etsy we have data that proves that a modern version of the apprentice model can work.

  9. Allison 15 Feb 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Thanks, Lauren!

    Etsy did indeed hire both men and women from Hacker School.

    • Lauren 15 Feb 2013 at 1:34 pm #

      Aha! That’s great to hear – and not surprising, as I’m sure there were lots of great candidates.

  10. cv harquail 15 Feb 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    Lauren, thanks for setting this out so clearly.

    I myself started a post several times, but got frustrated trying to address Casserly’s argument because it was not only wrong but uninformed.

    It appears that Casserly didn’t listen to Kellan’s actual presentation at in its entirety. If she had, she’d have realized that her assumptions and concerns had been anticipated and dealt with rather nicely in Kellan’s explanation and —even better– in the tactics Etsy employed.

    I was also concerned because Casserly’s reporting/opeds are usually better…. Maybe not incisive analysis, but usually drawn from the actual evidence available. It made me wonder what really went wrong for her as she approached this story. Her post tells us more about the expected criticism of a corporate effort towards inclusivity that it does about what Etsy / Kellan / Hackerschool / Marc actually did. The post was just plain bad reporting, topped with a polarizing headline.

    Thank goodness that the story got much more coverage that was correct and that reiterated the real learning. And thank goodness for this thorough treatment from you.

  11. Julia 16 Feb 2013 at 1:47 am #

    So, is networking and referrals (which result in men hiring more men like them) considered “lowering standards”? If not, then the competition where women are not given the same public attention to benefit from, is simply unfair.

  12. Randeep Dosanjh 6 Jul 2014 at 11:54 pm #

    The raw number of girls in my university class was very few. Oversea’s my niece is in a class of BTech undergrads where there are very few boys. Having been to India’s InfoSys Campus , it was apparent that many young women work in tech. Further to that, other than raw numbers being as issue, the truth remains that the girls in our class were top students as well. Anytime a group of people is disqualified from open competition, whether it’s race, religion or gender or anything else, it’s dead wrong but it’s also a refrains humans from exercising Human and Constitutional Freedoms it hits the aggressor of this action in propagating negative effects across linear, vertical and most and sub channels of business and later effects them personally..

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