Everybody’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.