At a recent First Round Capital summit Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea surveyed the room: “Raise your hands if there is not a single woman in your company’s engineering team.” The lecture hall shifted uncomfortably and nearly half its hands went up.
Elliott-McCrea smiled. At Etsy, where women account for 80% of its customers, after a two-year-long initiative focused on gender diversity, he had successfully changed the ratio. At the time of the presentation, Etsy had far surpassed industry norms, boasting 20 female engineers on a 110 person team, and was celebrating growth of more than 500%.
How? By revamping recruiting tactics to attract and develop female technical talent. In essence, by hiring like girls.
“Three years ago we decided to rebuild engineering at Etsy from scratch,” Elliott-McCrea says. While there were concerns about the talent pool overall—“we wanted to be kickass and flexible”—gender diversity was a particular focus. At a company so female-focused in its consumer-facing product he describes disappointment at the state of the Etsy office. Low-paid admin girls on one side, well-paid tech guys on another. The engineering staff was a blight at just 4% women.
Elliott-McCrea insists it wasn’t for lack of trying. “We don’t think hiring women engineers [means they are] chromosomally more connected to the product,” he says, but given their user base Etsy foresaw a valuable shared experience between site developers and users. Still, something wasn’t working. “We’d interviewed people, sent out offers and beat the pavement to find female engineers.” No luck.
As CTO Elliott-McCrea identifies as a numbers and results-driven kind of guy, so he says it wasn’t long before a pattern began to emerge. The following is lifted from the First Round Ventures presentation:
Simply saying that you value diversity internally isn’t enough – there’s just no reason for an outside observer to believe you if they come and see a scarcity of women in the organization.
Women tend to be more conservative about switching jobs, especially if they’ve had a negative experience in the past with an employer. You need to show why your company is a great place to work and a great place in particular for a woman to work.
Lowering standards is counter-productive – the idea that “it’s hard to hire women engineers therefore we won’t hold them to such a high standard” is noxious. It reinforces the impression that women aren’t good at engineering which is obviously a downwards spiral.
Most technical interviews suck – fundamentally interviewers ask the question, “Quick, prove to me how smart you are!” “Smart” is not optional. “Quick” and “prove to me” are very rarely actually part of the job and you’re interviewing for the wrong thing – which generally sets up women for failure in the process.
In other words, hiring women engineers is hard. Especially if you hire them like men. “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? While I applaud Etsy for its single-minded dedication to increasing gender diversity in its ranks, instead of feeling uplifted by Elliott-McCrea’s presentation I find myself stuck on the question: Is hiring women as women just PC pandering?
In the end, Etsy bolstered its female ranks by offering $5,000 grants to NYC-based education program Hacker School, a move that raised its own “is this sexist?” alarm on the web. A commenter in a Hacker News thread last Spring made the point clearer than most: “I do know that belittling people and playing ‘white man’s burden’ on them makes them feel disadvantaged and marginalized,” he wrote about the female-focused initiative. “I see that behavior coming through here; good intentions, bad secondary consequences.”
Nevertheless, after two years, female engineers at Etsy are nearly 20% of the team, four and a half times what they numbered at the start of the initiative. When reached for comment, Etsy’s corporate communications would not comment on the current number of female engineering staffers, but told FORBES that the coming months would see the company making women a even bigger priority, particularly in the wake of the media coverage sparked by Elliott-McCrae’s presentation. After all, roughly 80% of the over 800,000 shops on the site are owned and operated by women. At a certain point, they should be represented from within the company’s ranks.
Etsy’s commitment to equality should be slow-clapped. Even while we question whether it somehow undermines female engineers as it boosts them up its ranks, the fact remains that they’re succeeding where others have not. Clearly the crafters aren’t the only company struggling with the XX predicament.
In a recent contributor post titled “The Real Reason There Aren’t More Women In Tech,” Martha Heller, author of The CIO Paradox and principal in her own recruitment firm says there continues to be a major chasm between companies actively seeking female talent and women who say they continue to be without work.
“I’m going to say 80% of the searches that we do whether they’re at the CIO level or at the VP or director level, will say to us, ‘If you could get us a woman that’d be really great,’” she said. “But the women I talk to are asking but not getting those opportunities internally. So somewhere there’s a serious disconnect – where on one hand you’ve got women saying we’re not being considered and on the other, companies saying we want women.”
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? Read more…
© Forbes/Meghan Casserly