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How Etsy Increased Its Number of Female Engineers by a Multiple of Four in One Year

the internet is serious business

You’ll often hear from officials in male-dominated industries like the sciences (not to mention the entertainment industry) that they’d really like to hire more women, and in fact are actively trying to do so, but find the process very difficult. Everybody (okay, most people) wants to solve the problem, but nobody, least of all female candidates, wants to feel like they’ve gotten a job based on something other than their level of expertise. Etsy, a company whose user base is 80% female, has found a way to tackle the hurdles between them and greater gender parity on their engineering team (although they still only have 20 women on a team of 110), as CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea explained at a recent conference.

Elliott-McCrea laid out a few of the problems his team had observed in specifics: First, they found that saying that they were interested in increasing the diversity of their staff was absolutely a selling point to potential employees: “The engineers who are excited about the fact that we are trying to recruit women and that we have it as a value, men or women, are the people who we actually want to be hiring… people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication. They particularly are the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads.” However, unless they, as a company, had something concrete to show for this desire to increase diversity, folks understandably perceived them to be all talk and no walk on the subject.

Additionally, they often found that many of the female candidates they looked at, while qualified in every other respect, fell behind their male counterparts in actual industry experience, making them a just slightly more risky hire than men, a slight risk that can mean a lot during the hiring process. And frequently when they approached currently employed, qualified women with their own job offers, they found that women in the tech industry are far more conservative about changing workplaces than men. Elliott-McCrea said he noticed a definite trend of female engineers unwilling to leave their current job, where they had found a workplace that was not hostile to their gender, for a new workplace that, since it didn’t have much in the way of concrete proof of gender acceptance, might be much more uncomfortable for them.

How did Etsy manage to kill all of these problems with one stone, and without lowering any of their standards? By giving out ten scholarships to a hacking workshop in New York City, in their offices (that is, paying living expenses: the summer-long workshop was free to all qualified applicants who could make it to NYC for the duration). Their scholarships made the workshop, Hacker School, big internet news, publicizing its existence in a way that hadn’t been as easy before; greatly increasing the number of applicants from previous “semesters” and allowing them to balance the gender of the group. Being able to show that they were bankrolling ten of the twenty three women who wound up attending gave them a concrete action to point to when applicants asked for proof of their dedication to diversity. At the end of the summer, they had a bumper crop of female engineers who they’d been working with for months, which not only gave them sources of first hand testimony on the level of acceptance in their workplace for female engineers nervous about swapping workplaces, it also created a pool of women whose lack of industry experience could be weighed against months of actual knowledge of their ability to fit into the Etsy team.

And, according to Elliott-McCrea, even though they shelled out for ten $5k scholarships, with the other expenses they avoided, he considers them to have broken even. If you’ve got twenty minutes or so to spare, you can find his entire talk on the process at Forbes.

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