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


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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  • http://technicalluddite.com/ Hannele Kormano

    I will never understand how companies think it’s necessary to *only* hire people that are already currently hired.

    That said, the hacker camp is a a pretty great workaround.

  • Anonymous

    It’s stupid, but a lot of places take “currently employed” as shorthand for “good at their jobs,” especially in this economy. Whereas an unemployed potential hire may be good, too often the hiring decisionmakers give them the classification of “not proven to be worth the paycheck.”

    There’s that risk factor mentioned in the post regarding less experience: turnover is expensive, bringing an employee with less experience up to speed is expensive, working at reduced capacity while they’re bringing somebody up to speed is expensive, and hiring someone and paying them a paycheck while seeing how well they work out only to not end up with the quality and expert employee they were hoping for, is really expensive. Multiply by however many new hires they may need at a given time.

    The result is that a lot of companies will “play it safe” and restrict their consideration pool to those applicants whom they know at least one other company is already invested in. It sucks, but it’s one of those things that they’ve decided they should get away with. Nobody’s willing to put the investment into training new people or offering experience to people (unless it’s internships that they don’t have to pay much for), and because nobody’s doing it, it’s harder for any one company to justify taking on an expense or risk that none of their competitors are bothering with.

    Basically, it sucks, but it’s a shortcut that they perceive as saving them money, which sometimes actually saves them money, so it’s a pain in the ass but not likely to go anywhere without somebody producing an awesome solution like this.

    I really love what Etsy’s doing here—they’re providing that experience at a reasonably cheap investment on their end, they’re presenting it as a workshop rather than an internship, thus avoiding the effect of making people do X weeks of work for free or for expenses (or other lowered compensation); they’re providing their potential hires with real, not empty, reassurance about the friendliness of the workplace, and they’re doing it all to successfully recruit female engineers.

  • Anonymous

    I am sure all those women working in the factories of the resellers etsy turns a blind eye to are happy to hear this.

  • http://twitter.com/kellan kellan

    Glad you liked the talk, two points which I think you inverted.

    > First, they found that saying that they were interested in increasing the diversity of their staff was absolutely a selling point to potential employees

    Actually we found just saying it was kind of useless. We found that doing something that *proved* it was exciting to everybody.

    > 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,

    This is very much not what we found. What we found was that the female candidates we talked to had as much experience as their male counterparts and were generally awesome, but we couldn’t convince them to come work for us. So we had to get creative about where we found candidates who would come work for us.

  • http://twitter.com/KatherynChristy Kate Christy

    “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. ”

    Gee, I wonder why women have less industry experience? Maybe because A) they experience more hiring discrimination than men and B) not getting hired for having less experience tends to be a vicious cycle.

  • http://twitter.com/Do_Go_On Do_Go_On

    In increasing diversity, I’d ask how many women are in technology management? It always seems to be the only acceptable thing for a company to increase women…at the bottom level. Distribution throughout the tech org chart is the big thing.

    I don’t buy that they could not find one woman leader in development, architecture, one manager or director in technology to add as well – just entry level. Ya gotta wonder why they could not talk one to work for the company and why it seems like they quickly blew off that idea.

    “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…”

    How many of us women in technology are tired of hearing the “feminine” qualities we bring, but yet…our careers stagnate after we pass our twenties? Women are great regardless, and here he characterizes them like nest makers?

    And ya know, the blacks bring their good music….

    Seriously, a company interested in equality should have their leadership saying the womenz are so good at the soft skills, you know how women are better at listening and ….looking at maps…and saying thank you…and rememberin’ birthdays and such…

    Seriously?

    Look to balance the gender in your teams, sure, but don’t do it to make it your version of what womenz are like. You will find that there are women just as aggressive, just as tech-focused and perhaps not any better group learners (they were probably self-taught to get in tech!) than the dudes on the team.

    Women: they are just good, regular people.