Navigating what it means to be a woman, work in tech, and be a woman in tech.
Context: Attempts to improve diversity in teams have been met with strong criticism from many sections. There have been many posts on popular platforms (that I would not link here, I do not wish to amplify them) claiming women are stealing away jobs and internships that are rightfully theirs. I’ve come across countless memes and jokes with sexual innuendos on women getting hired. If you’re familiar with the placement scenario in India, you’d know how such messages blow up.
For an odd 21-year old girl, who has probably fought against many social norms and prejudice, worked hard for the opportunities she’s got, such characterisations can be confidence crushing.
In some ways, it was for me. The narrative of “undeserving” candidates “making it” is so common, that no one needed to say anything directly to me. I was ready to overlook my academic achievements, test scores and projects to convince myself I had it easy. I believed I did not deserve a seat at the table and should probably shut up and let the smarter people speak.
A friend of mine, whom I consider to be one of the smartest people I’ve met, put it bluntly: “I don’t believe I deserve any job at all!”
This narrative is common across cultures. It took me many honest conversations on hiring with people across seniority levels to be more confident. Here’s an attempt to break this down.
Why do we care?
Why are we taking steps to have a diverse team in the first place?
It’s business, bro.
Before I raise social and ethical arguments, let me highlight a simple business motive: It is a strategic decision to build a team where people think in different ways. We’ve seen examples of successful women-led businesses that were able to cater to women’s needs very effectively (Zivame, Nykaa). Diverse groups make better products. Diversity creates bonuses, it’s not just a nice thing to do
The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy: 2 (Our Compelling Interests…
Amazon.in - Buy The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy: 2 (Our Compelling Interests, 2)…
Products for all should be built by all.
I was 15, it was in the middle of the city, fairly early in the night. My Dad was to pick me up from a party. He asked me to cross the road and walk about a hundred metres to the car so that he could avoid taking a long U-turn. I kept him waiting for about 10 minutes, and he was pissed at me for not being on time. Little did he know that I went back mid-way only to ask a male friend to accompany me. He did not consider I could have felt unsafe in such a busy street.
This did not come from his lack of interest in my wellbeing. This came from a lack of shared experience.
Now extend this to products and services used by millions of men and women. If something is going to be used by all, how can a small segment of the population dictate how the rest should lead their lives? Software is biased. If my father could miss certain considerations for me, how can a white man who has limited shared experience with me, build good products for me?
Creating a safer space.
Through the last few years, I found myself being the only woman on the table many times. There were 3 girls in a batch of ~60 in my Physics classes. There were two girls in the astrophysics club I led in college. I am the only female engineer in a team of ten.
In a healthy atmosphere, for someone who has spent enough time getting comfortable around the opposite sex, it can be okay. I’ve been lucky to have an atmosphere, where my mentor is cognisant about his choice of words to make me feel included.
But it takes effort, from both sexes to create a healthy, comfortable atmosphere. Can you expect a girl who has not lived through the bad gender ratios in many engineering colleges to be comfortable? We need enough women in the team for everyone to feel comfortable and safe.
Towards a more egalitarian society.
It’s a step towards better representation and support for women. Representation is powerful. It allows minorities to feel validated and have faith. It helps girls get the support they need from their parents because now, parents can be convinced that their daughter’s education could be useful. That she too, can make it on her own. Female role models improve girls’ beliefs that they can be successful in STEM fields and increase their likelihood of choosing a STEM career.
Is Diversity Hiring the way to go?
okay.. we need women, but shouldn’t this change be brought at the grassroots level?
Yes. But that is hard. How would you bring about that change? A part of the cycle gets fixed when we have more female role models. We do need to have more women in schools, more women in universities, and enough support there. In many ways, the current set-up of diversity hiring has missing gaps. We need to reach out to younger girls and their families. Secondly, a lot of diversity hiring beneficiaries are women who already have access to resources and there is a need to reach out to wider demographics. The current efforts are simply the easiest efforts to take.
Are we lowering the bar for women?
We are making attempts to make it easier for the girls to get started in their careers in tech. But, we are not lowering our expectations from the women in tech at large.
I look at diversity as another scale on which you are scored by virtue of your experiences and women typically score higher.
Most women would have had to overcome far more social challenges to make it to giving the coding tests and have demonstrated some aspect of additional hard work or dedication. Their performance in tests is despite not having the community support that their male counterparts enjoy in their hostels by default. It’s about looking at how they’d used whatever opportunities life had afforded them rather than measuring them simply by how far they’d made it up an elitist ladder.
“The point wasn’t to lower the firm’s high standards: It was to realize that by sticking with the most rigid and old-school way of evaluating a new lawyer’s potential, we were overlooking all sorts of people who could contribute to the firm’s success. We needed to interview more students, in other words, before writing them off.” — Michelle Obama, in Becoming, on diversity hiring
Developer hiring is broken
Competitive coding tests are a poor indicator of your ability as a software engineer. So while more minorities might have been given interview opportunities, despite scoring lower on the coding tests — it does not mean they are underqualified for the job.
It’s a rigged system in the first place!
A vast majority of hiring is through referrals. Harvard Business Review published a great article: A Lack of Sponsorship is Keeping Women From Advancing into Leadership.
“This disparity in access to critical roles may be compounded, or perhaps caused, by differences in women’s and men’s relationships with executives who can provide access to those jobs. Here human nature creates an uneven playing field: People’s tendency to gravitate to those who are like them on salient dimensions such as gender increases the likelihood that powerful men will sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise.” — Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior, London Business School
There’s an implicit bias in promotions. Women are socially conditioned to be amicable. Women are underpaid and under-confident.
The Real Reason Women Aren’t Getting Ahead in Tech: “She’s Not Strategic”
Before I explain “She’s not strategic,” I’d like to give you a bit of background. I’m 38 years old and a two-time CMO…
So, let me get this straight, your chief complaint is: In a rigged system, where people have had different starting points, and in a selection procedure that is inherently flawed and biased, we are giving some nudge to a disadvantaged segment to start their career?
I think there are some issues worth explicitly acknowledging in the current campus hiring that has caused substantial misdirected outrage online.
A girl getting hired might be lesser skilled than a guy who has been turned down. But, she is qualified to do the job she has been hired for. In the placement stress, initial resentment is understandable, but it is crucial to look at the bigger picture and the long run.
This is a double-edged sword: it also affects how women are perceived in general — people with lesser skills, irrespective of how “skilled” they are. There is a lower expectation set for the woman to perform at, which could affect their growth in the long run.
We need to do better
The industry has typically taken the easiest route to score the most points.
Better hiring procedures
The myth of the developer that can’t code
At the time of writing, my last blog post on the subject of hiring has over 150K views and generated a lot of great…
Having a different bar on the same metric can build resentment amongst young impressionable minds. We need to do better to sensitise students in universities. We need more inclusive processes that promote not just diversity of sex, but also diversity in terms of ways of thinking, background, etc to make it in. We need better metrics.
We’ve reduced “Diversity” to sex or skin colour — there’s a lot more nuance to it, and we need to get broader.
There has been increased awareness, but have there been real efforts by companies to improve diversity and tackle core issues, or are efforts limited to entry-level positions for the inclusion points and good PR? Top companies (Google, Tinder, Apple, Pinterest, Microsoft, etc, etc) making it to the news for sexual harassment, and/or not treating their women well, make me a sceptic.
A part of me is also worried some steps we might be taking towards diversity might be hampering the overall cause because of a growing sentiment among both men and women that women have it easy or they are not smart enough.
To all my friends going through self-doubt, and are hurt by the messages your own batchmates are sharing, look back on your journey: notice how far you’ve come, implicit biases you’ve overcome. Recognise the help you’ve had, that so many girls just don’t have access to.
To the girls who are going through the same phase, I went through last year, I only want to say: In a world where everyone might be telling you, “You got this because you are a girl”, remind yourself, “you’ve got this, you’re a girl”. You are capable of so much more. The world needs to hear your point of view. Speak up more often. Work hard. Find your tribe of women. Realise what you’re bringing to the table. You deserve a seat at the table. Own it.
The hiring practices and procedures may be flawed, but the outrage is often misdirected. This is a wonderful article, on being an ally, recognising the flaws, and owning up to your career successes. (Speak Up)
I am working on both being confident and being better at the craft, and for sure, have a long way to go. I recognise I’ve been privileged all along my journey. But those don’t cancel my other experiences, and only give me a unique position and responsibility to help those who haven’t been as lucky.
Here’s a wonderfully written article by Shreya Shankar that I came across a little after I’d written this one:
“You got this because you’re a girl.”
It’s the dreaded time of the year again — when I go back to school, and some guy I really respect casually mentions how…
I might not have written mine If I had read it early enough. Although I do think there is a need to repeat some of the things I’ve written about.
Definitely, the title is something we’ve all heard in some form or the other.