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Solving Sexism

3 tech trailblazers who narrowed the gender gap

Since former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote about harassment and abuse at Uber, the industry is suddenly at attention. It’s easy to feel discouraged: after all, these discussions span years. Susan Fowler’s story re-ignited the conversation with renewed fervor. But with so many casualties to the industry’s toxic sexism, racism, and other biases, is there any end in sight?

While it’s true that much of the industry still looks bleak through the lens of diversity and inclusion, there is some light in the darkness: here are three case studies providing both insight and hope for the future of diversity in tech.

GoDaddy: reborn from the ashes of… a sexist cesspit

GoDaddy Isn't the Company You Think It Is

A few years ago, putting GoDaddy on a list of positive diversity models in tech would have been unheard of — even laughable: the company was infamous for immensely sexist Super Bowl advertisements and a bro-ey company culture. The situation was so bad that in 2013, Etsy pulled out of a GoDaddy deal due to complaints from female users.

But between then and now, GoDaddy has made immense strides. And, unlike many tech companies, they’re not just talking the talk. Change began in 2013 when former Microsoft executive Blake Irving was hired as the new CEO. A self-proclaimed feminist, Irving resolved to separate GoDaddy from its sexist past. He started by hiring CTO Elissa Murphy — a distinguishing move in itself since, according to Wired, fewer than 7% of Fortune 500 companies have women CTOs.

“Can I be a feminist? Why not? […] I’m for equality, I’m for women’s rights, and that’s my job.” — Blake Irving, GoDaddy CEO

The next step was ditching the sexist ads. These were replaced by a campaign targeting women and small-business owners — oh, and a 2017 Super Bowl spot featuring a shout-out to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

But internal change was necessary, too. Irving focused on getting women into leadership roles and hiring women engineers. GoDaddy began offering internships not just for new grads, but mid-career professionals. Such “return to work” programs have been hailed as highly successful at helping getting parents — particularly women — back into the workforce after parental leave.

By May 2015, 40% of GoDaddy’s new college hires, 40% of its interns, 33% of its leadership team, and 18% of its overall engineering and technology roles were filled by women. Those are big changes — in the previous year, just 14% of their interns were female. And, although an 18% female tech workforce might not seem brag-worthy, at the time it was even slightly more than Google and Facebook — and a far cry from the GoDaddy of yesteryear.

But not only did GoDaddy pull itself out of a sexist cesspit — it also began making a name for itself as a diversity leader. As Wired writes:

As so many big-name companies say they’re seeking to advance the role of women in the tech industry, GoDaddy is an example of real progress. Known more for its sexism than its technology, it was in an even deeper hole than most. But now, says Telle Whitney, the CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, “GoDaddy outperforms the norm” — at least in terms of female hiring, starting with its CTO.

CEO Blake Irving also found other ways to contribute to diversity, such as by producing CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap — a documentary detailing the challenges blocking women and minorities from entering the industry as well as the real-life consequences of poor diversity.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing — in 2014, Irving sat on a “male allies” Grace Hopper panel that was lambasted for completely missing the point. But instead of getting defensive, he participated in a panel do-over. The second time, he and the other CEOs listened instead of talking.

With Irving at the helm, GoDaddy has emerged from the darkness. As with many tech companies, there’s still more progress to be made. However, they’ve shown true commitment to change and have the measurable results to prove it.

Etsy: hacking the gender gap

How Etsy Grew their Number of Female Engineers by Almost 500% in One Year

Even after Etsy began focusing on diversity, they had a problem. In fact, during a year when they were prioritizing gender diversity hiring, they still saw a 35% decline in female employees. FirstRound describes how they had a “broken system”, in which “engineers (mostly male) sat on one side and the women on the other”. Yet, most of Etsy’s customer base was disproportionately female. How could they design products for women without a diverse engineering team?

As with many companies, the normal tactics clearly weren’t working: “prioritizing diversity” wasn’t enough. Etsy needed to truly invest in change, and they needed to alter their workplace dynamic to retain their female engineers. It was time to get creative.

The first step required investing in women: in Summer and Fall 2012, Etsy created need-based scholarships for women in Hacker School (now called Recurse Center). They wanted the school to be more gender-balanced, which would benefit students. But Etsy knew it could also help with hiring: as a Recurse Center recruiting partner, a more diverse student body could ultimately impact Etsy’s company dynamic, too.

The second step involved hiring criteria: instead of looking for only senior women engineers, Etsy invested in female students, then hired them as junior engineers. As Ann Friedman writes: “One function of the Hacker School is to allow Etsy’s hiring managers to get to know which newbies are worth taking a risk on.” These changes paid off: Etsy hired eight women from Recurse Center and increased their overall gender diversity by 18% over the previous year.

The third step was changing team dynamics and company culture. Hiring women solves the “supply” aspect of the pipeline problem, but not attrition issues due to toxic environments. As FirstRound reports:

Etsy’s seen the most success when there’s either zero or two women engineers on a team. If there’s only one, she’s a woman engineer as opposed to just an engineer.

Beyond team composition, Etsy announced in 2016 that its corporate beliefs included “gender [lying] on a spectrum”. They began referring to employees as those who “identify as women”, “identify as men”, and “identify as other awesome gender identities”. That same year they introduced gender-blind, 26-week paid parental leave for all employees.

“This reflects our belief that gender lies on a spectrum, and follows operational changes we’ve made in the last year, such as converting our bathrooms to be gender inclusive.” — Juliet Gorman, Etsy Global Director of Culture & Engagement

Did these methods work? By 2016, women composed 54% of their workforce, 50% of leadership, 31.6% of tech roles, and 20.5% of their engineers. They increased their female leadership by 14% and one-third of their board of directors is now female. In 2017, they have a 4.5 rating on Glassdoor.

Etsy is aware of their other diversity issues, and they’re investing in ways to improve racial and ethnic balance. And even when it comes to gender diversity, more work remains — 20.5% isn’t anywhere near parity. But when they noticed a problem, they didn’t simply shrug their shoulders (or, worse yet, blame the “pipeline”) — they rolled up their sleeves, got to work, and found creative ways to tackle the problem.

Harvey Mudd: the 55%

Harvey Mudd College took on gender bias and now more than half its computer-science majors are women

In 2006, 10% of Harvey Mudd’s computer science graduates were women — an abysmal number. 10 years later, that number was 55%. What was responsible for this incredible progress?

That same year, Dr. Maria Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd; her leadership marked several changes for the school. While diversity was a key goal before her arrival, her hiring marked an increased focus on inclusion efforts.

Alumnae Matt McKnett and Lucy Abramyan joined Harvey Mudd two years before President Klawe, so they were all-too-familiar with the school’s gender diversity challenges. Abramyan always felt respected by her peers, but the male-to-female ratio was still a running joke among students, even as the school attempted to improve gender, race, and ethnic diversity.

Despite its early demographic shortcomings, Harvey Mudd was better off than many: undergraduate credit requirements included arts and humanities classes, which exposed students to discussions about diversity; cross-disciplinary courses like “Gender & Game Design” enabled deep exploration of feminism and inclusion; and proximity to other Claremont schools like Scripps College meant that Mudd students could mingle with outspoken women.

The school’s excellent professors were another boon. Abramyan recalls: “The professors were all enthusiastic and relatable. I had young female professors that were my role models.” With a small student body, professors were also empowered to provide empathetic and attentive instruction.

Both students witnessed firsthand the changes that were implemented during their time there. While introductory computer science classes were already mandatory, not all were equally beloved. The school needed a way to make these classes universally approachable, not just for students who had been in “computer camp since they were 5.

Source: Atlas via Quartz

Some of the changes under President Klawe included adding summer research opportunities, trips to Grace Hopper, and ensuring the typical class “know-it-alls” who “take up [lecture] air time” had their questions and comments directed to office hours.

Lucy Abramyan also got to participate in student clubs and outreach events for women in engineering, including when Mudd hosted a day of STEM classes for high school girls — an opportunity that resonated with her as she recalled her own high school STEM passions.

“I felt like there was a community of women that was trying to help each other succeed.” — Lucy Abramyan, Harvey Mudd alumnus

Harvey Mudd also overhauled their introductory classes, known as “CS5”, switching the programming language from Java to Python, renaming the course to emphasize creativity, focusing the curriculum on the practical applications of programming, and moving from individual assignments to group projects.

Another key was splitting the CS5 sections, where students discussed concepts outside of lecture. The new “Black” and “Gold” sections, named after the school colors, were divided based upon programming familiarity: one for students with previous experience; the other for those who were completely unfamiliar.

McKnett explains how this impacted students like him:

[It was] brilliant because it’s not overtly about gender — they didn’t make CS pink and blue and put bows on the curriculum the way some programs try to approach diversity. They identified the real problem: it’s not that women needed room from the know-it-alls who sucked all the air out of the room; it’s that people unfamiliar with CS needed that room. Women just tended to be disproportionately unfamiliar with CS. […] The same solution also benefited men who came in with less experience.

The long-term result is, as Oliver Staley notes, that women get “hooked” on Computer Science: “Women who take the introductory course are more likely to leave with a positive impression of programming, and often sign up for the second class in the sequence. Many go on to internships or research projects in the field after their first year, and by then, they’re hooked.”

Everyone benefits from this kind of diversity. For women, the upside is not being alone, the sole representatives of their gender who are expected to excel or else.

“When I got to Mudd, it was nice to see not just women, but women at the top of the class, women in the middle, and women at the bottom. At Mudd, I felt average, and Mudd gives you space to feel average.” — Jean Sung, Harvey Mudd alumnus

For men, the benefits include exposure to diverse teams filled with unique ideas, perspectives, communication styles, and problem-solving approaches — excellent experience for later on in the workforce.

And as Ann Friedman notes, increasing visibility and diversity tends to have a cumulative effect:

As more women began to populate computer science classes, their presence attracted even more women. “All of a sudden your classroom has got just as many females as males,” says Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd. “Why wouldn’t you be a CS major?”

These changes pay dividends in many ways: the college is known for having one of the highest numbers of PhD-earners, and 64% of Mudd graduates now accept full-time tech jobs at graduation, compared to 30% in 2011.

But beyond mere statistics, there are personal benefits. As Matt McKnett testifies, attending Harvey Mudd, even early in their diversity efforts, fundamentally changed his outlook:

I don’t know how my time at Mudd hasn’t impacted my role as a software engineer. The most important thing I brought from Mudd with me into [my job], and into life more generally, is to let my assumptions be challenged. […] In software, you lose if you don’t try new things. Where do new things — innovations — come from? From the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Mudd is where I first started to learn that; [my current employer] is where I’ve had the point reiterated.

Harvey Mudd is a poster-child for gender diversity success: after an abysmal past, they’ve tackled the issue head-on and have the data and personal testimonies to prove it’s a solvable problem.

Stories like Susan Fowler’s and can be incredibly dispiriting, and until sexism in tech is truly addressed head-on, accounts like hers will continue to emerge from the woodwork. It’s happened time and time again.

However, examples like Etsy, Harvey Mudd, and, yes, even GoDaddy, reveal that even the most toxic and sexist corporate environments can be turned around. Tech’s diversity issues are both top-down and systemic: without a leadership team that’s all-in, it’s difficult to get the resources and prioritization critical to diversity success; without deep cultural changes, it’s impossible to create environments that are truly welcoming to women and minorities.

Effecting true change requires grit, determination, dedication, and creativity; indeed, the very characteristics for which the tech industry is praised. We know the industry is resourceful. We know its people are brilliant and capable of solving some of the world’s most difficult problems — when they put their minds to it.

These examples prove it’s possible and the opportunity is there. Now tech just has to rise to the challenge.

Kimberly is a writer, photographer, and former technologist. Like many women in tech, she’s experienced both industry sexism and harassment. These days, you’ll often find her traveling or eating.

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Thanks to Matt McKnett and Lucy Abramyan for sharing their stories.