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Hiring Tips & Insights: Tips for Hiring and Growing Women Software Engineers
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Tips for Hiring and Growing Women Software Engineers

22 November 2023, by Thalia Pillay

As more companies try to attract women software engineers to bridge the tech gender gap, ensuring your hiring practices make women feel included is crucial. Here’s how I actively promote gender inclusivity when hiring for my team.


Why we need to bridge the gender gap in tech

Of the 70 853 responses received in the Stack Overflow 2022 survey, only 5.17% of respondents were women. In addition, OfferZen’s developer survey data showed only around 17% of developers who took the survey in South Africa and the Netherlands were women.

Companies of all sizes need to practice active inclusion when hiring and growing women engineers to make headway on this massive gender gap.

There are fewer women in senior roles

The number of women in technical roles decreases with seniority. As someone who hires for technical positions, it’s difficult to find women software engineers because there’s a limited pool of candidates in South Africa.

As a software engineer, I have searched high and low to find peers in the industry. It has been hard to find mentors, but when I do, we all have shared experiences: feelings of isolation or imposter syndrome within the industry. So it’s clear we need to prioritise diversity within tech so that women engineers like myself don’t feel alone or like we don’t belong in the industry.

Diverse teams are more productive and innovative

Diverse teams also perform better than less diverse ones. The most diverse companies outperform their industry counterparts by 30%, and companies with diverse employees have “up to 20% higher rate of innovation and 19% higher innovation revenues”.

The data shows that diverse teams are more productive and innovative. So how do you create more diverse teams? Simply aiming to hire for diversity isn’t enough. You need to start with hiring practices that make candidates feel like there is space at your organisation to be seen, heard, and grow.

As a woman of colour who’s been on both sides of the interview panel, here’s how you can improve your hiring practices to be more welcoming and inclusive of women engineers.

What to consider before reaching out to women engineers

There aren’t many women engineers, and even fewer as you go up in seniority. So, to attract women software engineers, you must ensure your company is where they want to work. Here are a few ways you can do this.

Create an employer brand that reflects your company’s diversity

As an employer, your brand is important to engineers. The first thing I do when I’m interested in a company is research its brand. I do this through their website, social media accounts and values. Recently, I have started to favour companies where I see ‘natural’ diversity visible in different levels of management and not solely for marketing purposes.

If your company doesn’t have, for example, a woman on its team, I would suggest having clear values that support gender-inclusive policies such as pay equality.

Build a company culture that celebrates diversity

If I know someone working for a company I’m interested in, I reach out to get a first-hand account of the day-to-day and team. One of the first questions I now ask about potential employers is, “Would I be the only woman in the tech team?” It’s important for me to get an idea of a company’s culture and whether diversity is celebrated.

My current employer, Stitch, invited me for lunch when I was interviewing so I could experience the culture for myself. From the moment I walked in, I knew this would be a place where I’d feel safe, included and celebrated – that meant everything to me.

There was natural diversity at Stitch. Sitting at the lunch table, I didn’t feel othered or different from everyone else, making it clear that this would be a good place to work as a women engineer.

Once you’ve ensured your company is an attractive place for women engineers, the next step is reaching out to candidates.

Don’t make women developers feel like diversity targets when reaching out

As a woman software engineer, I receive numerous LinkedIn messages from technical recruiters. It’s always apparent when a company hires with a specific diversity target versus when they’re reaching out because they value me as a candidate.

I find it silly if I’m contacted for a role where I don’t meet any of the job requirements, ultimately making me feel like a diversity hire. For example, a few years ago, I got a message from a recruiter who wanted to hire a team lead with 10+ years of experience. At that stage, I had one year of experience.

The most recent messages I’ve received have been much more tailored to my stack and experience, showing that the recruiter had done some screening.

The key takeaway here is that when reaching out to women developers, ensure they meet the job requirements and tailor your outreach message to their profile. If you don’t, you risk alienating them.

Write women-friendly job descriptions

Once you’ve ascertained that the candidate meets enough of the job requirements, scrutinise your job description to minimise gender-biased adjectives. I’ve read descriptions that state, “He must be able to do…” which is slightly off-putting. AI tools such as Textio help to eliminate bias in job descriptions.

When writing a job advert, highlight benefits such as maternity leave and remote work. Something as simple as working remotely could make caring for children or elders easier and is particularly appealing to women who often take on caregiving responsibilities.

Women are 20% less likely than men to apply for roles where they don’t meet all of the job requirements. So, it’s essential to have a job listing stating that candidates don’t need to meet all requirements. This becomes increasingly important when hiring for senior or leadership roles.

As Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Women engineers need to be encouraged to take that shot, and you can make it easier for them to do so by writing more inclusive job adverts.

Include a salary range in your initial outreach

Once the candidate has replied to the outreach message, there is nothing worse than asking them for their current salary and payslip. As someone who was once a graduate engineer, it’s hard to receive proper increases from that base graduate salary.

Asking for someone’s salary can perpetuate the gender pay gap. I’ve worked in teams where male engineers with the same experience but less responsibility got paid more.

Companies must establish equitable compensation bands based on competency frameworks to mitigate bias. Based on this, recruiters can send through an expected salary range based on the candidate’s experience.

Support women engineers by supporting women’s tech communities

Supporting women-specific tech events or societies helps the community to grow and is a great space to find top candidates. There are many meetups which celebrate diversity in tech. At Stitch, we recently co-hosted a Women in Tech event where we interviewed over 30 women.

While it was awesome to see the technical talent in Cape Town, this meetup showed us that we don’t interview that many women engineers at different phases of the traditional hiring pipeline. This was around ten times the number of women engineers we’d usually screen in an entire year! This may be due to such events reducing the barrier to entry in typical hiring pipelines.

If you can’t start your own events, try to partner with organisations like Girls Who Code to help grow the number of women developers.

Tips for hiring women engineers

Have a diverse interview panel

It’s enormously important that your interviewees can recognise themselves in a hiring panel. When I interviewed at Stitch, the senior engineer in my technical interview was a woman. I immediately felt more at ease and comfortable.

When I was on the other side of the interview panel, a young woman university graduate asked me how many women were in my team. Another young woman asked about the gender salary gap. These were fantastic and thought-provoking questions posed to us because the candidates felt comfortable asking another woman those questions.

Interviewers need to identify and address bias

It is equally important that anyone conducting interviews undergoes training to interview without bias. Interviewer bias occurs when the interviewer’s opinions interfere with the judgement of the interviewee. This can either impact the interviewee positively or negatively.

I’ve found Joelle Emerson’s writing on hiring more diverse teams and reducing interview bias useful.

A structured interview process with standardised questions ensures all candidates have similar interview processes. Using a quantitative way to score interviews, such as scorecards, ensures we don’t avoid hiring people with the only reasoning being that the candidate was ‘not a culture fit’.

From my experience in the tech industry, specifically in startups, I’ve seen companies hire for a specific culture, which often perpetuates the culture of the founders and is not always inclusive.

Hire junior engineers and grow them into senior engineers

I’ve interviewed nearly 120 graduate engineers and noticed a definite increase in junior women engineers, but most companies have stopped or decreased hiring junior engineers.

If we want to build diverse teams, we should hire engineers of all experience levels. Hiring junior women engineers enables us to support them as they grow into seniors.

I have seen far too many companies reject women engineers with one year of experience but struggle to find a senior woman engineer with eight years of experience.

There are just not enough women in senior tech positions. I have seen many women peers leave the software engineering industry before becoming a senior for several reasons. These reasons include:

  • Imposter syndrome
  • Caregiving responsibilities
  • Lack of mentorship
  • Gender pay gap
  • Lack of career growth

Women software engineers can only reach that seniority if companies are committed to growing and investing in them.

In addition to the advice above, ensure you have performance frameworks that promote engineers’ growth and development. This will create a path to seniority that can be tracked and worked towards. I have always been a fan of Monzo’s performance framework as it identifies many facets of being an engineer, including behaviours and technical skills.

Provide support and mentorship to your junior engineers

When hiring junior engineers, offering mentorship opportunities in a nurturing environment is vital. When I was a graduate software engineer, being around talented engineers I could identify with helped me grow tremendously.

I would be wary of hiring a single woman junior engineer at a time as it can be isolating and makes it difficult to create a shared sense of community. I have been the only woman engineer in several teams, but what always helped me, especially when I was a junior, was having a buddy to talk to about any issues I may have experienced. It would be favourable but not mandatory if that buddy were another woman engineer.

Hiring is tough, but there are ways to improve things. Etsy is a fantastic example where they made an active decision to hire more women engineers and created a grant programme to provide need-based scholarships to talented women engineers.

They grew their number of women engineers by over 500% in one year. They had difficulty finding senior engineers, so they focused on talented juniors and are committed to growing and promoting them internally. The next phase of this initiative is to get more women into engineering leadership roles.

Lastly, lowering standards when hiring any engineer is counter-productive. The notion that “It’s hard to hire women engineers; therefore, we won’t hold them to such a high standard” is obnoxious. It perpetuates the impression that women aren’t as talented at software engineering. People have called me a diversity hire before, which I now realise is derogatory and demeaning.

It has taken me years to overcome this feeling of not being worthy of a role which is why I strongly suggest companies take the time to invest resources that enable growing and hiring exceptional women engineers.

Thalia Pillay is a Full Stack Software Engineer at Stitch where she gets to work with amazing people to build financial infrastructure for Africa. She writes most of her code in Typescript but has been known to dabble in C# and Golang. She enjoys playing her flute and ukelele, and building assistive robots which improve the lives of others.

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