Fixing Google’s gender gap shouldn’t be so hard

BY Vivek Wadhwa  May 28, 2014 at 6:00 PM EDT
Software engineers work in a room with a view at Google's Kirkland, Washington, office in this 2009 file photo. On Wednesday Google released the gender and race composition of its workforce for the first time. Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Software engineers work in a room with a view at Google’s Kirkland, Washington, office in this 2009 file photo. On Wednesday Google released the gender and race composition of its workforce for the first time. Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

“I agree we need to have a team that understands the product needs of more than just the young male user, but we just can’t find them,” said Ankur Jain at the first board meeting of his startup Humin in May 2013. This is the same explanation that all Silicon Valley companies — both large and small — provide, to justify their dearth of women technologists.

I advised the Humin team to network with women’s groups and look harder. And that is what it did. By broadening their search process, they found a depth and breadth of female talent, especially among developers whose original background was in engineering fields beyond computer science. Today, six members — one-third — of Humin’s engineering team of 18 are women. Two of the women have a Ph.D.

This is why I look at Google’s gender data with disappointment and don’t buy its excuses.

Google’s gender-diversity should be better than Humin’s, not just 17 percent. Consider that women comprised 37 percent of the computer science class of 1987. Because of the unfair hurdles they face, women are getting discouraged from studying computer science, and the percentage had fallen to 18 percent by 2012. But about a quarter of today’s pool of highly experienced software developers is female, and a company such as Google — which has its pick of the crop of new graduates as well as experienced engineers — should have far greater diversity.

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I will give Google credit, though, for having the courage to release the diversity data and acknowledge a problem. Other Silicon Valley companies have refused to do that, likely because they have a lot more to be embarrassed about than Google does. Data collected on Github revealed that the percentage of women engineers at other tech companies is commonly in the low teens or lower. It was reported to be 5.54 percent at Qualcomm’s development center in Austin; 6.3 percent at Dropbox; 8.25 percent at Yelp; 13.16 percent at Airbnb; and 14.39 percent at Pinterest.

I also give Google credit for working to fix the gender imbalance and to the Google for Entrepreneurs group for being supportive of projects that help women — including a crowd-created book that I am finalizing about women in innovation.

female-percent4A common problem in Silicon Valley is that the interviewers for technology jobs are usually young men, and that the job specifications are geared towards finding young nerds. The hiring process is like recruitment into a fraternity. Until Dropbox recently made wholesale changes to its hiring practices, the conference rooms where interviews were held were named “The Break-up Room” and “Bromance Chamber,” and applicants were sometimes asked what they would do in the event of a “zombie apocalypse” or what they were “geeky about.” Needless to say, it is such antics that turn women developers away and serve to discourage girls from studying computer science.

Fixing the gender gap isn’t that hard, as the Humin team learned. Here are some things that Google and other companies can do.

Look at how jobs are defined. Jobs are often written to solicit responses from males, with long lists of required skills — which are often superfluous. Women tend to pass up opportunities for which they don’t have the exact skills, whereas men will often apply if they have a subset, explains Lucy Sanders, CEO of The National Center for Women & Information Technology. She says that companies also tend to hire women into lower-status technical roles.

Broaden the talent pool by looking beyond the usual recruitment grounds. Companies need to build ties to universities where there are high proportions of women and minorities, and to recruit at conferences that women engineers attend, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and Women 2.0.

Interview at least one woman and one member of a minority for every open position. Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, says companies should implement a rule such as the Rooney Rule for National Football League teams. This requires all teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. The key is to make sure that every hiring pool is diverse with respect to gender and race.

Have at least one woman on the hiring team. Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, cites academic research that shows that people tend to hire those who are similar to them. She says that the demographics of the hiring team greatly influence the outcome of hiring. They also affect offer acceptance. A female candidate will recognize that the business values diversity if the interviewers are men and women, and she is more likely to join the company if offered a job, Whitney says.

In hiring decisions, the focus should always be on competencies rather than on credentials. Klein says that degrees from a prestigious school usually weigh heavily over the ability to write code or solve problems. Candidate-screening criteria such as unpaid internships, summer international experiences and gap years also create an unfair advantage because these are signs of a wealthy background and not of achievements. She says that companies should focus on “distance traveled” — such as the demonstrated ability of people who grew up in modest circumstances to overcome adversity, or to be the first in their families to go to college.

Jain says that the women Humin hired brought many new insights. These led to the addition of many new features and a better product design. Humin now has a product that is likely to appeal to women and minorities as well as to men, greatly increasing the chances of market success when it is launched later this year.

The technology industry, too, could be increasing its market success — if it fixed its diversity problems.