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Women In Comms

Grace Hopper: Power to the Pipeline

If you were in Houston last week at the Grace Hopper Celebration, you wouldn't believe our industry could possibility have a pipeline problem with women. There were 12,000 women -- engineers, computer scientists, technologists and more -- all ripe for hiring, promoting and engaging with for ideas and innovation.

It was a pretty inspiring sight. And I know others shared my point of view because some companies, like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), were hiring these women right on the spot through a job fair colocated with the event. (See No Frat Party Here: 12,000 Computer Scientists Convene in Houston.)

For me, someone who has been attending male-dominated telecom conventions for ten years now, this was unlike any convention I've ever been to. The men I met with said they finally understood what it was like for women in our industry as they politely waited in line for the men's room overrun with women. And the women left feeling inspired and a little less alone. (See Mentor Monday: Anita Borg's Elizabeth Ames.)

I also left with a notebook full of ideas to improve our own Women in Comms initiative and help advance women in our industry. Some of the most interesting insights I garnered had to do with improving the pipeline of women and under-represented minorities that apply for jobs, which is one facet of many that contributes to the lack of women in our industry.


Light Reading is hosting its next Women in Comms breakfast in London on November 5, ahead of the OSS in the Era of SDN and NFV: Evolution vs. Revolution show. Please join us for the free and fantastic morning by registering here.


Recruiters often say there simply aren't women applying for jobs, which is often the case, but the reason isn't as simple as women not being interested in jobs in this field. Rather, speakers at the Grace Hopper Celebration shared some reasons women may not be applying for jobs, and it often comes down to how the job description is crafted. (See A Vast Valley: Tech's Inexcusable Gender Gap.)

Kieran Synder, a PhD in linguistics and CEO of Textio, which helps companies craft better job descriptions, shared some advice and a few examples of how a job description can sway the applicant pool:

  • Bullet points should be one-third of a job description. Any higher and the number of women who apply plummets. Below 25% bullet points, and the number of men who apply plummets.
  • Language matters: "managing a team" attracts men; "building a team" attracts women; "leading a team" will attract both.
  • Overusing sports or military analogies like "mission critical" will attract men and repel women.
  • Making it too formal will dissuade both genders from applying. Instead of using "the ideal candidate," just say "you."
  • Job descriptions need to be sincere, reflect the real vales of your company and be free from corporate jargon. For example, Synder said, the phrase "big data" was favorable 18 months ago, but has slipped into neutral/negative today.
  • The most common signifier of bias in the tech world is "Nerf," Synder said, adding "the kind of company that will issue you a Nerf blaster on the first day may have problems with inclusivity in the workplace."

Fixing the job description is a great place to start, but Joelle Emerson, CEO of Paradigm, a strategy firm focused on making tech startups more diverse, suggested companies use data to find out where their biggest problems are first. For example, one startup she worked with decided to anonymize all the names of their applicants to avoid unconscious bias. Data from their applicant tracking system, however, showed that disparities weren't coming into play until the phone screening process, suggesting the company's problem wasn't at the resume level.

In fact, unconscious bias comes up the most often at the on-phone or in-person screening portion of the interview process. Women often get dinged for their communication style or for, vaguely, not being a good "cultural fit," Caroline Simard, research director of Clayman Institute for Gender Studies at Stanford University, said.

"We use the term 'culture add' instead," Emerson added. "Who will bring what we need to the company, not fit within the construct we already have?"

The Paradigm CEO also said that between 65% to 80% of offers made go to referrals, and 70% to 80% of referrals are white or Asian men, so it's on employees to think more broadly when they suggest candidates for new positions.

"A lot of companies incent with greater bonuses if they hire a woman or minority, or others say they want one minority candidate for every slate, so people often build a slate then have to add a woman or minority. By that time they lose all their candidates," Simard added. "You need to front load. Add females first then add male candidates."

Synder also suggested to keep in mind that the most qualified person isn't the same as the person who went to Stanford or who matches the pedigree of people at our company. Mimi Fox Melton, director of program development and implementation of Code 2040, even suggested implementing a "school-blind" resume review process. If an applicant can pass the technical portion of an interview process, that's all that should matter, she said.

The pipeline problem in tech is inextricably linked to the culture problem at tech companies. As Simard said, "the most crucial factor to hire women and minorities in positions is to have women and minorities in that position." If you don't see people like yourself at a company, it's hard to see yourself working there. Improving the pipeline is an important aspect, but it's only one of many. (See Championing Change: It's a Cultural Thing and McKinsey: Women Less Likely to Advance at Work.)

YouTube Inc. CEO Susan Wojcicki shared the stat that by 2020 jobs in computer science will grow more than two times faster than the national average, totaling near five million jobs. She also noted that female representation in technology was actually higher in the mid-1980s. While other fields like biology and chemistry have since improved, ours seems to be getting worse. (See More Women in Tech Is Critically Important.)

Obviously, we can't continue to leave out half the population from these and related jobs. Improving the pipeline should be a top concern for all companies, and the Grace Hopper show not only provided some great, practical advice about how we can all be doing a better job, but at least 12,000 reasons why we should be.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

Ariella 11/9/2015 | 4:53:33 PM
Re: so much better <Companies are better off hiring for cultural add rather than cultural fit.? well put @nasimon!
kq4ym 11/9/2015 | 4:14:16 PM
Re: Equality opp statements The Nerf blasters are understood to be a bit male oriented, but I would have never guesses at the percentage of bullet points creating some bias for both side. The sport team terms would seem to be obvious although with Title 9 creating equality in theory for school athletics for both genders, one might wonder if that one should hold long term as a bias point.
nasimson 10/27/2015 | 11:56:27 PM
so much better I'm really glad to learn a term better than the old and overused term cultural fit: Cultural-add is so much better. Companies are better off hiring for cultural add rather than cultural fit.
Mitch Wagner 10/20/2015 | 5:10:40 PM
Re: Equality opp statements I'm terrible at ping pong. I'm in danger of putting an eye out. 
Sarah Thomas 10/20/2015 | 11:36:15 AM
Re: Equality opp statements How do you feel about ping pont tables though? I feel like that's the real startup prop of choice. I'm okay with it though, because I'm pretty good at ping pong. Not like Paul Rainford good, but pretty good.
Mitch Wagner 10/20/2015 | 11:32:30 AM
Re: Equality opp statements Even though I'm a man, I find I agree with many of the points raised in this series of articles for Light Reading. 

Like, if I ever started a job where I was issued a Nerf gun on my first day – or where shooting colleagues with Nerf guns were encouraged in any way – I would feel I had made a seriously terrible career choice. 

What the heck is wrong with these companies? Nerf guns, air hockey, and the other props of Siicon Valley startups are fine if you are a child or playing with children. Grow the heck up already. 
Sarah Thomas 10/19/2015 | 12:30:46 PM
Equality opp statements Pretty funny that "Nerf" is such a red-flag word in job descriptions. It's a startup thing. I also thought it was interesting that Kieran said job descriptions that include equal opportunity employer statements are faring better these days. It's important for people to know they are applying to a company that is open and friendly to all kinds of people, and sometimes that needs to be explicitly said, it sounds like.
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