‘We accept her, one of us…’ (source)

They don’t apply

I hear variants of this quote very often from recruiters, engineers, managers, founders, when the topic of diversity comes around. It’s more than an excuse, it’s usually the last thing said in a conversation, because it’s intended as such a nail in the coffin statement. We want to hire more women, more minorities, of course we don’t discriminate, but they don’t apply! What can we do, there is nothing we can do!

Yes, there is and you’re wrong.

I’ll admit for a long time I believed this myself. In the last two years, I have interviewed back-end, Android and iOS engineers and throughout all of this, I must have interviewed one or two female applicants. It didn’t matter if the interview process was fair, women didn’t make it to the interview room. They weren’t getting screened out at any rate different than men, they just weren’t there! The funnel seemed fair, there simply weren’t enough applications going into it. What can we do? There is nothing we can do.

That’s probably when I started doubting this explanation is the end-all answer.

It was the numbers that didn’t make sense to me. Estimates for gender ratios in tech are all over the place, but for the sake of this argument let’s just go with a ratio that is somewhere between 1:10 and 1:5. Surely, with all the candidates I was seeing, there should have been more women. I’m no stats expert, but eventually the sample size got large enough that interviewing one woman for every 20–30 men just didn’t seem right when compared to the industry ratios. What’s going on?

I’ll tell you an anecdote. Some time ago, I was having a chat with some friends about different workplaces and I was saying how I don’t think I’d find myself working again at a company that has a dress-code for developers. It’s not wearing a suit that bothers me, it’s the other implications I gather about company culture from that fact. The dress code is just another symptom of it. For example…
I’m sure computers get locked down and you can’t install anything without ten approvals and sending gifts to IT.
I’m sure open-sourcing any work is probably a months-long battle, if it is at all possible.
I’m sure that if I plug-in my own keyboard, alarms probably go off and I get escorted by security.
You may or may not agree with me on this, but whether I’m right is not the point. The point is that I am judging a book by its covers and so does every applicant. There is little choice really, you generally have very few pointers that you can use to determine the company culture before you actually work there, so you generalise heavily based on a few hints and do your best. And if you are, a woman in technology, with the scar tissue of having dealt with sexism previously, I am certain you will not be choosing lightly. Which brings us to the real problem.

They aren’t applying because you are unknowingly pushing them away by doing nothing to alleviate their valid concerns about your culture.

It is absolutely not enough to paste a non-discrimination statement at the bottom of your job description. It is not enough to say “we’re a friendly bunch” and put a smiley group photo. It is not enough to have a man write your job description and have it reviewed by a few other men.
Even if you you have put thought and effort into creating an accepting work environment (though so many places actually haven’t done that at all), you might not be getting applications from women because you haven’t put enough thought into presenting that environment correctly. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Instead, take someone’s that has been through it.

Roberta didn’t apply to work here when she first saw the listing (even though she knew David worked here). She knew we were a great company making a product admired by many, but felt hesitant about applying because the team page made the dev team looked like a boys’ club.

That’s from the StackExchange podcast, talking about and with Roberta, who is now a developer on their team. If you have even a remote interest in this topic, listen to that episode, it’s eye-opening and I won’t reiterate their advice and learnings, there’s nothing I can add to that discussion.

This is important.
It’s important because we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the problems of sexism and discrimination in general in our industry.
It’s important because talent is the biggest problem tech companies face and attracting good people is essential.
But it’s also important because hiding behind immature excuses is terrible, especially if we use them to wash our hands of this problem. We are engineers, we love understanding and figuring out problems, we tackle challenges head-on, this is what we love doing! So why do we find it so easy to just give up on the diversity issue, at the first sign of trouble?

So don’t. Be honest with yourself, be honest with others. Next time someone challenges you about your team or company’s diversity, tell them the truth. Tell them that you can’t hire women because they don’t apply, and they don’t apply because you don’t care enough about this problem to want to solve it. Be honest, because I’m sure it will hurt more to repeat this explanation a few times than it will to review the culture you’re building and the manner in which you are presenting it.

Making the world a better place is a great goal. Making a dent in the universe is a great statement. But before you go on to tackle these big dreams, make sure you make your own company a better place.