It’s become harder and harder to find a tech company these days that doesn’t rave about how it’s supporting female developers and how important hiring new female talent is to them.
But does anyone ever stop and ask why supporting technical women is such a priority to them?
Instead of blank stares and empty explanations, I expect substantive answers.
You should not try to hire women, or talk about how you’re trying to hire women, because everyone else is doing it or because it’s a necessary part of being perceived as hip or cool. You should not be trying to bring more women to your company to counter a sexist image. You should not boost your female:male developer ratio in an effort to avoid the ignominy of ending up on the bad end of Tracy Chou’s list.
This is why you should be supporting women in tech:
- To gain exposure to new perspectives. When you’re building a product or creating a new business, you’re going to have users and customers who are women. Even if you’re building a subscription boxer brief service for men (this actually exists!), you’ll need to appeal to mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sisters who’ll be placing gift orders and influencing the men in their lives. In order to better relate to, better market to, and better serve them, you’ll want people who have plenty of insight into their perspectives because they, well, happen to be women themselves. At Stripe, our user base varies from Fortune 50 companies to 1-person startups (and everything in-between!) with a number of growing female-founded companies (of note, Homejoy, Samasource, TaskRabbit, Hassle, and One Kings Lane). Having several female engineers, including the team lead, on the product team has really helped us connect with and ultimately work well with our wide range of users.
- To find new talent. It’s entirely accurate to describe the hiring situation in Silicon Valley for good engineers as a rat race. Every jobs page has an opening for software engineer. While graduating computer science classes aren’t at a 50-50 female:male ratio at most schools, women do make up a non-trivial amount of each class. By not appealing to female developers, you’ll miss out on a lot of potential hires. Changing your recruiting strategy to attract women helps broaden your appeal overall. When you start thinking about the benefits and policies that matter to women, you’ll be thinking about the benefits and policies that affect engineers outside of the prototypical socially inept 20-something single male engineer too. Offering equitable parental leave, making a space for truly flexible schedules, and fostering an inclusive environment are practices that attract talented male and female engineers (and non-engineers) alike. At Quora, there were a number of benefits in place, including gourmet chocolate deliveries, weekly subsidized massages, and yoga classes  that were popular across the board and helped make it feel like a great place to be a woman.
- To build a critical mass. Having a critical mass of any group has all sorts of benefits for that group. It helps dispel stereotype threat, since individuals no longer feel like their performance represents their whole group. When I was at Quora, when they were about 10 or so women there, we once went around explaining how we came to consider it as a viable place to work. Every single one of us knew someone else there (usually another woman) beforehand and felt drawn to work in there in part because of that connection we felt to someone who seemed so relatable. Recent research has shown that close work friendships improve employee satisfaction by 50% and people who report having a best friend in the workplace are 7x more likely to be engaged fully with their work.
- To benefit your entire company. Harvard researchers have found that the more women there are in groups, the higher the collective intelligence. Bringing on folks with higher IQs, improving group motivation, high levels of group satisfaction and cohesion — none of these correlate with better performance the way that groups with plenty of women do.
“The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better.” — Professor Malone
It’s scary to me that some men and tech companies champion the women in tech cause without having made a rational decision to do so.
When you don’t understand the guiding principle behind a goal, you could be persuaded to support an opposing agenda. It can slip off your radar and get de-prioritized when new fads and trends come along.
When you don’t know why more women makes things better, your well-intentioned gestures and policies can perpetuate some of the initial issues that are repressive. There’s a fine line between empowering women through special initiatives and making them feel under-qualified due to special treatment. You risk instilling a fear in them that they’re only important, or hirable, because they’re a woman engineer, and that they didn’t truly “earn” their place the way their male counterparts did.
When you don’t really understand why having more women in technology is important, you don’t extrapolate and realize that having more of every underrepresented minority group is the true goal. If you bring on a handful of women to complement your otherwise very homogenous group of men, you can’t say that you’ve successfully built a diverse team. Bringing balance to the genders is not the only thing that matters: solid representation across different ages, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds is the true goal. Don’t let one piece of that fraction subsume the bigger picture.
The real danger here, of course, is that it’s dangerous to support any cause blindly, without understanding the underlying reasons. Supporting women in technology is no different.
 Unfortunately, to my knowledge, only the subsidized massages remain in place today.
Thoughts on anything that I’m missing or could have explained better? Ping me on Twitter!
A huge thanks to Michelle Bu, Belinda Gu, Julia Evans, Elad Gil, Veni Johanna, Julia Grace, and Michaël Villar for reading drafts of this and providing thoughtful feedback. This would have been a very different (and not for the better!) post without your help.