What it Feels Like to Work in a Supportive Environment for Female Engineers

By Christina Thompson, Engineer at Artsy

With the often overwhelming and downright discouraging reality that the tech industry isn’t a diverse and inclusive environment, I felt compelled to share what a productive, empathetic, and nurturing environment for female and female-identifying engineers looks like.

In October 2014, I graduated from the first cohort of Ada Developers Academy, an intensive software development training program for women and gender diverse people in Seattle. Before Ada, I worked in marketing, primarily for sports organizations. I got my first taste of coding while building a personal branding website, and that’s where the love story began. However, while making the transition into development and securing my first engineering gig, I experienced what many female engineers experience: feeling inferior, lacking a sense of belonging, and encountering discrimination that this industry has become well-known for, especially lately.

My first engineering job was at a midsize tech education company that had been one of the first to support Ada as a sponsor and host to one of its students as an engineering intern — me. Though the company was supportive and wanted to contribute to closing the gender gap in the tech industry, the environment wasn’t exactly conducive to making me feel welcomed, valued, or included. I recall one of my leads addressing the group as “gentlemen.” I remember the frustration of being talked over and many instances where my ideas were dismissed, but later acknowledged as worthy when expressed by my male coworkers. The list went on. This isn’t a new problem or specific to this particular company, but one that is reflective of the industry as a whole. As a black female engineer working in an industry that has consistently made me feel undervalued, I’m compelled to proclaim that while many companies are talking about diversity and inclusion, at Artsy, I am living it.

Measuring Up

So how diverse are we at Artsy? Statistically, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we could be doing better. Out of 26 Artsy engineers, seven are women. According to industry statistics, 20% of the tech industry’s engineering positions are held by women. Our Publishing engineering team, which is responsible for building and maintaining the product that houses Artsy’s magazine, is a two woman team. My team, the Collector Experience team, is made up of three female engineers and four males. Every team has at least one female engineer. With women making up just 27% of our engineering team we still manage to have an environment that enables women to thrive.

I’ve spent some time recently thinking about why Artsy has been successful in making me feel included and valued. We don’t have a quota to maintain a certain percentage of “diverse” hires. There is no internal women’s engineering support group, and we aren’t sponsoring diversity scholarships at tech conferences or universities in the name of inclusion. However, working at Artsy is the first time in my career I don’t feel like I am a female engineer. I am simply an engineer. Beyond not feeling like an “other,” the behavior and actions of my peers reaffirm that I’m valued and my voice matters.

Company Values

While reflecting on what makes Artsy a great environment for me and other female engineers, it was clear that the inclusive environment that Artsy provides is embedded in our values and culture as a company. It baffles me when companies make significant efforts to respond to diversity issues with fixes that address the symptoms and not the root of the problem. This fails to truly internalize diversity and people as a value, culturally or otherwise. Those efforts may marginally increase your numbers and get more diverse folks in the door, but they fail to foster a culture of inclusion. It’s one thing to financially invest in an initiative; it’s something entirely different to emotionally invest in it as a core value.

Artsy has five guiding values: Art x Science, People are Paramount, Quality Worthy of Art, Positive Energy, and Openness. If you notice, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” aren’t mentioned in our values. When People are Paramount, their experiences within your company and community matter. By committing to Positive Energy, you not only hire people that contribute positivity, but you are constantly revisiting the company’s climate to see where improvements can be made. This might not seem related to creating diverse, inclusive, and productive engineering teams, but values like these mean the difference between mansplaining and disempowering experiences versus constructive and empowering feedback. Openness contributes to an environment where white males aren’t the only ones experiencing success. It’s a culture where you don’t have to hide your imposter syndrome, but can be transparent about it and receive support in working through these feelings. My first theory as to why Artsy is such a positive environment for women engineers is that Artsy isn’t spinning its wheels treating the symptoms of diversity issues, but has built a culture on top of values where diverse people (or all kinds of people) feel included and are valued. Pulled straight from our internal playbooks, “The question for someone considering joining Artsy’s team is whether they are excited to commit themselves professionally to Artsy’s values and vision.”

Christina (third from left) with other Artsy engineers at the JSConf EU in Berlin.

Our Hiring

Another contributing factor to our welcoming culture for female engineers is that our hiring process is sacred. For starters, we don’t do whiteboarding, a process in which candidates are asked to solve technical questions, which often don’t mirror day-to-day coding problems, on the spot and without access to resources. We place much more significance and value on proven track records, the ability of a candidate to articulate what they built, the candidate’s Github when available, and thorough references from previous employers to fact-check how well the candidate embodies our five core values. Whether or not you can write an algorithm to solve some obscure problem that you’d probably never see in a real-life scenario is less important.

We also tend to source candidates from non-traditional backgrounds of Computer Science or Ivy leagues, preferring those from creative fields, especially career changers with an interest in fine art. This is, by design, a diverse pool, called T-Shaped people, with a broad set of interests and narrow specialties. As an engineer at Artsy, my background in marketing isn’t completely abandoned. It enables me to collaborate with stakeholders and inspire a passion and connection to the end-user.

A Culture of Empathy

When I was considering joining Artsy as a junior engineer, the things that were important to me were mentorship, a supportive and welcoming culture, and opportunities for growth. I expressed this during my interviewing process. Shortly after accepting an offer and before I had stepped foot inside the Artsy office as an employee, I received an introductory email from my manager and the engineer who would serve as my dedicated technical mentor. This spoke volumes and is an example of how Artsy has consistently, since day one, delivered on its promises and demonstrated commitment to me as a team member.

In addition, in the two years that I’ve worked at Artsy, I have had three different engineering leads. Each one of the leads that I’ve worked under, whether an experienced manager or not, has possessed high emotional IQ. The point is, this has cultivated psychological safety for me and contributed to a significant amount of growth personally and professionally. It has allowed me to express my ideas and concerns, be transparent about my challenges, and feel supported in working through them. As a result, I’ve spent less energy recovering from microaggressions and been able to focus on growing as an engineer and teammate.

Early on at Artsy, I had a hard time asking questions in our group Slack channels and generally defaulted to private messaging my questions to my lead. My current lead would answer them but encouraged me to repost to the group. He explained why it was more helpful for me and others to ask my questions in the open and reassured me that questions were okay no matter how trivial, naive, or silly I thought they were.

The opportunity for growth and ability to make meaningful contributions is foundational to feeling valued. I can recall being assigned projects or features that I initially thought were outside of my comfort zone and skill level, thinking in the back of my mind, “Are you sure you want me to work on that?” In hindsight, each time I’ve been able to rise to the challenge and learned so much along the way. Today I even feel safe contributing small improvements to such popular open-source projects as Ruby Rake, which ships with every new Mac. The space, trust, and support have built confidence, helped me grow, and enabled me to make even bigger contributions.

Artsy engineering on the publishing team, Eve Essex, performing a live DJ set at Artsy Salon, Artsy’s annual art exhibition for team members.

Art x Science

One thing is true about all engineers at Artsy. We aren’t just engineers. We are makers, musicians, artists, photographers, philosophers, co-founders, aspiring DJ’s, art collectors, cartographers, and a myriad of other things. We embody our core value of Art x Science. With the maker and artistic spirit that is present in all Artsy engineers comes a level of empathy that is absolutely vital for collaboration. I believe Artsy’s roots in the arts play a significant role in our ability to attract such compassionate, empathetic, and creative engineers. Artsy is known for its elegant and beautiful design. Engineers that are in tune with both their left and right brain are crucial to creating the synergy between developer and designer that is needed to achieve a product that embodies Quality Worthy of Art. This is expressed not only in our ability to build software but extends to other creative projects such as Artsy Salon, an annual celebration and exhibition at Artsy HQ of our team members’ creative pursuits. Layered on top of that is the fact that we come from varied backgrounds. The arts have a way of uniting people through our similarities as well as creating space to understand and celebrate the ways we are different.

The Competitive Advantage

I love that at Artsy my fellow engineers, regardless of gender, are just as comfortable speaking in brackets, recursive functions, and lambda expressions as they are talking about racial issues, feelings, and empathy. I’d argue that this empathy component has become a secret weapon helping us all to become better software engineers because it fosters openness, transparency, accountability, and growth. We aren’t preaching diversity and it’s not something we talk about for “good PR.” It’s something we genuinely value. It’s baked into our values and is a vital part of our company’s DNA. This has allowed us to build amazing products and become leaders in our industry. With lack of diversity and inclusion as a dominant narrative in the tech industry, I challenge the community to reframe and rethink its approach. Instead of checking off the diversity and inclusion box, I urge you to explore how empathy can be used as a competitive advantage.

Members of the Artsy engineering team decked out in costume at the 2017 company offsite.

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Read more about Artsy engineering at Artsy’s engineering blog here.

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If you enjoyed this read, you might be a good fit for our team. Check out open jobs at Artsy here.

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