Etsy’s Trying to Fix Tech’s Women Problem. Why Aren’t You?

The first step is, throw out the hoodie-wearing boy-genius and build a new archetype.

By Ann Friedman
Illustration by Angie Wang


Sexism in the technology industry has become such an accepted fact it’s now a punchline, an HBO show, hyperlinked poetry. Discrete incidents are quickly labeled — booth babes, CodeBabes, Titstare, Donglegate — for quick and easy reference and #hashtagging. The tweetstorms and damning blog posts are themselves now eye-rolling clichés: As startup bros are compared to investment bankers and Silicon Valley is likened to the NFL, gender trouble comes as no surprise. Yet each individual flare-up still sparks the same question: What, exactly, is with tech’s woman problem?

And yet. There’s a strange disconnect when you talk to women who work in the tech industry about the gender gap.

Many women technologists insist they’ve never experienced any firsthand discrimination, that they’ve never met a brogrammer IRL, that they’ve never been held back by their gender. And perhaps more tellingly, many women say that even if they have experienced sexism, they don’t really want to talk about it because they don’t want to be singled out for being women. They’d prefer to be recognized for their skills and ideas.

That’s understandable. It seems unfair to make women parse the reasons why these things keep happening. Male technologists aren’t being asked about the gender gap unless they’ve just been called out for sending an insensitive tweet, or Valleywag has unearthed a series of their fratty emails from college. I know women in tech are, on some level, as sick of this conversation as the rest of us. But even let’s set the controversies aside for a moment, step back and ask the basic question: “My God, how did we get here?”

First, it would help to know exactly where “here” is, so let’s take stock of the numbers. Because the numbers are pretty bad.

Here they are, all in one place: Only 25 percent of tech workers are women, compared with 57 percent of the overall workforce. And just look at who’s holding the purse strings: Only 4 percent of senior venture capitalists are women, and 19 percent of U.S. angel investors are women. Is it any wonder that men are 40 percent more likely to be funded by venture capitalists, and only 4 to 7 percent of startup founders are women? (Well, that number is disputed, but almost everyone agrees it’s single-digit.) Software developers, the darlings of the tech gold rush, are only 20 percent women. A third of female tech entrepreneurs reported facing “dismissive attitudes” from their co-workers.

And the future doesn’t look very bright. Only 18 percent of computer-science college graduates were women in 2012, down from 37 percent in 1985. This year, only 15 percent of freshman women at American colleges plan to declare a STEM major, compared with 29 percent of men. Even when women break into tech, they don’t stay. More than half — 56 percent — end up leaving the industry.

“Pointing it out is already obvious,” says Shaherose Charania, CEO and cofounder of Women2. “Is it 10, is it 20 percent? It’s irrelevant. It’s less than 50. Let’s just focus on how to get more women to be investors, to be leaders in companies. Everyone knows everything is unequal. Let’s just focus on what we need to do.”

Charania’s call sounds productive. It sounds positive: Rather than repeat the depressing numbers, we should focus on what we need to do. But the first step toward fixing something is figuring out the root of the problem.

Dozens of interviews I’ve conducted over the past year — not to mention a steady stream of first-person articles and blog posts that have been published on the topic — reveal a few recurring explanations for the gender imbalance in tech.

1.

The broken pipeline

Many are quick to say that tech’s gender imbalance is, essentially, a supply problem: Not enough women pursue computer science careers. Remember, only 18 percent of graduates in the field are women. Some experts say the groundwork for this dismal percentage is laid in childhood, when girls are given different toys and presented with different role models than boys. Only 9 percent of girls say computing would be a “very good” career choice for them. And even when girls express an interest in computers, something about the way these classes are framed is preventing young women from openly declaring their interest and seeing it through to graduation.

Of course, it’s not always about the degree. Silicon Valley loves a dropout, and there are a lot of jobs to be had in the industry that don’t rely on computer-science expertise. But when it comes to hiring, especially hiring engineers, the consensus seems to be that the pool of qualified and interested women is simply smaller. After TechCrunch was criticized for failing to feature women speakers at its well-known “Disrupt” conference, then-owner Michael Arrington wrote, “The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.”

2.

The risk gap

The Arrington theory, that simply not enough women are interested in this line of work, is frequently echoed. Start-ups are inherently risky operations, which some say makes women less likely to want to become entrepreneurs. There’s some truth to the fact that women are more risk-averse in male-dominated industries like tech and finance, but it isn’t because of innate gender difference. Researchers have found that, in environments where women are greatly outnumbered, they succumb to “stereotype threat”: Their worries about conforming to negative perceptions cause their worst fears to come true. In this case, the stereotype would be that women in tech are less gutsy entrepreneurs — which makes them less gutsy entrepreneurs. Start-up culture also tends to reward aggression. As in other industries, the loudest voice in the room grabs the most attention. When computer scientist Divya Manian compiled suggestions for diversifying tech, her very first request was that “you need not be aggressive or competitive to be considered employable or promotable.”

There’s also the fact that women, as a group, tend to be less financially secure than men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s still a wealth gap between women and men, and women are more likely to take career breaks to care for young children or aging parents. Despite modern gold-rush narratives, most early-stage start-up founders pay themselves $50,000 a year — which doesn’t go very far if you’re paying Bay Area rent and are already financially insecure — and that number can dwindle to nothing if the start-up fails to receive a round of investment.

3.

Like hires like

One of the basic tenets of venture capitalism is growth — fast growth. Most young tech companies are expanding so rapidly that they have no formal hiring processes or HR oversight to ensure even a modicum of diversity. Founders are worried about making a great external-facing product first, and don’t have any energy to improve the internal dynamics of their fledgling company. And so those founders — who are likely to be young and male — hire their friends, who are likely to resemble them, and people with whom they know they can work long, stressful hours.

“It’s a very human thing to trust the people who are most like you,” says Sarah Milstein, CEO and co-founder of the Lean Startup Conference. “If you don’t have some structures in place that will prompt you to hire differently, you won’t.” This isn’t just a white, male affliction. “I’m trying to hire for a couple of positions right now,” Milstein continues, “and I keep picturing people who are like me. I keep picturing white women in their 40s who have at least one, maybe two degrees, who have been hanging around in the tech sector for a while. I even picture them having long brown hair. Even though that’s not who I’d like to hire.”

It’s more than just an internal bias. As start-ups grow, they often encourage current employees to recruit their friends and acquaintances. Many of the biggest tech companies offer lucrative referral bonuses. Sure, some of us have a social circle that looks like a Benetton ad. But most people do not.

4.

The hoodie archetype

Getting funded is about convincing gamblers to place their money on you. If you look like the sort of guy who’s been successful in the past — young, white, awkward, hoodied up — these subtle details can help persuade people that you’re a good bet. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the start-up accelerator Y-Combinator, once said. If you don’t fit the mold, you’re a harder sell to some investors.

This dominant tech archetype doesn’t just affect funders’ decisions. It affects women themselves. All of the stories about start-up culture being defined by twentysomething men who enjoy beer pong don’t make many women want to jump in and join them. “I’ve had a lot of women come up to me and say, ‘Gosh, I considered applying to Y-Combinator, but I didn’t because I don’t think we’re the type of people you tend to fund,’” says Jessica Livingston, another co-founder of the famed accelerator program, who is married to Graham. “That’s where I think we’ve done a poor job. Over the past nine years we’ve always been so focused on helping our own start-ups that we’ve done a very poor job of sharing what we do with the world. We fund tons of different types of founders, not just young male programmers, which it was when we first started.”

Even if they know they can land the job or the funding, many women don’t want to sign up to be an outlier. To be the first or the only woman in the room is to be noticed for your gender as much as for your work — a fact that simply isn’t true on a more gender-balanced staff. “What the management blogs wittering on about leadership don’t tell you is that being the first is a burden,” wrote Ciara Byrne, a former software developer. “You carry the responsibility of representing not only yourself but the entire experience of working with that semi-mythical creature, the female techie.”

Even if women feel they can fit in despite being outnumbered, anecdotes from men on male-dominated teams betray how difficult that is. In a class for startup founders, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin once regaled his pupils with a cautionary tale about hiring outside the lines: “Once this very impressive woman came to interview. There were some doubts, since she seemed reluctant to solve a coding problem. But her talk and demeanor — she insisted on being interviewed over a ping-pong game, for instance — indicated that she’d fit into the ubernerd, ubercoder culture. She turned out to be reasonably good at ping-pong. Doubts were suppressed. That was a mistake. She turned out to not know how to code. She was a competent manager but a cultural outsider. PayPal was a place where the younger engineers could and would sometimes wrestle with each other on the floor to solve disputes! If you didn’t get the odd mix of nerdiness + alpha maleness, you just stuck out.” The lesson? Just because you pick up a ping-pong paddle doesn’t mean you can play the game.

5.

Revenge of the nerds

Here’s the other thing about that young, male, and awkward archetype: The more socially oblivious technologists don’t even think to try and understand people who aren’t like them, and often fail to notice that they don’t work well with people who aren’t exactly like them. “I have a high emotional IQ. Most people in tech do not,” says Adria Richards, a developer and consultant. “I learned how to have empathy and act on it. The root of the problem in tech is lack of awareness.”

Others say that some men in the tech industry are all too aware of social dynamics, they just don’t understand that their position in the tech ecosystem is a privileged and powerful one. “Many of them were bullied as kids for being geeks and believe that makes them incapable of bullying or oppressive behavior,” writes software developer Ashe Dryden. A self-image as a long-suffering nerd can prevent men from seeing that they’re actually part of the dominant group: we’re talking about Silicon Valley, where technical skills and social awkwardness are badges of honor, not high-school gym class, where the same qualities can could get you beat up. Whether it’s intentional or not, it makes it easier for some men to argue that they’ve had to fight to get where they are, and that anyone who fails to achieve what they have simply isn’t good enough.

6.

The meritocracy myth

In a culture where new ways of doing things are venerated and old models are merely ripe for disruption, there’s a widespread aversion within Silicon Valley to even thinking about quotas or examining biases in hiring. Even Jill Maguire-Ward, the chief people person at General Assembly, who’s hired an impressively diverse staff, told me she thinks affirmative action is “insulting.” This presents a tricky line to walk: Yes, we “care about diversity,” but no, we’re not willing to make identity a factor in hiring.

The result is a belief among some in the industry that tech is a true meritocracy. Build great things and you will succeed. This attitude obscures the fact that tech is not immune to the external factors that give certain people social and economic advantages over others. In a reflective blog post last year about how his own cultural advantages could be easily mistaken for pure meritocratic success, programmer Glen Gillen writes, “even a single achievement is built upon a foundation of previous achievements, and a lot of privilege.”

He continues, “I might commit most of my waking hours to exercising and improving my craft and over time that too plays a significant role in my advancement. But being a straight white male has had 32 years of compounding interest applied to it.” Accounting for that compound interest is something the tech industry, as a whole, has not shown much interest in.

So What’s to be Done?

This is where it starts to get really complex and frustrating. These problems start out as things that sound concrete — like the number of computer-science degrees or the structure of early-stage startups — and end up squarely in the realm of the cultural. Girls don’t get interested in computer science because they have few role models and because more bombastic male students suck up all the oxygen in the classroom. Start-up founders hire the friends they made at MIT, and those friends like to hang out together and share certain personality characteristics. Everything relies on informal networks, the gut feelings of investors, the deep-seated biases of founders, and other intangibles.

That makes it tough to know where to start. After all, you can’t ask a generation of male programmers to walk away from their jobs or erase their notions of where they fit in the social ecosystem. You can’t ban ping-pong tables or pass a law mandating that startup founders hire beyond their friend group. Since startups are fractured and tiny, there’s no one employer to sue for discriminatory hiring practices — it’s always everyone else’s problem. No one likes the idea of quotas. “For us, it’s not a numbers game,” Maguire-Ward says. “It’s more about increasing access to education and career opportunities to as many people as we can, especially those who might not be able to afford traditional education or who are underrepresented in an industry that should be as diverse as possible for everyone’s benefit.”

And still, tired as the tech-sexism narrative has become, you don’t want to stop talking about the problem. Ignorance has never solved anything. But it’s also hard not to think that maybe all of the profiles of boy-wonder founders and outraged blogging about sexist tweets have their own sort of chilling effect, perpetuating a narrative that enables the worst entrenched tendencies of the industry and alienates the very people who could challenge them. Rather than highlighting the appalling nature of Titstare or CodeBabes, perhaps we should be talking about tech success stories — the companies and training programs that have managed to correct the gender imbalance while keeping their innovative, disruptive values intact.

Etsy, for example, increased its number of female engineers by a whopping 500 percent in one year — from just 3 engineers to 20 — after making a commitment to changing its lopsided gender ratio. Harvey Mudd College, a private liberal arts school in Southern California, decided it cared about the issue of women computer-science majors and now boasts a computer science program that is 40 percent women. And General Assembly, a startup that provides tech and design classes, boasts a staff that is 55 percent women. These are by no means the biggest names in the business, but they are success stories that could shed some light on how other corners of the tech industry could improve.

And, helpfully, the secrets to their success are remarkably similar.

1.

They build their own pipeline.

Rather than sit around and wait for female students to sign up, Harvey Mudd made its introductory computer science course mandatory, and then actively encouraged students to sign up for the second. In a similar quest to stock its own talent pool, Etsy sponsors a summer Hacker School, which offers grants to women looking to amp up their engineering skills. And training programs are built into General Assembly’s business model. All three now have ready access to a pool of qualified but up-and-coming women technologists. One function of the Hacker School is to allow Etsy’s hiring managers to get to know which newbies are worth taking a risk on. That’s the model that General Assembly applies to its internal hiring, too.

“We’ve hired people who have come in in completely different roles or who have been students here,” says Maguire-Ward. “When we see the potential in them, we want to harness it and tend to give people opportunity over résumé.”

2.

They’re open about appealing to women.

The impression that your office is all beer pong and hoodies? That’s not an employment incentive, it’s actually a PR problem. Women gravitate to businesses that have expressed an interest in hiring and retaining women. At first, Etsy had a tough time convincing female applicants to accept the job offers — they were understandably reluctant to join a team where they’d be so drastically outnumbered. The Harvey Mudd administrators understand how much visibility matters: They introduce female students to women with awesome jobs in tech, to show them they have a future in the industry. As more women began to populate computer science classes, their presence attracted even more women. “All of a sudden your classroom has got just as many females as males,” says Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd. “Why wouldn’t you be a CS major?”

3.

They value “soft skills” in addition to hard skills.

There are important skills for succeeding in tech beyond the technical — and realizing that doesn’t mean lowering standards. Turns out that valuing these skills doesn’t just attract women, it also draws in a different sort of male employee. “The men who come into our organization who are excited about the fact that we have diversity as a goal are generally the people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication, they’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads,” said Kellan Elliott-McCrea, chief technology officer at Etsy, in a talk to venture capitalists about Etsy’s hiring success. “These people are hard to find, and when you can find them, they’re awesome.”

A New Archetype

Those working in technology, and their chroniclers in the media, tend to focus on a handful of outsider success stories and repeat the details of their founding myths over and over. Jobs and Wozniak working in a garage — the antithesis of a megalithic corporate headquarters. Zuckerberg wearing his hoodie — the opposite of a conventional-thinker in a suit. You know the drill. These stories reinforce the tech industry’s proud narrative of “disruption” and fresh ways of thinking. But the industry has become the thing it claims to want to disrupt: the norm. Its own kind of norm.

That’s why it’s important to talk about the people and companies who fit a new tech archetype. And not just talk about them, but frame them in terms of tech-industry values, hold them up as shining examples of how new levels of disruption, success, and change are possible when a group of people decide to actively work against entrenched, self-perpetuating social dynamics. “Y-Combinator has 600-something startups that we’ve started. They all look up to the Dropboxes and Airbnbs and Stripes. If they say it’s important for us to have women at the top levels of our organization, that trickles down,” says Jessica Livingston. That’s probably true, but examples like Etsy show that saying something is important isn’t enough. Doing and being something different is what matters.

Turns out that the real disconnect in tech is not the women who both recognize they’re outnumbered and claim they don’t really notice. It’s within an industry that purports to be world-changing, but expects the people who work within it to conform to such a narrow culture. Tech’s gender imbalance is the result of a complex set of structural and cultural issues that are incompatible with the values it claims to hold dear. And this is why it’s possible to be an optimist about the future: These days, a commitment to changing the world actually looks a lot more like Etsy and Harvey Mudd than Facebook or Google, which have become The Man (er, the Men) both literally and figuratively. Despite the gloom-and-doom numbers, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which boy genius nerds in hoodies are an outdated hallmark of an earlier era in tech history. But it’s going to take meaningful, purposeful changes to get there.

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