Making Your IT Department More Attractive to Women

Want more women on your staff? You need to do more than offer family-friendly employee benefits. Women at every level of the career ladder describe the corporate behavior that can attract them to a company--or chase them away.

"Generally, women aren't very interested in programming computers," wrote Malcolm McLean, a gaming programmer, in comp.programming on Usenet. He was responding to a question about how to attract more women to IT jobs. "For instance, if you look at recent posts in this newsgroup, you'll find only one female regular," he added.

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In McLean's experience, IT is a man's world. At a gaming company he worked for, his hours were from 3 to 3. Everyone on his team was single, under 30 and male. So it's no wonder McLean doesn't think women are interested in IT: he didn't see them at work, therefore, they're not interested in computers.

Rather than see the lack of women at his company as a challenge to be addressed, he views it as the status quo: "That's not something I see a point in trying to change," he wrote.

Such dismissive attitudes toward women in IT are still common in IT shops, and many IT shops are not unlike the environment in which McLean works. Though McLean's work environment may sound extreme with its odd hours, its gender disparity and clueless assumptions about women are representative of IT departments across America.

The environment McLean describes also represents why some companies have so much trouble attracting women to their IT departments: they cater to men, and men expect women to conform to their boys club. Few women will choose to put up with such behavior, so when they see signposts that indicate your shop is unwelcoming, they vote with their feet.

Although we'd like to believe otherwise, gender is an issue in hiring and retaining technical talent. Often, in our effort to hire the best person for the job, we create an environment that chases away the best candidate when that candidate is a woman. At a time when a shortage of qualified workers threatens the productivity of every IT department, IT leaders need to do everything they can to bring smart women into the fold. In this article, women at every level of the IT career ladder explain what companies can do to attract more women into their IT departments. Their recommendations may surprise you. They're not all about the freedom to nurse on company property or generous maternity leave. Some ideas are just as simple as offering company T-shirts in smaller sizes when you're giving them away at conferences and recruiting fairs. Basically, women just want to know you're thinking about them.

Acknowledge Women's Differences

Treating women equally is important, but companies succeed when they acknowledge each gender's needs. For example, putting "feminine products" in the women's restroom sends a clear message that the company is aware of women's needs and cares about them. It's no different from supplying a cabinet in the office kitchen with pain-relievers, acid reducers and first aid kits.

"Most interviewees end up there [in the bathroom], and a box of tampons really says 'It isn't a man's world,'" says Elecia White, embedded systems lead with ShotSpotter, which makes gunshot and sniper detection and location systems for the law enforcement and military markets, in Mountain View, Calif.

Of course, women have more than physical differences, and the savvy company will pay attention to them and appeal to women's natural instincts.

"Many women in IT, and women in general, are natural nurturers," says Kelly Hall, IT vice president at Kentucky Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company. That's why women appreciate employers that show a desire to nurture and invest in employees through training, tuition reimbursement, wellness programs and competitive benefits, she says.

For similar reasons, women are also attracted to companies whose products or services make a difference in the world. White says the companies she's worked for in the past whose goals were to in some way improve people's lives employed more women engineers than the widget-makers and defense and sports companies she worked for. She recommends companies find authentic ways to articulate to prospective female employees how the company improves people's lives.

If your company's mission doesn't explicitly serve the greater good, it can still demonstrate a social conscience, and that will attract women. Give people time off to do volunteer work, suggests Lisa Crispin, an agile tester, or offer a company match for charitable donations.

Next: Are women employees visible?

Are Existing Women Employees Visible?

Women are attracted to companies that already have women in visible positions and where there's clear evidence that women get promoted. Carol Fawcett, Quest's vice president of global information services, looks at the make-up of the executive team first: Is it reasonably balanced for a company of its size in its location and industry? She also looks at the company's overall gender ratios: Again, is it reasonable? "These two questions can reveal a company's philosophy about women in IT," she says.

If women aren't in management positions, women will recognize that their career options are limited. Bethany, a junior programmer who just finished her second job search out of college and who declined to provide her last name for this article, pays attention to whether a company has female managers or team leads. "It demonstrates a willingness to listen to women and respect their opinions, and also promotional opportunities in the future," she says in an online forum for women in IT where she goes by her first name only.

Leslie Hastings of Web Advocate, a project management consultancy in Edinburgh, Scotland, agrees that working with other women in a department makes a position more attractive. "I appreciate that this is a catch-22 for companies looking to add any women to their teams," she says. "But if I were applying for a job in a company where there was already at least one other woman, I'd feel more comfortable."

ShotSpotter's White says being the first female employee at her company was hard even though she'd done it before. What makes it worthwhile, she says, is knowing that her presence helped bring in other women. "They knew it must be okay to work here since I was doing it," she says.

Examine Your Recruitment Methods

Many IT managers rely on networking to recruit employees. But Vicki Fletcher, QA engineer at HR software and service company Kronos in Portland, Ore., points out that searching for applicants through networking, word of mouth and employee referrals may cause a shortage of diversity. "People tend to know and recommend others like themselves," she says.

If you want to recruit women, contact women-in-technology groups for help. "If women aren't coming to you, go to them," advises Katie Albers, a user experience consultant with firstThought in Santa Monica, Calif. "There are women's groups of various kinds just about everywhere. Go to their meetings, tell them you're recruiting, what your group is like, what you're looking for, and that you're particularly seeking women applicants."

Junior programmer Bethany suggests companies send female developers to conventions. Not only will they get the training and networking opportunities they want, but they'll also represent your IT department—formally or informally—as a workplace that (hopefully) employs and invests in women.

When Bethany attended an OOPSLA event, she stopped at the Microsoft booth, and asked a woman staffing it how many women were in her department. "I think I'm the first one ever," Bethany says the Microsoft developer replied. Bethany adds that the woman told her that if she wanted to work there, she'd have to be "one of the guys." Bethany chose not to apply, but added, "That honesty is much better than some guy telling me about their strong commitment to diversity."

If you have a booth at a conference or trade show, bring T-shirts in sizes other than large and extra-large. Women appreciate getting shirts that fit (and no, the shirts don't have to be pink). Bringing shirts in women's sizes shows you're thinking about their needs, and that you expect women to be part of the community.

Finally, make sure your job requirements don't exclude women. For example, a system administrator position with the requirement of "Must be able to lift 70 pounds alone" is a red flag. It's also potentially discriminatory. Sure, most data center staff have to move servers, but good data centers have a buddy system for handling heavy equipment or they provide mechanical lifts, making it unnecessary for a single person—male or female—to hoist a 70-pound server.

Improve the Interview Process

Every company expresses its corporate culture in the one-on-one conversation called a job interview. The attitudes your staff brings to the discussion give a candidate a sense of whether she'll be comfortable working in the environment—or whether she should steer clear.

For example, hiring managers sometimes let sexist assumptions about women in IT inform their line of questioning, whether consciously or unconsciously. Such assumptions offend Maria Arinbjarnar, a database specialist in Landsbanki, Iceland. She's been turned off when a male interviewer's questions implied that he didn't expect her to have technical ability because she's a woman and when he expressed surprise upon her proving him wrong. "It makes me believe that I'm already at a disadvantage and that I will not be recognized from the outset," says Arinbjarnar.

Bethany has experienced her share of stupid-guy comments during interviews, too. She rejected a job opportunity after a male employee whom she met told her that she had a firm handshake "for a woman."

"I want to work in an environment where I'm not going to be an alien species," she says.

Besides becoming aware of your assumptions about women (and making your staff aware of their assumptions), you can improve the interview process for women by making interviews less confrontational. Interviews, by their nature, are adversarial; applicants are in a contest to see who can get the job and interviewers have the power to say who wins that contest. But some interviews are more in-your face than others—and those are likely to discourage a lot of women. It's not that they can't take the heat; it's just that the argumentative interview may be emblematic of a combative work environment, where employees have to fight to get work done. Bethany explains, "While I can sit and answer a barrage of questions, an interactive technical interview enthuses me about the company and gives me an idea that interacting with these people is going to be fun and productive."

Next: Why "family-friendly" employee benefits won't impress all women

Remember That Family Friendly Benefits Don't Serve All Women

The "easy" answer to attract more women is to offer employee benefits that cater to the needs of women in their childbearing years, such as a generous maternity leave or Google's designated parking for expectant mothers. Such benefits are appreciated, certainly, and they are a selling point to new parents.

Other parent-oriented benefits may go beyond the typical maternity leave. Ann N., a developer who asked not to be identified in this story, suggested in an online forum for women in IT that companies should offer options such as domestic partner benefits, infertility coverage and adoption reimbursement benefits for people with nontraditional families. "These can benefit women (or men's female partners) and same sex couples or singles wanting to create a family," she says.

However, not every woman is motivated by parent-centric benefits. In fact, a company that crows about these as its sole advantage can be a huge turnoff to women who do not need or want such perks.

"Not all women are mothers, nor do they all intend to be," says firstThought's Albers. And since even new mothers benefit from most maternity perks only for a relatively short time, companies would do well to offer benefits that speak to women's needs beyond those of working moms, she says. (For more on these benefits, see the sidebar, More Ways to Recruit Women.)

Some women who don't have children resent being treated as second-class citizens when companies only give flexibility benefits to working moms (and dads), or when childless employees have to pick up working moms' slack.

"I've found that 'family-friendly' often turns out to be a way of offloading parents' work onto those of us who are single and don't have children," says Martha Retallick, a Web designer with her own company, Western Sky Communications.

Crispin, the agile tester, is "put off" by companies that are flexible only with parents. "Everyone should get the same opportunity."

If you do offer flexible work arrangements, make sure you extend them equitably—not just to working parents. And make sure that when working moms have to take time off to care for their kids, you don't expect the unmarried members of your staff to pick up the slack.

Corporate Attitudes That Benefit Everyone

"The things that make a company attractive to women are largely the same things that make a company attractive to men," says Karen Gayda, a senior software engineer and consultant at Upper Deck, which makes personalized sports/entertainment trading cards. They want to be respected for their ability, efforts, creativity and knowledge, she says.

That's why Linda Brigance, vice president and CIO of FedEx's Asia Pacific division, has flourished with the logistics company. "FedEx operates on a meritocratic basis without regard to gender. This is one of the primary reasons why I was drawn to the company," she says. "Companies looking to attract more women into IT, or any other role for that matter, need to foster a work environment that rewards personal achievement above everything else."

Convincing more women to apply for jobs at your company takes marketing, says firstThought's Albers. "Position your department so that it sounds open, friendly and possible in women's minds. It needs to offer its female workers something, whether that's good mentoring, experience that will serve as a stepping stone or a particular reputation for flexibility and reasonableness," she says.

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