Trending: Hands-on with the $350 Surface Headphones: Why is Microsoft making them, and are they any good?

I never had a problem with Mitt Romney’s use of the phrase “binders full of women.” Remember that awkward 2012 statement about his proposed cabinet’s lack of women? He said, “I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men … I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Romney realized that he was seeing no women candidates for his cabinet and reached out to people he thought could help him. Instead of congratulating him for his realization and his attempt to (awkwardly) rectify the situation, we crucified him for not already having a network of accomplished women.

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

If we punish men who publicly admit they need more gender diversity in their companies and try to hire more women, we’ll be closing off a great avenue for women to succeed, and closing off diverse viewpoints from the people who need it most. Most Americans in positions of wealth and influence are white men, and sometimes they stumble and make mistakes. Screaming at them for it won’t help women get jobs. Compassion, clear-sightedness, and advocacy will.

Large Seattle companies are hiring tens of thousands of tech workers with no thought to gender diversity. Seattle is shifting to a place where men have the well-paid jobs, and women work in support positions. Even when women set out to create a tech career for themselves, they’re faced with profound barriers and bias at every point in their struggle. Women leak from every joint in the tech career pipeline.

Why should this matter to you if you’re a tech CEO like me and trying to build a company? We know now that adding women at every stage of a tech company’s growth (and most especially in the earliest stages) improves profits, stabilizes revenue, decreases legal costs for financial malfeasance, reduces public relations fiascoes, improves product quality and decreases marketing missteps, and creates a better working environment. It’s stupid on every level not to acknowledge the obstacles women face when they try to join a tech company.

Women will already be discouraged at every point along the way to working at tech companies. Eliza Rawlings, chief business officer at Cloud Direct, shared an experience she had while studying electronic engineering. She said one of the male lecturers walked into the lecture theatre and, seeing only a handful of girls amongst mostly male students, very seriously said: “Ladies, what are you doing here? You are wasting your time. There is no place for you in this industry. I mean it – don’t waste your time here. The industry doesn’t want women.” So, if a woman makes it to a technical interview, she’s already overcome huge obstacles. Don’t make your interview a horrifying steeplechase through careless and non-people-oriented technologists who want to put your potential technical talent through a gauntlet.

Fighting an unconscious social bias

Amazon has recently been justifiably criticized for its interview processes that turn off applicants with diverse perspectives and filters for sameness in all its technologists. One applicant “didn’t get an offer, but by the time she ran (screaming?) to her car she didn’t want one.” A company that interviews this way is discouraging to women seeking any camaraderie or support in the workplace, and advertises that it will be a bad place to work. Women who made it through interviews at tech company Zillow allegedly got jobs that have been equated to actual sexual tortureZillow has fired two of the employees embroiled in the recent scandal and has said that it doesn’t tolerate this behavior, which is a decent first step to fixing a toxic culture. No tech CEO wants to run a toxic company.

So why don’t we, as the founders of tech companies, provide every opportunity for women to join our companies? We’re all fighting against a mostly unconscious social bias that keeps us from envisioning women as productive tech workers. Humans live, work, and play in tribes, and if your tribe only looks like you, that doesn’t make you a terrible person—but it does make you someone who is only hearing part of the story. Founders share a shorthand of shared experience with the people they know and likely hired at early stages. It makes for rapid and easy communication, but it also means everyone shares the same blind spots.

How can we overcome this obstacle? Burning the system down only makes us all poorer and stupider. It’s also been proven false that (as I’ve been repeatedly and condescendingly informed) if women wanted to be in tech, they’d just, you know, be in tech. Instead, let’s start conversations with companies to improve their hiring and retention of women and encourage tech founders and hiring managers to deliberately seek out female candidates for roles that have only male candidates. Let’s encourage and reward people who admit they need gender diversity rather than shaming them publicly. This gets us all much further towards economic equality than vicious attacks and ignoring the situation.

I’d personally love it if tech companies hired women because they’re qualified and the best person for the position even if they’re not perfect at self-promotion or don’t show stereotypical confidence in their abilities. Still, I really only care about results. If a tech founder hires a spectacular female candidate for a senior technical management position and she’s paid, treated, and mentored well, I don’t particularly care if the motivation for hiring her was partially cynical. CS Lewis (in the closest he ever approached to Machiavellian realist ethics) once said that “the distinction between pretending you are better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive.” I have every faith that people who start hiring women will not just hope, but realize fully, that it was a good decision for their bottom line as well as their company ethics.

Many male founders are praying they’ll avoid some random blogger noticing that their company has thirty male engineers and leaders, five female marketers, and three female secretaries. I discovered Klout had these kinds of numbers in 2013, and the Huffington Post blared out my findings, forcing them to make a public statement. It takes a special kind of idiocy to think that a tech company can make a billion dollars in an IPO while avoiding federal oversight of company demographics and equal opportunity reporting. A thoughtful founder and CEO starts planning for a diverse and successful company instead of hoping it will magically appear.

Concrete steps for improving gender diversity

Fortunately, like Albus Dumbledore said, “Help will always be given to those who ask for it.” If you have realized you need gender diversity in your company, here are three specific steps you can take.

  • First, the statistical existence of the tipping point of diversity is over 20%, and coincidentally enough, that’s an average percentage of women in tech specialties (e.g. more in web design, less in sysadmin). If your company has twenty developers, you need to hire at least four women coders. Ask yourself if, like Mitt Romney, you aren’t being presented with female candidates for open positions. Reach out to tech recruiters until you see at least 20% of the resumes in front of you shift to female candidates.
  • Second, invisible internal biases are hard at work keeping us from making objective decisions. If you have a diverse candidate pool and yet your company is still not hiring women, ask yourself and your hiring managers how much “gut feeling” your hiring decisions are based on. I’ve frequently talked to hiring managers who had a hard time understanding that women and men are socialized into differing levels of confrontation. This is a direct quote from a hiring manager I was once coaching: “All she did was ask questions, even after I told her that her correct code was wrong to see if she’d stand up for herself. She just wanted to know why I thought that instead of telling me that I was the wrong one.” Stepping back and thinking about it, he was eventually able to understand–too late–that she was defusing conflict instead of increasing it, while still working through the problem, and that she would have been a great hire. Make sure that you and your hiring managers don’t misinterpret confrontational people as strong, and cooperative people as weak. These differing ways of thinking are vital to stimulating good discussion, company culture, and the bottom line. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich just announced a $300 million budget to increase diversity at Intel. Most importantly, he understands that  “people hire people who are like them. It’s convenient, it’s comfortable, it’s what you know best.” I guarantee that the CEO of Intel isn’t spending 300 million dollars to feel good about himself. He’s improving Intel’s culture and approach to diversity because it makes him money.
  • Third, publicly state that you are an advocate for diversity, you understand the barriers facing women and minorities in tech, and your company will contribute in a transparent way to the solution. Start talking about diversity while your company is small, and you’ll build a company where people expect the leadership to be committed to diversity. We all act within the constraints and incentives of our culture and society, as well as the constraints and incentives we’ve set up for ourselves. It’s much harder to add a commitment to diversity as a core value of a company that’s already huge, and because you started small, you’re constrained and incentivized by your own promises to make diversity in your company real, without paying huge costs later. Loudly adding to the voices supporting diversity in tech helps everyone working towards the solution.

If all else fails, email me at privately and we’ll talk—confidentially. I won’t mock you and I will help you. If you’ve chosen not to hire women because their lady brains cannot encompass computer programming, I would like to politely invite you to go find your public relations fix somewhere else. I’m Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, I’m the CEO of Fizzmint, I advocate for diversity in technology, and I know binders full of women.

My fellow Seattle tech CEOs: we are the stewards of power and wealth in our city, we collectively bear responsibility for how few women are in tech, and we can and will do better.

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack (BA, MS, CSM, CSD) is co-founder and CEO of Fizzmint, an end-to-end employee management company. She has led projects at Microsoft Game Studios (Halo and Lips), architected systems at Silent Circle, & holds two agile development certifications through the Scrum Alliance. She founded Red Queen Technologies, LLC, and co-founded and is co-chair of Hack The People, a mentorship project focused on underprivileged people in technology. She acquired her startup funds by cleaning out poker rooms in the Northwest and Las Vegas. Follow her @tarah.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.