If you’ve ever interviewed for a job as a software engineer, you’ve probably encountered the dreaded Whiteboard Test. Just you, a blank wall, and a marker.
“Five developers sat across from me stonefaced, like I was at a war crimes tribunal,” said Bill Nordwall, recounting his first interview for a software engineering position.
This type of interview overwhelmingly favors candidates that are confident, showy, and even aggressive. And this may be a central reason why only a fraction of software engineers today are women.
At Apple, women make up only 22% of tech workers. At Microsoft, that number drops to 17%. And a 2013 study by the U.S. Census found that the number of women represented in computer-related fields has actually dropped since 1990.
But research also shows that gender-diverse tech teams are more productive and innovative, so we have to ask, where are all the women?
There are three places where the software pipeline is leaky for woman engineers: getting training, finding a job, and in the workplace itself.
Nordwall, co-founder of Seattle software development firm Foundry Interactive, is taking aim at one of these areas with a different approach to interviewing.
“Everything about the previous way of interviewing people is very patriarchal, it’s very based on power dynamics,” said Nordwall, whose background includes engineering contract work for Expedia and early development work on GeekWire. “The first thing we seek to do is to reduce that power dynamic, because in software you work on a team.”
Instead of approaching interviews from a show-me-what-you’ve-got perspective, Nordwall brings an on-the-job problem to the interview and works with the candidate to solve it.
“Immediately, in an interview, we’re talking as colleagues,” he said.
As a result, Foundry is able to find the qualities that make candidates great software engineers, instead of great Whiteboarders.
“I think there’s a very specific kind of person that dominates technology because of the way we interview,” Nordwall said.
That style of interviewing benefits people who come from a place of privilege, a candidate that comes with a sense of confidence that many people don’t have the chance to develop.
Their interview techniques allow Foundry to be more open to people from a variety of backgrounds. Until recently, the team of engineers there had an impressive 50-50 gender balance, and Nordwall hopes to get back to that number in upcoming hiring rounds.
While changing interview techniques can help companies develop a more diverse workforce, finding qualified female candidates is a struggle all its own.
Many women who are interested in software engineering begin encountering obstacles as early as their first coding class, according to Cynthia Tee, Executive Director of Ada Developers Academy.
“I hear a lot of my students telling me, for example, that they developed some sort of interest early on but for whatever reason they were discouraged from taking computer science classes,” she said.
“There were a lot of boys, a lot of people who had been there for years, and they didn’t’ feel like they belong,” Tee said. “No one is trying to make this true, but it’s very male centered.”
This discouragement is having a direct impact on female students: only 18% of students who took the 2013 AP computer science test were female, and there were entire states where no female students took the exam.
This discouragement follows women into higher education: according to Department of Education statistics from 2010, women also made up 18% of those graduating with computer science degrees.
Coding bootcamps like Code Fellows and programs like Ada—a year-long, tuition-free coding program for women—are a good way to open up alternative routes into the industry.
“These alternative paths are a lot friendlier for more women to get into the field, particularly for women who did not get into the industry in college,” Tee said.
For companies that want to broaden their diversity, reaching out to alternative programs can be a great way to start.
Shadae Holmes, a graduate of Ada, was excited to have a second chance at software engineering after she was discouraged from studying computer science in college.
Holmes said she was the only woman of color in her first programming class.
“No one looked like me, no one wanted to talk to me,” she said, and eventually an academic counselor convinced her to drop her studies and pursue a different degree.
Years later, she rekindled her love of software engineering and joined Ada’s first graduating class. She interned for Foundry Interactive during her studies.
After graduating, Holmes was hired full-time at Foundry Interactive, where she still works as a web developer.
Tee noted that success stories like Shadae’s are not just good for publicity: increasing diversity, in all areas, also has a huge impact on the quality of a company’s product.
“You know, half of the customers that use our products are women,” Tee added.
She recounted a meeting from her time as a software engineer when a group presented on the demographics of their customers: surprisingly, they were mostly women.
“And it was a group of men presenting this to us!” Tee said. “It’s not like men are incapable of designing things for women, but you need that perspective ingrained in the design.”
Tee said she does see change in the industry, and efforts like Foundry’s interview protocol are helping more women work their way into the force.
But for women who do make it into the workforce, the struggle is not yet over. The culture of tech workplaces can be an obstacle all its own, and is arguably the most difficult to address.
One of the biggest issues for women in a male-dominated workplace is Impostor Syndrome: the feeling that you are somehow a “fraud,” and constantly doubting your own ability.
“For a lot of women graduating with degrees, there’s the feeling that you’re not good enough, that you’re not aggressive enough,” Tee said.
People who experience impostor syndrome are less likely to apply for promotions, be assertive during interviews, or negotiate for higher pay.
This imbalance in things like promotions and pay has led many companies to reexamine their internal procedures, and find ways to eliminate bias.
Twitter has an internal group to help women prepare for promotions. Real estate site Redfin recently published average employee salaries across gender lines. Dropbox monitors data like promotions and job offers to catch unintended bias.
Small changes like these, and large changes to things like interview procedure, are already having an impact on the tech workforce. But achieving a 50-50 gender balance in tech is still a long way off.