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Why Recruiting Women Requires Creativity

What if your strongest female job candidates lack experience? How Etsy invested in a training program that’s yielding better engineers and better products for its core demographic.
How Etsy recruited more female engineers
Super Nerdie doll by Etsy artist celinecnyc

When the Pentagon officially welcomed women to serve in direct combat positions in January, it opened up a fresh debate about the merits of diversity and the risks of “compromised” standards.

Putting aside the false pretense that U.S. military job qualifications are going anywhere, the government’s action once again shines a light on gender disparity. And, more specifically, the fact that women still occupy just two out of every 10 C-suite seats, a bleak statistic that has improved only incrementally since Eisenhower’s term.

What has improved is gender diversity research. A 2011 Harvard Business Review study of 7,280 leaders revealed that women leaders outperform their male counterparts in 12 out of 16 core leadership competencies. “At every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts — and the higher the level, the wider that gap grows,” note the report’s authors, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman (@ZengerFolkman), in the blog post “Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?”

But it’s another imbalanced statistic that haunted Marc Hedlund (@marcprecipice), vice president of engineering at Etsy: Only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and technology are awarded to women, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and an even smaller percentage make their way into high-tech development. In fact, until recently, women comprised only about 3 percent of Etsy’s engineering team — a product development disaster waiting to happen when 80 percent of your customers are women.

So Hedlund didn’t wait. As reported by Brett Berson (@brettberson) of First Round Capital, Hedlund introduced grants of $5,000 each to help talented young women engineers enroll in Hacker School, a three-month hands-on course designed to build better engineers. Almost immediately, the number of female applicants shot up 9,200 percent (from seven to 651) and from that pool Etsy has plucked more than a dozen rising stars for its team — all for a fraction of a typical placement fee.

Whereas Etsy struggled before to find experienced senior female engineers to lead its dev teams, the company is now focused on recruiting junior engineers it can nurture and groom over time. This diversity impacts not only Etsy’s product offerings, but also the company’s culture and appeal to top male candidates.

“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,” Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea (@kellan) tells The Atlantic. “They’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads. These people are hard to find, and when you can find them they’re awesome.”

#recruitwomen

THE PLUS

The Anita Borg Institute will announce this month the 2013 Top Company for Technical Women Award. “Each participating company is evaluated on the basis of 1) current representation, retention, and promotion percentages of technical women . . . and 2) demonstrated improvement in each of these areas,” the group explains on its website.

The award went to American Express in 2012 and IBM in 2011, whose tech teams are just 30 and 20 percent female, respectively. The takeaway: Corporate America is just starting down the long road to gender equality.

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