‘But no women applied for the position!’

This is far from an original issue when it comes to discussions of diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, but I’m seeing the argument come up a lot lately, so I would like to take a time out to address ‘no women applied for the job so what was I supposed to do?’ If you’re already familiar with these issues, you’re likely rolling your eyes that we need to go over this again, but I’m really trying to approach this from the perspective of people who genuinely don’t understand the problem here. Because I want to help you help yourselves, friends.

Here’s the deal: Tech companies, especially engineering teams within them, are often criticised for having predominantly (or all) male teams, usually heavily white (and sometimes Asian). Critics argue that this is a failure of diversity and a poor reflection on the parent company. It is worth noting that even if you see no problem with this employee mix, it actually harms your company — because diverse teams demonstrably improve performance.

So set aside the question of whether you think diversity has intrinsic value if you need to, and think of this from the perspective of a business decision. Your company will do better if you have an inclusive demographic makeup, and that includes across all areas of your company — if you say you’re ’40 percent women’ but that’s because 90 percent of your service and support staff are women and they skew the statistics, that’s a problem.

It can be frustrating to be criticised, especially when the critique delves into issues that don’t personally affect you, or topics you haven’t really considered. Thus, unfortunately, when people ask ‘why aren’t there more women, and people of colour, and disabled people, and trans people, and queer people, in your company?’ the response is often very reactive and defensive, serving to minimize the criticism.

‘We couldn’t find anyone qualified’ is a common response — the argument goes that you need to do the best for your company, and while it would be nice to be more diverse, the bottom line is that you need people with a specific education and skill set. We also hear ‘well, no [underrepresented group] applied for that job opening,’ suggesting that you’d be open to hiring them, but they have to come to you first.

So here are some things to consider about the implications of those statements, starting with the problem of people not applying, which can directly feed into the question of qualifications.

When people are pursuing jobs in the tech industry, most consider a lot of factors, including location, pay, benefits, and so forth. They also consider the climate at companies, including not just the company’s jobs page and public statements, but other publicly available information about what it’s like to work there. In the case of underrepresented groups, people also usually take advantage of an informal sub rosa network of people to gather more concrete information.

Most underrepresented people in tech are going to ask a friend if they know someone who has worked at Company, and what it’s like there. Based on that information, they may decide not to apply. The company has effectively reverse selected against potential job applicants by maintaining a culture and climate that leads people to conclude it will be unpleasant to work there. If companies want, for example, women to join their teams, they need to build an inclusive culture that makes women want to apply.

The thing is that while these networks are informal and quiet, much of what they have to say is also pretty widely known. Earlier this year, a former Uber engineer wrote a searing indictment of the sexist treatment she received there and executives acted shocked, simply shocked, that this had happened. However, the misogynistic climate at Uber was well known and understood by many women in the industry as well as outsiders — I don’t work in tech and I was well aware that Uber maintained a hostile working environment. Uber undoubtedly knew, but chose not to take action until publicly shamed for it. A smart company would get proactive — if Company knows that rumours about racism are going around, it should find out what is happening in its corporate climate that is making those rumours spread, and it should fix it.

Which brings us to the qualifications question. There are a ton of highly qualified people in underrepresented groups. Like all highly qualified people, they know that they have the advantage in a competitive job market, albeit less of one than, say, white, straight, cis, nondisabled engineers. It’s not that qualified underrepresented people don’t exist, but that they rely on the same networks everyone does to determine where they want to apply. Thus, the incredibly talented trans MIT graduate with a decade of industry experience opts to skip an interview at Notoriously Transphobic Company and instead applies to Smaller But More Trans-Friendly Company. The Latino Stanford graduate who’s successfully launched multiple new major products in international markets is similarly going to pass on an ‘opportunity’ to apply to a racist company.

So it’s not that qualified people don’t exist, but that they aren’t applying, because they’re taking advantage of whisper networks. And it’s worth noting that the industry’s barometer for ‘qualifications’ is very specifically calibrated in a way that tends to favour academic degrees, from particular schools, backed by very specific types of experience. Some underrepresented people don’t have access to those qualifications, for a variety of reasons, even when they’re extremely skilled at what they do — the Jewish high school graduate with some college who’s an excellent QA engineer, for example.

When people discuss changing the way companies think about what it means to be qualified, that’s often taken as a mandate to ‘lower the bar.’ Companies want to know why they should accept inferior candidates just to satisfy the diversity police. Contrarily, these are discussions designed to increase the size of the talent pool, and integrate people with experience, perspectives, and qualifications that will make your product stronger.

If no people from underrepresented groups are applying for positions at your company, or they are but their qualifications don’t meet your standards, that’s a cue to look inward to find out what needs to change. That takes work, and can be seriously challenging, but it’s still worth it.

Photo: Women of Color in Tech, Flickr