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How to know when a company is women-in-tech friendly

Many organizations sincerely want to hire more women and grow them into leadership roles. However, most of us have also encountered “the other kind.” How can you tell the difference before you accept the job?

There's plenty of advice out there on how to spot companies that are actively hostile to female job seekers. Here's a more positive angle: tips that help you identify good places for a woman in tech to work.

We can trot out doleful numbers about the dearth of women in technology, such as only 18 percent of computer science degrees go to women or women make up only 25 percent of computing-related occupations. But matters do seem to be improving, perhaps in response to academia and industry’s concerted efforts. For example, Harvey Mudd College has worked to increase the ratio of women in computer science majors at the school (now at 55 percent). Yes, the school is small, but that doesn't obviate the results. And according to a HackerRank study involving 2,000 female professional software developers, “the gender gap for when developers learn to code is slowly but surely shrinking.”

Obviously, you want to find the good places to work, those that are actively supportive of women. I asked dozens of women in STEM fields how they judge companies during their job search process. Perhaps the signposts they shared can help you recognize great companies too, whether you are personally looking for a new job in tech, you’re an enlightened guy who wants to work in a diverse organization, or you are a hiring manager who wants to attract a wider range of talent.

If you want to work at companies that are serious about supporting diversity, there are some markers you can look for during the job interview process. There are also a few apparent “women-friendly” signposts that don’t mean as much as you might assume.

I don’t mean to shortchange other criteria in a job search. In this article, I intentionally sidestep other elements that techies care about, such as overall work-life balance, a rock-star culture, top pay, and a flexible career path. While such factors are important, you can find quite a few other articles on those topics (many of them here on this site).

Let’s start with the women-in-tech-friendly signposts in roughly the order of your ability to observe the phenomenon.

Start with the job ad. Kind of.

The first element to consider is the job advertisement itself. Plenty of companies try to sell job applicants on the team culture, and what they choose to include provides plenty of clues, both positive and negative. The job requisition can emphasize cultural attributes that can be perceived as “brogrammer” with a competitive, hard-drinking lifestyle. “I have nothing against beer or ping-pong,” wrote one woman. But when she sees those words in job ads, she expects a team that’s looking for fresh graduates who expect to make their workplace their home. That’s a turnoff for any family-oriented professional.

I caution you to evaluate those ads with a grain of salt, though, because often the job ad is written by the HR department rather than the manager you’d work with. Few companies are great at describing the actual job duties, much less properly marketing themselves to a diverse population. Alternatively, a job ad may include a photo with women in the office, but that tells you nothing if it’s a stock photo. A better signpost is pictures of people in the actual workspace, from which you can make judgments of the overall working environment. (An open floor plan? Ewww.)

A better way to learn about the company values is from its publicly advertised company benefits. If the company has on-site child care, extensive parental leave, or other family-friendly things, it implies the importance of work-life balance even if you don’t have or want children.

In short, don’t choose not to apply to a job because of the job ad unless it’s truly egregious. Instead, pay attention when it comes time to go to the job interview.

Look around

You’re probably nervous at a job interview because you want the people to like you. However, if you accept the position, this will be your daily working environment, so take the time to walk around the office space and check out the neighborhood. What does your gut tell you?

According to several women, the top positive marker for a woman-friendly company is the company bathrooms. A mundane restroom isn’t a negative sign, but if the ladies room has free supplies, it means someone is paying attention. “If the bathrooms have sanitary napkins, my personal respect goes up for that company,” one woman explained. Bonus points if the company has men's, women's, and an all-genders bathroom.

Another office nicety: a pumping room. A company that is breastfeeding-friendly is women-friendly…maybe. In some jurisdictions, there is a legal requirement to provide such a facility, so don’t draw too many conclusions. However, a designated pumping room is a good indicator.

If you have an opportunity to walk through the workspace, snoop at the way people decorate their desks. (That tells you something about playfulness and other social factors.) For example, one woman interviewed at a games company at which large character illustrations from its game were posted on the office walls. Plenty of female game characters were represented, she says, and the costumes were both character-appropriate and attractive—not battle-bikini male-gaze nonsense. “The few that showed some skin seemed like something a confident, sexy woman would choose to wear, not something a drooling dude would pick out for her,” she explained. Yup, that’s a positive sign.

You may not encounter this in the job interview—it’s more common at trade shows blazing “We’re hiring!” signs—but I’ve always looked for swag in diverse sizes. That is, are the T-shirt giveaways available in sizes besides Large? If the company purchases shirts only for the average man’s comfort, in what other ways would I find myself feeling like an exception?

Beyond the office proper, how is safety and security taken into consideration? Even in the best of circumstances, you’re apt to work a few late nights. Are exteriors well lit? Is the company serious about adherence to badging? One woman told me she wants to know if the company provides escorts as needed to cars, consistent security team members who get to know employees, and well-thought-out emergency procedures. While safety matters to everyone, women often are more sensitized to the issue.

But back to the interview process. While you may not want to ask about the company’s diversity policy in the first chat, you may want to consider doing so before you accept the job. “I usually ask if I can see a copy of the employee handbook when they make the offer,” one woman suggested. “Most mid- and large-size companies have something like that, containing information about benefits and company policies such as the dress code.”

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There are other good reasons to look at the employee handbook—not the least of which is whether it goes beyond “comprehensive” and reaches encyclopedic. While it’s great to have everything clearly spelled out, to set cultural and ethical expectations, some may respond negatively to organizations with strong constraints.

Count the women

My original starting point for “identify a woman-friendly company” was that the job interview schedule includes a meeting with more than one technical woman and nobody thinks it’s necessary to point it out as meaningful.

That’s still a good marker for a positive experience, but other input caused me to move a “count the number of tech women you encounter” signpost down the scale a little bit.

To begin with, someone has to be the first. One woman was loathe to accept a position because the company had few women in technical roles, until her (now) manager said, “If everyone thinks like that, no women will join the team and the situation will never change.” Once she took the job, she happily discovered that the environment was actually diverse, parent-friendly, and a good mix of experienced people and newcomers.

Also, even if the company employs plenty of women, interview schedules don't always match. “At my company, they send me to a lot of recruiting events and interviews so they can be all ‘Look! We have a woman!’” one programmer told me. “I do support us recruiting and retaining more women, but it's also time taken away from me doing my technical work, since there are so few women and so many dudes.”

Ideally, part of your pre-interview preparation is researching the company, its products, and its culture. One of the things you should look for is the number of women the company employs, particularly in tech positions and management. Sites like Glassdoor.com can be helpful, though I’m not sure how easy it is to find such numbers.

On the other hand, you can look for the visibility of the company’s senior women. How often does the company send women to speak at tech conferences? How often do they write in trade publications or on the company blog? One resource is the company’s press release page. Large businesses rarely brag about their techies’ speaking engagements, but sometimes startups and midsize businesses highlight their technology domain expertise; it’d be heartening to see the expertise coming from the company’s female staff.

More to the point, watch the company dynamics between men and women. In particular, look for institutional rejection to sexist comments and overall consciousness about gender issues. For example, one woman visited a tech conference booth that was staffed by two women and one man. “Facing the women, I asked my question, and the man answered by inserting himself. I was taken aback. I was, like, 'Wait, did that just happen?' So, I asked another question. Again, I was facing the two women and the man interjected. I was so blown away by the interaction.” What does that experience tell prospective hires about the work environment?

If you’re a hiring manager, you may see the other side of this. At one job, one woman explained, she regularly met job applicants in a meeting along with a male co-worker. “So often I would ask a question and the guy being interviewed would respond to my co-worker and act like I was invisible.” We have to wonder if the guys realized why they never got the job.

When in doubt, be direct. “I ask if they do anything to be more inclusive. If they don't, that's a red flag,” one woman said.

False flags

Finally, there are two issues that some women use as tech-women-supportive that I have concluded are not particularly representative of the situation.

The first is where the company does its recruitment. My initial premise is that an organization that actively looks for staff at women-in-tech events such as the Grace Hopper conference would get a positive nod.

But one woman disagreed with me vehemently, saying that doing so is an anti-pattern. It’s lazy, she asserted. “You get 95% junior women, which are then fed into a lion's den of senior men, which then sets up a perfect storm of sexual harassment.” Instead, she said, companies should recruit women, balanced between senior and junior, by poaching key women and tapping their networks.

Perhaps a middle ground is more workable: The company’s conference booth—wherever you encounter it—always has engineers you can speak with, and they are a diverse group.

The other issue is how women dress. Several women criticized companies where the women wear formal business attire while men dress down. They interpret the difference as women having to work harder to gain respect.

In my opinion, the visible differentiations in dress shouldn’t be a significant guidepost. At my first programming job in the 1980s, I was the only woman techie in a 70-person engineering team. When I dressed up, casual visitors assumed I was a secretary. But if I wore dress slacks and a polo shirt, they didn’t make any such assumption. So I actually dressed “down” more than my male co-workers, who sometimes wore ties.

At the other extreme, a few years ago, I worked on an all-female team that was supportive in any manner you could ask for. Everybody dressed well, whether it was the web developer or tech marketing staff, primarily because it was fun, and it was safe to be girly if you felt like it. (Let’s not talk about the money I spent on shoes.)

So pay attention to how people dress if you like, but please don’t draw important conclusions from it.

Finding women-friendly companies for techies: Lessons for leaders

  • Look for job listings that emphasize family-centric benefits even if you don’t need those personally.
  • During the on-site job interview, snoop at the daily environment for women-friendly features such as well-equipped restrooms and upbeat, appropriate office decorations.
  • Rather than count how many women you encounter during the job interview process, look for a healthy ratio of female staff across the org board and visible technologists representing the company.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.