How's the Gender Ratio?

I recently completed a job hunt. I was a lot more intentional this time about having a list of questions to ask the companies I was interviewing with. I highly recommend Key Values for generating a list of questions to ask. They explain why they’re worded the way they are, too.

I did ask one thing in a way they didn’t suggest, though. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a hot topic, and I know that asking specifically with those words is likely to get me a canned answer. I wanted to avoid that. And of course, I can look at a company’s “About Us” page on their website and scroll through their LinkedIn results to get a sense of their gender and racial diversity.

But to open the DEI conversation, I like to start out non-chalant. “By the way, how’s the gender ratio here?” It’s off-hand. It seems like an afterthought, ticking off one more box on my list. It might catch them off guard when I’ve just been asking about their CI/CD strategy.

And I’m treating it like a behavioral question. How do they react?

I know that most of the time, the answer will start out with “well, it’s not great, but…” That’s fine. I ended up going with a company where I’m the only woman on this particular team (within a much larger engineering organization). I don’t actually mind being the only woman on a team (but some do!), and I don’t have some arbitrary percentage you need to say for me to continue interviewing with you. If you say engineering is over 40% women, I’ll be impressed, but otherwise, whatever.

What I’m actually interested in is what comes after that “but.”

Good answers

I’m gauging thoughtfulness.

There are two key aspects to having a diverse workforce: hiring and retention. Have you considered both? A good answer tells me what you’re doing to diversify your hiring funnel and what you’re doing to ensure equitable retention rates.

A stand-out answer is thorough on both counts. It includes how you’re listening to employees to improve things and how you monitor differences across career levels.

If you talk about nonbinary people, ⭐ (Remember, my question was “gender ratio,” not “how many women?” It’s intentionally open-ended regarding how many genders there are.)

If you proactively expand the conversation outward from gender to other types of diversity, ⭐

There are so many things a company could be doing that I can’t really go in-depth here. Your ability to answer this is going to depend on how much attention you’ve been paying to what your company is doing.

Sadly, I did not get all good answers.

Bad answers

I will not be naming names, just so we’re clear.

Bad answers include ones you couldn’t give to a man. For example, “well, it’s not great, but that’s why we’re so excited about you.” BZZZ Nope.

That kind of answer makes me think of every time I’ve ever been told “you only got where you are because you’re a girl in tech.” I guarantee you every single woman who’s been in tech more than six months has heard this line. Do you know when I first heard it? College move-in day. An upperclassman told me I was only accepted to our university because I was a girl who’d applied to engineering school. Joke’s on him: I was majoring in Japanese. I hadn’t applied to engineering school at all. He assumed I was in engineering school because I used a Linux laptop, and at the same time he assumed I wasn’t worthy of engineering school. (I later changed majors and transferred into the engineering school.)

So, for starters, you’re reminding the candidate of all the sexism they’ve encountered so far. But also, I really hope you’re not saying that around the office. That is setting the candidate up to be undermined. Now everyone else in the office thinks they got the job based on gender, not on skills. They’ll be watching like hawks for mistakes, turning every interaction into another test, until they can finally earn the team’s respect.

I do want to add a bit of nuance here. If you’re giving a good answer, and you’re interviewing someone for a leadership role, and their gender is underrepresented in tech, it’s ok to connect this to your broader strategy. “We are taking a multi-pronged approach. We know how important it is to retain and grow junior engineers into engineering leadership, but we also know that takes years and that role models are important, and we don’t want to maintain a glass ceiling in the meantime.”

The worst answers take no initiative at all.

If your answer can be summarized as “butter fingers,” we’re done here.

I did, in fact, receive one answer that amounted to a shrug about the industry as a whole not having great gender diversity. That’s true, but it varies widely from company to company. I just left an organization where engineering was 50% women, and there were non-binary people, meaning men weren’t a majority. Tell me what you’re doing to change the things you can control: your team or your company.

When I pushed a little, this person told me that we just needed to wait a couple decades, since it’s a pipeline problem. There aren’t many women in tech now because we experienced sexism in school as children, but that’s all fixed now, and his daughter’s generation is growing up without experiencing sexism, which will magically fix it when they enter the workforce.

The reason a good answer includes retention is that it isn’t only a pipeline problem. We leave the industry at higher rates than men.

And I really hope I don’t have to tell you that sexism is not “all fixed now” and kids aren’t “growing up without experiencing sexism.”

Closing thoughts

I want to reiterate, this is to open the DEI conversation. DEI includes much more than gender. Sometimes, gender is the only thing tech organizations think about for DEI, and that’s bad too. Starting there is the coarse filter. A company that can’t even give a good answer for gender will almost certainly disappoint you regarding any other form of diversity.

I have more in-depth questions (from Key Values) about DEI, but sometimes I didn’t need to ask them, because the base answer was thorough enough to cover them.