How Etsy Attracted 500 Percent More Female Engineers

Want cognitively diverse teams? Want women engineers? Do what Etsy did: Change who you target, and change how you train them.

Want cognitively diverse teams? It’s not as simple as hiring more female technologists. When Etsy stopped poaching and started training junior women to be rockstars, more senior engineers—men and women—saw the company’s progressive policies and started calling.

In Silicon Valley today it's not possible to hire more women simply by recruiting them. Good engineers today have their pick of jobs, and good female engineers are being stalked like the last antelope on the African veldt.

For Etsy, diversifying wasn’t just about good citizenship—it was vital to the product. Eighty percent of Etsy customers are female, but the company itself used to be known in startup circles as engineer-centric and something of a dude-fest: As of January 2011, the company only had three female engineers out of 47. Despairing, management gave up searching for senior female engineers and set about training junior prospects. Today, Etsy’s engineering team is 20 ladies to 90 guys, or 500% more women than two years ago.

Hiring female engineers is a chicken-and-egg problem

In 2011 the company decided to make recruiting women a stated core value for the year, but by December, they had only added one female engineer out of the 40 technologists they hired, driving the gender balance down 35%. "This is over a year when we were saying it's really important, we're working really hard on this," said Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea, in a talk at First Round Capital’s annual CTO Summit. "Something wasn't working. This was deeply broken."

Women hold just one quarter of engineering and computer-related jobs, and at many of the supposedly most innovative companies, the ratio is much much lower. There's lots of embryonic efforts to get girls into coding and entrepreneurship, like Change the Ratio, Rails Girls, and Black Girls Code, but many are too far up the pipeline to help a company that's hiring now.

Then there's a chicken-and-egg problem. How are you going to pull in senior women candidates when they look at your staff and see all the women in support roles? How do you make a female engineer feel welcome when almost every single coder is a dude?

"Great women engineers are not only NOT looking for work," says Elliott-McCrea, but also, they're wary of being burned by the culture. If all they see is men, "there's a decent chance, based on their experience, that your workplace is going to suck."

Less headhunters, more hacker school

So instead of shopping for senior engineering talent to poach, the company risked an investment in training junior women with an eye toward hiring them. When the company changed its focus, it grew from just four female engineers to 20 in a single year, 2012.

The key, says Elliott-McCrea, was partnering with other companies to fund a training program that would attract candidates ready to learn. Etsy, together with 37Signals and Yammer, kicked in for $7,000 per student in grants to cover women's living expenses for a Hacker School session held at Etsy's offices in the summer of 2012. (For the uninitiated, Hacker School is a three-month intensive free coding training program in New York that trades on its culture of mutual respect.) Over 600 women applied, which Hacker School narrowed down to 23 attendees, or nearly half of the session for that semester.

Education researchers have shown both genders feel most comfortable when there's a balance. And the evidence was in students’ reactions. "I never realized the impact of being the only woman in the room until I wasn't," blogged Martha Kelly, one of the participants, about her first day at Hacker School. "Can you imagine STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] being a diverse and supportive community building amazing things together? I can :)"

What senior women engineers want to see

At the end of the summer, Etsy hired Kelly and seven of her classmates from Hacker School, five of them women. While the company is taking a risk on some less experienced hires, it is already paying off elsewhere. After word spread in the engineering community about Etsy’s Hacker School grants, they attracted some very high-level candidates, men and women "whose names you would know," who weren't explicitly job hunting, but loved their initiative, leading to two senior-level hires and three more who are in talks.

As for Hacker School, they just announced a new round of grants for women—Dropbox, GitHub and PhotoShelter are joining Etsy to sponsor the 2013 class.

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  • marthakelly

    Hey, I'm Martha - quoted in this article (thanks!) One note: we were not less experienced. I had worked as a FE dev for 4 years, and 5 out of the 7 women hired from my batch of hacker school turned down offers at other companies (some at more senior positions). We're not all junior level :)

  • marthakelly

    But, thank you for writing your articles! Things are changing and exciting things are happening

  • Flydog57

    Let me try that again...

    Although women are grossly under-represented in technical fields, as this article points out, this is beginning to change.  My daughter's class in Engineering School (Chemical Engineering) was nearly half women.  Listening to her talk about her first job (in the oil and gas industry, working in the field for a major multinational), it appears that about half her cohort of young engineers is female.

    If you look outside of the technical realm in universities, you can see the results of twenty years of trying to break down the barriers that held back girls and women from advancing in the world; the male-female disparities are glaringly pronounced, and the women are trouncing the men by almost every measure.  This (for example 60-40 female to male ratios in university classes) isn't healthy for society - in the same way that the huge male to female disparity was at my last job (working in the "services" business for a very well-known software company).

    Yes, we must help young girls decide that math and engineering are great ways for them to strive.  However, we must couple that with an effort to help young boys realize their potential.  similarly, if a company's technical group has 47 men and 3 women, they need to figure out how to better recruit and hire a balanced workforce.  But, this can't mean ignoring qualified men, either as recruits or promotion candidates. 

    I had a friend, who, during his second interview for a promotion into technical management, was told "most of us think we should be offering this job to a woman".  He resisted his urge to walk out of the room, but a woman got the promotion. It's also not unusual to see technical organizations were the male-female ratio is insanely large at the "worker" level, but at each level above that, the disparity becomes less noticeable.  We must make sure we don't replace the pink-tinged glass ceiling with a blue one.

  • Doug Erickson

    I'm a software engineer, and am all for more women in the field. However, on the flip side, I would also like to see schools actively recruit male teachers, colleges and grad schools do more to attract male students, etc. Sadly, our society only considers gender disparities to be a problem in those cases where women are on the short end. Boys lagging way behind girls in public schools, and attending college in ever-shrinking numbers? Meh. But if girls were trailing and constantly losing ground, you can bet the hue and cry would be deafening and we'd have who knows how many federal programs to level the field.

  • shomac

    I don't think you understand Doug that the field isn't level.  That is the whole point of this article.  Becoming more informed about the history of gender politics and the impacts on both men and women is a useful way to understand the big picture.

  • Brent Harrelson

    His point wasn't that the field is level. His point is that now it's becoming un-level in the opposite direction. We have focused so much on getting young women into these fields that we have neglected to KEEP getting young men into them also. It was unequal in favor of men, now it's unequal in favor of women. This country needs ALL the engineers we can get, men AND women.

  • Seattle Tech Mom

    It would be great to see this as well. I"d like my girls to see more male teachers in the classroom. So, come on men, organize and do something about it. Don't wait for women to do this for you too.

  • Brent Harrelson

    If men organize to do this for young men then it would be called sexist. Accusations would fly that we're trying to take America back to the 1950s where a woman's place was only in the home. It would be similar to white people trying to start a National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). The accusations of racism would fly. Double standards rule in these areas.

  • Brent Harrelson

    If men said that when women were being treated unequally it was considered sexist. Amazing how many women think it's ok to have the same mentality now that the situation is reversing.

  • tbri

    Hire me! Just kidding. But I'm a mechanical engineer and I am currently doing a co-op at a company which is 20% female engineers, which is above the national (Canadian) average of 13%. It's pretty sad that I noticed the higher number of women at my workplace and it seemed almost 50/50 (in fact, I would have guessed it was 50/50) until the 20% was announced in an in-office document. It tells you something when 20% seems like a lot.