Tag Archives: hiring

I take it wearing cat ears wouldn’t help?

Moskowitz

A Twitter friend of mine linked to a cute post that Asana — a startup that makes collaboration software — has on their web site. It’s a joke proposal for furnishing the office with kittens. This is a nice type of humor because it doesn’t rely on making fun of anyone. I would have appreciated it, if not for one thing.

Back in June 2013, I got a recruiter email from Asana. I was already considering leaving my job at the time, and it seemed like the company was doing something pretty cool. I asked whether they offered trans-inclusive benefits. The recruiter looked into it for me, and came back with the following answer:

“We researched this and went back and forth with the insurance company and our insurance broker. It appears we probably do not have the coverage you are looking for. Sorry about that. I would have liked to be able to talk.”

So that was it. I would have considered the job otherwise, but not if I was clearly going to be a second-class employee. There was nothing particularly unusual about this interaction. As trans people, we’re not a protected class under US law, so it’s okay for insurance companies to deny us medically necessary care as long as it’s care that only a trans person would need. This isn’t because insurance executives actively hate us or something like that — no, it’s because of something worse. They know that because the American public considers us subhuman, they can get away with cutting costs by denying us health care — just because we happen to be in a politically unpopular group. To me, that’s worse than being actively hated.

Is this the fault of a small tech startup? No, of course not. But at the same time, many companies — big and small — have found ways to be fair and just in how they provide benefits to employees. Generally, this just means negotiating a deal with an insurance broker to add a rider for trans-related care. It should be the default, but in the meantime, negotiating that deal is the right thing to do. Engineering is supposed to be about solving problems, not reassigning blame so as to accumulate more of them.

Negotiating a better insurance plan is also the smart thing to do, because at a time when it seems widely accepted that there’s a shortage of tech talent, turning somebody away because a doctor assigned them an incorrect sex category at birth makes no sense; being trans has no bearing on anybody’s ability to write software. And even when you are not actively discriminating against trans people, saying (explicitly or tacitly) “it’s not worth our time to treat trans employees the same way as everybody else” is effectively equivalent to active discrimination.

So when I saw that “kittens” link, this is what I thought about. Somebody at Asana had enough time to write a cute, silly blog post — that nevertheless must have taken some effort — on the clock. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But at a company with more than 50 employees, nonetheless, nobody has time to spend a few hours executing a simple, well-documented procedure to make sure that they are treating all employees as equally welcome. So that says something about their priorities.

When I made this observation on Twitter a few hours ago, it didn’t take much time before Asana’s co-founder Dustin Moskowitz was in my Twitter mentions explaining to me that Asana doesn’t have any trans employees (how does he know that, exactly?) but if they ever did, they would be sure to make their health insurance coverage fair after that person got hired.

Even more mind-bogglingly, he defended this choice by saying that many HR processes work this way, using pregnancy leave as another example. This is like saying “we are only going to install men’s restrooms in our office, and wait until a woman gets hired before installing a women’s room. Too bad if she needs to take a bathroom break while we’re interviewing her.” Lazy evaluation can be a great feature in a programming language, but it’s a terrible way for a company to ensure it’s meeting minimal standards about equity and inclusion right from the beginning.

Right now, I’m thinking about the free labor that I’m expected to perform by virtue of my membership in a marginalized group. If I actually did apply to Asana and was hired, I’d be expected to out myself to, potentially, people outside HR, just so I could get something every other employee takes for granted: health benefits. As it is, Moskowitz attempted to deflect criticism by asking me if I knew which insurance brokers were willing to negotiate trans-inclusive riders. Is that my job? And anyway, I reported the problem directly to Asana over a year ago — if they had acted on my feedback (as a job candidate who would have considered working there if not for this), the whole conversation would never had had to happen! How much more work do I have to do for free? In the time Moskowitz spent writing defensive tweets, he could have instead called up Blue Shield and gotten a price quote for a trans-inclusive rider. It took me less than five minutes on Google to find that Blue Shield has been offering such riders since 2012. Moskowitz never claimed that cost was an issue in deciding not to provide equal care for trans employees, so what’s the problem, exactly? Is this a good way to do public relations?

I don’t mean to single out Asana here. There are many companies that fail to provide this basic health coverage to their employees. But today, there was only one whose co-founder chose to spend his time arguing with me instead of fixing the problem. Is that a good way to do business? While Moskowitz eventually replied to me saying that he recognized he’d been wrong and would look into it more, still, I’m tired. I’m tired of the knee-jerk reaction to constructive feedback about how to stop marginalizing people that amounts to, “when you do more work for us for free, we’ll stop marginalizing you.” Again, no startup founder made the decision that insurance companies shouldn’t treat trans people equally by default. But by expecting trans people to take the lead in working around that decision, they reveal their own complicity with it.

What it amounts to when a startup co-founder says, “fix the problem for me, being fair isn’t important enough to me for me to do it myself” is attempting to convince users that a problem those users are having isn’t really hindering them, in lieu of just solving the problem. I think engineers can do better than that. If you want to build reliable software, you do the research on tools for static analysis, debugging, and testing; you don’t ask your customers to tell you what the best test framework is. Likewise, if you want to show that you treat people equally — that you try to be like a meritocracy, even if that abstraction is unrealizable — then you take the lead. I think business people call this “being proactive”. And when proactiveness is selectively applied so that no work ever gets done to move a company closer towards fairness unless the people being treated unfairly do all the heavy lifting — well, we notice. There is nothing complicated about what trans people are asking for. We want to be treated like everybody else. Apology or not, Moskowitz’s reaction to criticism today confirmed what we already knew: for many of the companies that employ us, treating us fairly is just too hard and takes up too much time that could be spent writing proposals about kittens.

GF classifieds (August and September 2014)

This is another round of Geek feminism classifieds. Sorry we missed July! If you’re looking to hire women, find some people to participate in your study, find female speakers, or just want some like-minded folk to join your open source project, this is the thread for you!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Geeky subjects only. We take a wide view of geekdom, but if your thing isn’t related to an obviously geeky topic, you’ll probably want to give a bit of background on why the readers of Geek Feminism would be interested.
  2. Explain what your project/event/thing is, or link to a webpage that provides clear, informative information about it. Ideally you’ll also explain why geek women might find it particularly awesome.
  3. Explain what you’re looking for. Even if it’s not a job ad, think of it like one: what is the activity/role in question, and what would it involve? What is the profile of people you’re looking for?
  4. GF has international readership, so please be sure to indicate the location if you’re advertising a job position, conference, or other thing where the location matters. Remember that city acronyms aren’t always known world-wide and lots of cities share names, so be as clear as possible! (That is, don’t say “SF[O]” or “NYC” or “Melb”, say “San Francisco, USA”, “New York City, USA” or “Melbourne, Australia”.) And if you can provide travel/relocation assistance, we’d love to know about it.
  5. Keep it legal. Most jurisdictions do not allow you to (eg.) advertise jobs for only people of a given gender. So don’t do that. If you are advertising for something that falls into this category, think of this as an opportunity to boost the signal to women who might be interested.
  6. If you’re asking for participants in a study, please note Mary’s helpful guide to soliciting research participation on the ‘net, especially the “bare minimum” section.
  7. Provide a way for people to contact you, such as your email address or a link to apply in the case of job advertisements. (The email addresses entered in the comment form here are not public, so readers won’t see them.)
  8. Keep an eye on comments here, in case people ask for clarification or more details. (You can subscribe to comments via email or RSS.)

If you’d like some more background/tips on how to reach out to women for your project/event/whatever, take a look at Recruiting women on the Geek Feminism Wiki.)

Good luck!

GF classifieds (May and June 2014)

This is another round of Geek feminism classifieds. If you’re looking to hire women, find some people to participate in your study, find female speakers, or just want some like-minded folk to join your open source project, this is the thread for you!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Geeky subjects only. We take a wide view of geekdom, but if your thing isn’t related to an obviously geeky topic, you’ll probably want to give a bit of background on why the readers of Geek Feminism would be interested.
  2. Explain what your project/event/thing is, or link to a webpage that provides clear, informative information about it. Ideally you’ll also explain why geek women might find it particularly awesome.
  3. Explain what you’re looking for. Even if it’s not a job ad, think of it like one: what is the activity/role in question, and what would it involve? What is the profile of people you’re looking for?
  4. GF has international readership, so please be sure to indicate the location if you’re advertising a job position, conference, or other thing where the location matters. Remember that city acronyms aren’t always known world-wide and lots of cities share names, so be as clear as possible! (That is, don’t say “SF[O]” or “NYC” or “Melb”, say “San Francisco, USA”, “New York City, USA” or “Melbourne, Australia”.) And if you can provide travel/relocation assistance, we’d love to know about it.
  5. Keep it legal. Most jurisdictions do not allow you to (eg.) advertise jobs for only people of a given gender. So don’t do that. If you are advertising for something that falls into this category, think of this as an opportunity to boost the signal to women who might be interested.
  6. If you’re asking for participants in a study, please note Mary’s helpful guide to soliciting research participation on the ‘net, especially the “bare minimum” section.
  7. Provide a way for people to contact you, such as your email address or a link to apply in the case of job advertisements. (The email addresses entered in the comment form here are not public, so readers won’t see them.)
  8. Keep an eye on comments here, in case people ask for clarification or more details. (You can subscribe to comments via email or RSS.)

If you’d like some more background/tips on how to reach out to women for your project/event/whatever, take a look at Recruiting women on the Geek Feminism Wiki.)

Good luck!

Frankly, my dear, I don’t link a spam (11 April 2014)

  • Women do not apply to ‘male-sounding’ job postings | Klaus Becker at Technische Universität München (April 3): “If the advertisement described a large number of traits associated with men, the women found it less appealing and were less inclined to apply. Such traits include ‘assertive’, ‘independent’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘analytical’. Women found words like ‘dedicated’, ‘responsible’, ‘conscientious’ and ‘sociable’ more appealing. For male test subjects, on the other hand, the wording of the job advertisement made no difference.” (Citations follow the press release.)
  • Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism) | danah boyd at apophenia (April 3): “[M]ilitary researchers had noticed that women seemed to get sick at higher rates in simulators than men. While they seemed to be able to eventually adjust to the simulator, they would then get sick again when switching back into reality. Being an activist and a troublemaker, I walked straight into the office of the head CAVE researcher and declared the CAVE sexist.” Warning: as discussed at the end of the piece, boyd uses some language that trans people have criticised, explaining it as the language of her trans informants.
  • Introducing ‘Sexism Ed’ | Kelly J. Baker at Chronicle Vitae (April 2): “But look: We could lean in until our backs were permanently bent forward and still face discrimination, bias, harassment, and more recently, rescinded job offers… I’ll be writing an occasional column—I’ll call it Sexism Ed—as a way to continue the conversation on sexism and gender discrimination in higher ed.”
  • Creepshots: Microsoft discovers an on-campus peeping tom | Nate Anderson at Ars Technica (April 5): “The Muvi camera [found by a Microsoft vendor employee] contained ‘upskirt’ video footage of women climbing stairs or escalators—or sometimes just standing in checkout lines—and some of it had been shot on Microsoft’s campus.”

Lots of goodness in Model View Culture‘s Funding issue, including:

Check out the whole issue!

When a link and a spam love each other very much (26 March 2014)

A couple of quick announcements to start us off:

  • applications to attend AdaCamp Portland (June 21–22, ally skills track June 23) are open
  • the call for submissions to another issue of Model View Culture is out: the Abuse issue. “This issue explores themes of harassment, microaggression, boundary violation, assault, discrimination and other forms of abuse in the tech community”.

Onto the spam you’re waiting for:

We link to a variety of sources, some of which are personal blogs.  If you visit other sites linked herein, we ask that you respect the commenting policy and individual culture of those sites.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on Pinboard, Delicious or Diigo; or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Neck-to-knee shot of woman in red top and jeans reading a newspaper, by Ed Yourdon, CC BY-SA

GF classifieds (March and April 2014)

This is another round of Geek feminism classifieds. If you’re looking to hire women, find some people to participate in your study, find female speakers, or just want some like-minded folk to join your open source project, this is the thread for you!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Geeky subjects only. We take a wide view of geekdom, but if your thing isn’t related to an obviously geeky topic, you’ll probably want to give a bit of background on why the readers of Geek Feminism would be interested.
  2. Explain what your project/event/thing is, or link to a webpage that provides clear, informative information about it. Ideally you’ll also explain why geek women might find it particularly awesome.
  3. Explain what you’re looking for. Even if it’s not a job ad, think of it like one: what is the activity/role in question, and what would it involve? What is the profile of people you’re looking for?
  4. GF has international readership, so please be sure to indicate the location if you’re advertising a job position, conference, or other thing where the location matters. Remember that city acronyms aren’t always known world-wide and lots of cities share names, so be as clear as possible! (That is, don’t say “SF[O]” or “NYC” or “Melb”, say “San Francisco, USA”, “New York City, USA” or “Melbourne, Australia”.) And if you can provide travel/relocation assistance, we’d love to know about it.
  5. Keep it legal. Most jurisdictions do not allow you to (eg.) advertise jobs for only people of a given gender. So don’t do that. If you are advertising for something that falls into this category, think of this as an opportunity to boost the signal to women who might be interested.
  6. If you’re asking for participants in a study, please note Mary’s helpful guide to soliciting research participation on the ‘net, especially the “bare minimum” section.
  7. Provide a way for people to contact you, such as your email address or a link to apply in the case of job advertisements. (The email addresses entered in the comment form here are not public, so readers won’t see them.)
  8. Keep an eye on comments here, in case people ask for clarification or more details. (You can subscribe to comments via email or RSS.)

If you’d like some more background/tips on how to reach out to women for your project/event/whatever, take a look at Recruiting women on the Geek Feminism Wiki.)

Good luck!

Neck-to-knee shot of woman in red top and jeans reading a newspaper, by Ed Yourdon, CC BY-SA

GF classifieds (October 2013 to March 2014)

This is another round of Geek feminism classifieds. If you’re looking to hire women, find some people to participate in your study, find female speakers, or just want some like-minded folk to join your open source project, this is the thread for you!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Geeky subjects only. We take a wide view of geekdom, but if your thing isn’t related to an obviously geeky topic, you’ll probably want to give a bit of background on why the readers of Geek Feminism would be interested.
  2. Explain what your project/event/thing is, or link to a webpage that provides clear, informative information about it. Ideally you’ll also explain why geek women might find it particularly awesome.
  3. Explain what you’re looking for. Even if it’s not a job ad, think of it like one: what is the activity/role in question, and what would it involve? What is the profile of people you’re looking for?
  4. GF has international readership, so please be sure to indicate the location if you’re advertising a job position, conference, or other thing where the location matters. Remember that city acronyms aren’t always known world-wide and lots of cities share names, so be as clear as possible! (That is, don’t say “SF[O]” or “NYC” or “Melb”, say “San Francisco, USA”, “New York City, USA” or “Melbourne, Australia”.) And if you can provide travel/relocation assistance, we’d love to know about it.
  5. Keep it legal. Most jurisdictions do not allow you to (eg.) advertise jobs for only people of a given gender. So don’t do that. If you are advertising for something that falls into this category, think of this as an opportunity to boost the signal to women who might be interested.
  6. If you’re asking for participants in a study, please note Mary’s helpful guide to soliciting research participation on the ‘net, especially the “bare minimum” section.
  7. Provide a way for people to contact you, such as your email address or a link to apply in the case of job advertisements. (The email addresses entered in the comment form here are not public, so readers won’t see them.)
  8. Keep an eye on comments here, in case people ask for clarification or more details. (You can subscribe to comments via email or RSS.)

If you’d like some more background/tips on how to reach out to women for your project/event/whatever, take a look at Recruiting women on the Geek Feminism Wiki.)

Good luck!

Neck-to-knee shot of woman in red top and jeans reading a newspaper, by Ed Yourdon, CC BY-SA

GF classifieds (April to September 2013)

This is another round of Geek feminism classifieds. If you’re looking to hire women, find some people to participate in your study, find female speakers, or just want some like-minded folk to join your open source project, this is the thread for you!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Geeky subjects only. We take a wide view of geekdom, but if your thing isn’t related to an obviously geeky topic, you’ll probably want to give a bit of background on why the readers of Geek Feminism would be interested.
  2. Explain what your project/event/thing is, or link to a webpage that provides clear, informative information about it. Ideally you’ll also explain why geek women might find it particularly awesome.
  3. Explain what you’re looking for. Even if it’s not a job ad, think of it like one: what is the activity/role in question, and what would it involve? What is the profile of people you’re looking for?
  4. GF has international readership, so please be sure to indicate the location if you’re advertising a job position, conference, or other thing where the location matters. Remember that city acronyms aren’t always known world-wide and lots of cities share names, so be as clear as possible! (That is, don’t say “SF[O]” or “NYC” or “Melb”, say “San Francisco, USA”, “New York City, USA” or “Melbourne, Australia”.) And if you can provide travel/relocation assistance, we’d love to know about it.
  5. Keep it legal. Most jurisdictions do not allow you to (eg.) advertise jobs for only people of a given gender. So don’t do that. If you are advertising for something that falls into this category, think of this as an opportunity to boost the signal to women who might be interested.
  6. If you’re asking for participants in a study, please note Mary’s helpful guide to soliciting research participation on the ‘net, especially the “bare minimum” section.
  7. Provide a way for people to contact you, such as your email address or a link to apply in the case of job advertisements. (The email addresses entered in the comment form here are not public, so readers won’t see them.)
  8. Keep an eye on comments here, in case people ask for clarification or more details. (You can subscribe to comments via email or RSS.)

If you’d like some more background/tips on how to reach out to women for your project/event/whatever, take a look at Recruiting women on the Geek Feminism Wiki.)

Good luck!

A salt and pepper shaker set with arms embracing each other

Women in Tech and Empathy Work

A veteran online strategist, web designer, and front-end coder, Lauren co-founded a successful digital agency and ran it for 12 years. She wrote a book for women entrepreneurs called The Boss of You, of which she’s rather proud. These days, she advises tech startups, coaches entrepreneurs, and writes about business, tech, women, & other things on her blog.

I’ve written before on my blog about the ongoing puzzle of improving the ratio of women to men in the tech sector. It’s an issue with many angles. There’s an acknowledged “pipeline problem” — a lack of women graduating from university with technical degrees (or emerging from the equally prevalent & valued ranks of self-taught programming); earlier-in-the-lifecycle challenges around how girls are encouraged (or not) to study science, tech & math; questions around how to make hiring processes more inclusive of diversity, gender & otherwise; and issues around promotions, board diversity, and leadership positions.

Frankly, sometimes that seems like such a long list I hardly know where to start. And that’s not including many, many related and embedded issues, like conference speaker lineups, objectifying photos in slide decks, the investor landscape, et cetera. But at the risk of triggering fatigue on the part of those wrestling with these challenges, I want to shine a light on another aspect of the gender-in-tech problem that I rarely see acknowledged: the heavily gendered casting of roles within companies — or in other words, the way that tech companies with female employees tend to place them in “people” roles, while men dominate in technical positions.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I know this comes into the conversation from time to time, but it’s often framed as part & parcel of the pipeline issue: “There aren’t enough women programmers on the market.” While that’s true, I want to talk about the dynamics — and economics — that result from having male-dominated tech departments and women managing non-technical work.

In a recent (and utterly fantastic) piece in Dissent magazine, Melissa Gira Grant writes about how this played out at Facebook, according to a memoir by Facebook employee #51, Katherine Losse. Ms. Grant writes:

From my time in and around Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s, creating gossip product for the benefit of Gawker Media’s tech blog called Valleywag, I came away understanding Facebook as a machine for creating wealth for nerds. Which it is. But the unpaid and underpaid labor of women is essential to making that machine go, to making it so irresistible. Women and their representations are as intentional a part of Facebook as Mark Zuckerberg’s post-collegiate fraternity of star brogrammers.

[...] While [Mark Zuckerberg's] net worth shot upward with each injection of venture capital into Facebook, support employees like Losse scraped by with twenty dollars an hour. Facebook’s most valued employees—software engineers—relied on customer support staff largely in order to avoid direct contact with Facebook’s users. Rather than valuing their work as vital to operations, Facebook’s technical staff looked down on the support team, as if they were not much better than users themselves. “Personal contact with customers,” Losse writes, was viewed by the engineers as something “that couldn’t be automated, a dim reminder of the pre-industrial era…”

Though they pretend not to see difference, Losse, through her co-workers’ eyes, is meant to function as a kind of domestic worker, a nanny, housemaid, and hostess, performing emotional labor that is at once essential and invisible. [Emphasis mine.]

I was struck by Ms. Grant’s articulation of customer-facing and intra-company work as “emotional labour.” That phrase helps me put my finger on something that’s bugged me as long as I’ve worked in tech, which is the way women are frequently cast as caregivers in the workplace — and how the work associated with that aspect of their roles is valued (or not) and compensated (or not) compared to the work performed primarily by men (i.e. coding and other heavily technical labour).

Let me share a personal example. I once spoke on a panel at a tech event; the panel was comprised of digital agency principals, and I was the only woman alongside three men. Afterward, one of my co-panelists told me excitedly that he’d recently hired his first female employee. He was really fired up about it, because… wait for it… “Now we all actually talk to each other! And we break for lunch, because she makes us eat. It’s so much better than before, when it was just dudes.”

(Insert big, giant sigh.)

Now, the thing is, looking back on it, I can see that he genuinely wanted his workplace to have those things, and he didn’t know how to do that himself, so he hired someone (female) to do it for him. I think he really did value her emotional labour, in his way. He just didn’t have the awareness to appreciate that a) women don’t want to have all the emotional needs of a workplace delegated to them; b) emotional rapport cannot be the sole responsibility of one person (or gender); c) I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that woman didn’t have “coordinate everyone’s lunches and facilitate office conversations” in her job description; and d) I feel pretty confident she was not given significant financial compensation for those aspects of her work (even though it sounds like those skills were rare gems indeed amongst her coworkers).

The problem is that while the outputs (better communication, better self-care, a stronger team) are valued in their way, they aren’t valued in visible ways that afford women prestige. The parallels with women’s un(der)paid & often-invisible labour in the domestic sphere are perhaps too obvious to warrant spelling out, but I’ll go ahead anyway: Because we live in a culture that undervalues emotional and domestic labour, a significant portion of “women’s work” (like childcare, food preparation, housekeeping, elder care, and social planning) is uncompensated. And as a result, if you want your company to have someone on staff to ensure everyone is happy, well fed, and comfortable, you will likely hire an “office mom”; that person is overwhelmingly likely to be female; and she is almost certainly underpaid (and afforded less prestige & power) compared to her technical colleagues.

I’ve long engaged in a hobby where, whenever I visit a tech company’s website, I head straight to their “Team” page, and scan for the women. More often than not, I have to scroll past four or more men before I see a woman — and very frequently, her title places her in one of the “people” roles: human resources, communications, project or client management, user experience, customer service, or office administration. (One could almost — if one were feeling cheeky — rename these roles employee empathy, customer empathy, team empathy, user empathy, and boss empathy: all of them require deep skills in emotional intelligence, verbal and written communications, and putting oneself in the shoes of others.)

While I haven’t seen hard data on how this plays out across the industry (can anyone point to some?), my personal experience has been that women in tech are primarily found in these emotional labour-heavy departments, even in the tiniest companies.

(Let me add here that of course there are exceptions — men in HR and communications and customer service and so on, and women coders. I’m speaking here of the gendered way we perceive the roles (caregiver defaults to female, in our culture) and of the broad numbers (about 75% of professional programmers are men).)

This wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself — and I’ll be the first to admit that it is damned hard to hire women into technical roles, as I learned first-hand when hiring coders myself — except that there are a couple of complicating factors:

  1. Coders are lionized in the tech sector, and are compensated for their technical skills with higher wages and positional power — so women without coding chops are automatically less likely to advance to senior positions or command the highest salaries.
  2. There is a culture in tech companies that simultaneously reveres the “user” (at least as a source of revenue and data) and places low expectations on coders to empathize with users (or colleagues, for that matter) — creating a disconnect that can only be bridged by assigning user (and team) empathy responsibilities to another department. An extreme example of this is the frequent labeling of brilliant coders as having Asperger’s Syndrome — and the simultaneous absolution of unskillful communication as par for the course.

So long as we accept these as givens, we will continue to see women in tech struggle in underpaid & under-respected roles while men in tech earn far higher wages and prestige. And we will continue to talk about the challenges of communicating “between departments” without acknowledging that those departments are heavily gendered — and that the paycheques are, too.

I want to add, here, that I know this is complex, and in some ways uncomfortable to talk about, because it touches on topics that are hard to discuss — such as the question of why women don’t seem to be pursuing technical skills at the same rate as men, and are more often drawn to the people roles. Hell, I myself started out as what you might call a technical co-founder (I coded websites) for the company I ran, but at a certain point I hired developers to take that work off my plate because it was important for me to focus on the client relationships, business development, and running-the-company stuff. (That fork in the road will be a familiar one to most founders.) And the developers I hired were mostly men, despite intense efforts to recruit for diversity. I console myself with the fact that as a tech company with two women at the helm, we were definitely challenging norms (and we paid ourselves well, which I believe is important to this conversation), but part of me wishes I’d kept my coding skills up if only so that I could keep up my side of a tech-centric conversation, and so that I could stop having dark nights of the soul thinking that I’m playing into cliches and conventions about women in tech.

What I’d really love to see is for companies to start by having a more conscious awareness of how this dynamic plays out. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hiring male programmers, or women, um, empathizers-of-various-stripes. But we do need to shift the culture, expectations, and compensation if we want to end the power discrepancies that result from gendered hiring practices.

If you work in tech, you can begin by asking yourself how your company fares on these fronts:

  • Are coders encouraged to develop their people skills (communication with colleagues and customers, user empathy, etc.), or are those skills offloaded to other departments?
  • Who coordinates workplace social events and other team building activities? Is that in someone’s job description, or has it simply defaulted to being someone’s unspoken responsibility?
  • Who mediates challenging conversations between colleagues? Is everyone encouraged to increase their skills in negotiation and conflict resolution?
  • How do you determine the pay grades for the various roles and departments in your company? Do compensation levels reflect any unconscious assumptions about the respective value of different skill sets? How do you value your team’s “empathizers”?
  • Who is responsible for managing intra-departmental communication? Are they accorded appropriate levels of compensation and prestige for their leadership and emotional labour?
  • If employees are expected to represent your company in their off-hours (as in the example of Facebook’s customer service team posting photos to their profiles outside of work time), are they compensated appropriately (e.g. with overtime pay, “on call” hours, a bonus structure of some kind, or simply with a higher flat salary)? Do you compensate people-facing roles for this “overtime” in the same way you compensate your coders for long coding sessions leading up to a launch?
  • How do expectations around external communication & branding (e.g. posting about work-relevant topics on personal social media profiles) vary across departments? To what degree are employees expected to update their social media profiles for the purpose (spoken or unspoken) of making the company look good? Is this work included in job descriptions? Is it paid labour?

I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this — my thinking on the subject is evolving, and there’s lots to unpack here. And I know I have my own biases on the matter, so observations on blind spots, etc. are most welcome.

Photograph of two hands, one holding a magnifying glass, the other a soldering iron (by Paul Downey)

Re-post: Hiring based on hobbies: effective or exclusive?

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on November 12, 2012.

“When I’m interviewing a candidate, I ask them what they do in their free time.” It’s not unusual for me to hear this from people who are in a position to influence hiring for software jobs. Often, though not always, these people are male. The implication is that the interviewer prefers candidates who have sufficiently interesting hobbies (according to the interviewer’s sense of what’s interesting), and won’t give preference to (or will weight negatively) those candidates who either don’t have hobbies, or who the interviewer judges to do boring hobbies.

As far as I can tell, hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job. I guess the idea there is that if you want to choose a good worker, you pick someone whose hobby is doing more work. Mary Gardiner previously addressed the issue of leisure-time open-source hacking as a job qualification, in “Is requiring Open Source experience sexist?” on this very blog.

The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer. From hanging around many such people and observing what they find “cool”, I can surmise that ideally this would involve fooling around with robots or circuits or wires. It should involve building things and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Cooking, crafting, and other hobbies that have a practical application — that involve skill and art, but aren’t practiced just to impress other hackers — probably aren’t going to count for a whole lot of status points.

You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work that women in relationships with men are often disproportionally saddled with (see Arlie Hochschild Russell’s book The Second Shift for more on that.) Or if you can’t afford to do hobbies that require more materials than a pencil and paper. You also may be disadvantaged if you have a disability: for example, if you don’t have the physical coordination to mess around with wires. Closer to my experience, you may be disadvantaged if you’re someone who has mental illness. As someone who’s been living with clinical depression for 20 years, a lot of the time it’s all I can do to put in my eight hours in a day and then get home, feed the cats, and throw together something to eat. Energy and motivation are not evenly distributed across the population.

Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day. I love my work, but like lots of kinds of work, it’s a source of stress for me. I imagine the same is true for most or all people who do software: I doubt there’s anyone who never experiences stress as part of their job. What’s not universal is how people deal with stress, and how much time off a person needs to recharge from it. Whether or not someone gets pleasure from hacking in their free time is affected by their social placement: the amount of time doing non-work-like activities someone needs before they can return to demanding intellectual work is affected by their physical and mental health; how many worries they have about money, relationships, and other non-work-related stressors; how many microaggressions they face as part of an average working day; whether they were brought up with self-esteem and a sense that they have the ability to recover from failure, or had to learn those things on their own as an adult; and many other factors. Few of those factors have to do with an individual’s level of dedication to their work; many are implied by where someone finds themself placed within a variety of intersecting social structures.

Recently, someone online said to me that he hires based on hobbies because he wants to hire interesting people. I’ve seen other people imply that there’s something even morally suspect about somebody working an engineering job just for the money, and that someone who doesn’t do the same stuff in their free time is obviously just in it for the money. Of course, that’s classist. It’s easier to feel like you’re motivated by the sheer love of your work if you don’t really need the money.

But besides, if you decide someone isn’t worth hiring because they don’t have “interesting” hobbies, what you’re really saying is that people who didn’t come from an affluent background aren’t interesting. That people with child care or home responsibilities aren’t interesting. That disabled people aren’t interesting. That people who have depression or anxiety aren’t interesting. That people who might spend their free time on political activism that they don’t feel comfortable mentioning to a stranger with power over them aren’t interesting. That people who, for another reason, just don’t have access to hacker spaces and don’t fit into hobbyist subcultures aren’t interesting.

You might counter that a person’s hobbies are relevant to their level of commitment to or interest in their work, and thus it’s justifiable for an employer to ask about them. However, this sounds essentially similar to the idea that women are to be looked at with extra suspicion during hiring, involving the assumption that women are cis and have relationships with cis men, and that cis women who have relationships with cis men will take time off from work to have babies. Statistically, there might be some truth to this — by the way, I’m not sure what evidence there is behind the assertion that people who do software or engineering in their spare time make better software engineers than people who play music or sail boats or bake muffins. Even so, it’s illegal (at least in the US, and possibly elsewhere) to use gender and marital status as bases for discrimination. People with some types of disabilities or chronic illnesses might sporadically be less productive at work, but it’s still illegal to ask about health conditions. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should legislate against asking about hobbies as part of the interview process. It’s impossible to ban every type of question that might be used in a discriminatory way. It’s up to individual hiring managers to be ethical and mindful about whether they’re asking a question to evaluate a candidate’s abilities directly, or to make sure the candidate is sufficiently similar on a personal level to the manager’s mental ideal of what a programmer is supposed to be. I happen to think evaluating people on their skills rather than whether they fit the profile for a particular social clique is a better way to identify good workers.

A less cerebral “hobby” that may also be compulsory, as Ryan Funduk wrote about, is drinking. As he points out, when work-related social events revolve around alcohol, this excludes people who can’t or don’t want to drink as well as many women, who might enjoy drinking but don’t feel comfortable being in groups of drunk men (especially not when pretending that alcohol erases responsibility for sexual assault is a staple of rape culture). I haven’t personally experienced this much, since I’ve spent more time in academia than industry, but it’s something to discuss in the comments.

Have you ever found that your hobbies were an asset when getting hired? Or have you felt the need not to mention a hobby because it seemed like more of a liability? Have you felt pressure to do extra unpaid work just to be a competitive candidate for software jobs? Or to take up recreational pursuits you didn’t really like just to increase your level of cultural fit in your workplace?