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Women, technology and diversity hiring -- it's still a challenge

Women are just one of many underrepresented groups in the software space. Expert advocates offer advice from the trenches including the importance of mentorship.

If you're tired of the software profession being a (white) man's world, you are far from alone.

"I don't think issues with diversity could be any worse than they are today," said Amazon senior software development engineer Jen Loomis.

Loomis was among the panelists at the Women in Android Lunch hosted by non-profit coding education group Girl Develop It, which took place during the AnDevCon in Boston in early August. The goal was to give attendees ideas they could carry out in their workplaces to help technology and diversity coexist.

Diversity more than 'hiring women'

Based on several just-released surveys, Loomis' notion about diversity is right. Worldwide headhunting firm Harvey Nash surveyed 3,000 technology professionals and found just 17% were women. Nearly 60% of respondents work in companies at which women represent less than 20% of the workforce. Almost 11% said there were no women at all employed in their companies. And 53% of respondents said they were not aware of any diversity programs offered by their employers.

Meanwhile, in a broader, cross-industry survey, Harvey Nash found 71% of "ethnic background" senior executives report significant discrimination that hindered their career mobility.

At a time when there is a continuing and severe shortage of software developers, the data points to an obvious solution. But when it comes to technology and diversity, not much is simple.

I don't think issues with diversity could be any worse than they are today.
Jen Loomissenior software development engineer, Amazon

For starters, diversity means a lot more than just "hiring women." Christine Chapman, a software engineer at Audible Inc. based in Newark, N.J., said focusing on gender diversity alone is too simplistic.

"There are people with disabilities, queer people, people of color ... so many aspects to focus on," Chapman said. "Gender is a simple thing to wrap your mind around, but there is a lot more work to be done in other areas."

One of the key areas is actually retaining talent. Catherine Plotts, chapter leader of Girl Develop It in Providence, R.I., said companies can hyper focus their diversity efforts on recruiting and forget that employee retention needs probably even more attention.

Mentoring, even informally, can help

There's a straightforward option nearly every company could take to improve diversity: offering mentorship programs.

"It could be formal or it could be informal," Plotts said. "At my company, all the women get together and have lunch every Tuesday, and we talk about career issues. It's a kind of mentorship."

Mentorship programs can come from your manager, but it doesn't have to be your manager if he or she isn't on board, Chapman added. "Just find someone in the company who is open to it, and let them know what kinds of things you need from the company to be successful."

To help her colleagues see past any potential biases while interviewing, Loomis has become a "bar raiser." She sits in on interviews with candidates who will not be part of her team and provides an impartial perspective. Often she finds herself doing some translation: A male candidate is likely to use words such as "I know," while a woman is more likely to say "I think." Those are gender differences that shouldn't matter in technology and diversity hiring, Loomis explained, and that's where her role of a bar raiser comes in. She is able to gently point out those subtle biases, creating a good learning experience for everyone. "At Amazon, this is the biggest lever I can pull," she said.

If you'd like a formal diversity support and advocacy group and your company doesn't have one, Chapman suggested starting one from the ground up. Although she's at Audible now, Chapman previously worked at Amazon, at which she started her own group. "It would be nice to come in to a company where there was already this infrastructure, but you can start small and build something from the ground up."

And above all, it's important not to feel powerless, Loomis said.

"With seven years of experience, I can vote with my feet," she explained, meaning she is eminently hire-able. If she's interviewing for a new job, she has the one question that's a game changer. "I ask the hiring manager if he/she has read the book Lean In, and if so to share some thoughts about it," she said.

There are only three general responses which makes it easy for Loomis to judge the culture of the company: "Yes, and I loved it;" "No, but I'll read it this weekend;" and "No, and I'm not interested." For Loomis, this is "the acid test for managers. Either they get it or they're not ready yet."

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