Women face many challenges when it comes to getting into the tech industry, including in their education and in finding a job. I recently attended the annual Grace Hopper Conference, where I was surrounded by thousands of women with plenty of inspiring stories and useful advice. Here are my takeaways for both women developers and employers navigating the job search and hiring process.
The annual Grace Hopper Conference, hosted by the Anita Borg Institute, brings thousands of technologists together for the world’s largest technical conference for women in computing. The Grace Hopper Program at Fullstack Academy also channels Admiral Grace Hopper, the computer science pioneer, as our namesake. While we share a muse, this year was actually my first time attending the Grace Hopper Women in Computing conference (I missed the 2015 conference because it coincided with the day we launched the Grace Hopper Program!)
A lot of women, especially Computer Science undergrads, are not used to being surrounded by female technologists. At the Grace Hopper conference, those women were visibly excited to be learning in this atmosphere. In fact, it was a lot like the atmosphere on the Grace Hopper Program campus, which makes it easy to forget how unique it is to be in a supportive all-women environment.
It was new for me to be around thousands of women and hear from so many people I admire during the panels and lecture sessions. Here are my takeaways.
1. Non-Traditional Education Can be a Source of Support
Over 1600 people applied to speak at Grace Hopper this year, and I spoke on a panel designed and moderated by Andrea Delgado called “How Women Learn Computing through Nontraditional Curriculum and Community.” I was joined by Jessica, a course developer from Udacity, and Maxwell, a computer science teacher at an all-girls high school. The challenges each of us face are unique. Udacity is an online program and Jessica talked about mentorship and community-building challenges. Max teaches high school girls and talked about how he encourages his students to pursue Computer Science degrees once they start college.
The panelists discussed how we support students in nontraditional learning environments and the highlight of the discussion was the Q&A. Audience participants told their stories about learning to code - many of the female engineers present had negative experiences in undergrad programs and elected to self-study engineering instead!
Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, gave an impromptu talk in the middle of the career fair at the ABI booth. It’s always inspirational to hear from her - she has the unique opportunity to take amazing initiatives from all over the country, from both private and public sectors, and share that knowledge. One initiative she referenced is from Arizona where schools in some districts elect student Chief Technology Officers. This elevates the importance of science in early education and it’s a great way to keep young girls excited about STEM.
What can we take away from these experiences? The necessity for supportive learning environments and the importance of the opportunity to learn to code in your own community.
2. Understand the Hiring Process and Learn about Biases
At Fullstack and Grace Hopper, students spend a lot of time preparing for technical interviews, like whiteboarding and non-stop coding! But it’s important to learn about the perspectives of hiring managers and processes that often disqualify women for tech roles.
A panel called Tech Tools Defeating Bias in Hiring was particularly interesting - I heard from women who have experience hiring engineers and have been through the engineering interview themselves. Each panelist shared perspectives on what is inherently broken about the way engineers are hired and how bias can interfere with hiring diverse talent.
Aline Lerner (interviewing.io) has been both an engineer and tech recruiter. She talked about the incentive for recruiters to find candidates only from “top schools” and big name tech companies. This shifts the focus away from pure technical skill and puts too much emphasis on the resume. As she said, “proxies beget bias” and I completely agree!
In addition to selecting for top schools, screening candidates solely on resumes allows the hiring manager to bias against certain names (i.e. typically female or Black and Latino names). Eliminating candidates at this stage disqualifies engineers who aren’t necessarily less skilled than someone who went to Stanford, or worked at Google, or has a stereotypically white/male-sounding name.
Stephanie Lampkin (Blendoor) talked about her experience interviewing for engineering roles as a Black woman. She was aware that her resume was dismissed before she had the chance to prove her tech skills. Her company Blendoor audits the number of women engineers and leadership in technical companies and provides transparency for candidates seeking inclusive teams.
Erica Joy Baker moderated, and the panelists Aline Lerner (interviewing.io), Stephanie Lampkin (Blendoor) Laura Gomez (Atipica) Liz Kofman (Unitive) represented companies attempting to improve the hiring process through anonymizing candidates and highlighted biases in the process itself. If you’re heading into the job search, seek out forward-thinking companies (you can usually recognize a progressive company from their job description- eg. have they ditched the “4-year degree” requirement?). For employers, talk with your HR department about updating the hiring process to match your company values.
3. Power Through Rejection and Keep Interviewing
In the same Biases in Hiring panel, Aline Lerner mentioned that women were seven times more likely to give up after interviewing for a job, whereas most men chug along, often unaffected by perceived failure. One contributing factor is that most women don’t have a community to talk about interviewing with. It’s easier to give up if you don’t know someone who has been through that process. The small percentage of women in engineering means fewer mentors to coach them through interviewing and provide encouragement.
The day I returned from Houston, we graduated a cohort of 20 women and I shared that information with them. It was super important to identify the trend and talk about it as a group. Our students know that when interviewing as a woman they need to push themselves through the bad experiences, find their peers and rely on the Grace Hopper community to debrief and move on.
While we talked through roadblocks and obstacles for women in tech at the conference, I have to say that with alternative models of education and a stronger awareness of biases, the outlook is positive! Having more people who are educated about the effects of their biases means (hopefully) a more fair process in hiring the best engineers. Being able to separate a candidate from their resume and focus on their work and skill creates opportunities for engineers who don’t have CS degrees - which is great news for bootcamp grads!
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