Tech Ladies Founder Allison Esposito on Creating and Maintaining a Diverse Workplace

06/13/2017 12:37 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2017

Even before Susan Fowler’s February post on the sexism and sexual harassment she witnessed during her year at Uber, gender in the tech industry has been a widely discussed topic. Earlier this month, I caught up with Allison Esposito, founder of Tech Ladies. Tech Ladies is a network of fifteen thousand women that aims to connect its members to the best opportunities at tech companies. We talked about the differences between how large and small companies hire, actions that women can take to inspire a more woman-friendly office, actions that companies can take to create a more woman-friendly environment, and measurable goals for the tech industry.

At Tech Ladies, you help companies of all sizes increase their pipeline of female candidates. Have you noticed any differences between startups and large companies in how they approach diversity in the workplace?

First, let’s start with what’s the same for all companies: we really haven’t built the working world to be for women yet. At companies of every size, there are good people who care about diversity, and who are interested in hiring women and underrepresented groups in tech. But we will never move the needle until people understand the business case for diverse hiring. But from the business case, it does make sense to hire and retain women.

Some big companies have already benefitted from playing the long game. Patagonia is a great example. In addition to maternity and paternity leave, they offer on-site child care. Because of that, their retention for moms is higher than their average employee retention. Plus, there are second-generation Patagonia employees. Employees that grew up at Patagonia. So in addition to the money saved from retention--people aren’t quitting or moving to another company when they start a family. That’s incredible loyalty to have.

You can’t put a dollar amount on that. And startups--what are some things that smaller companies with fewer resources can do?

Think about diversity early. We see this a lot with founders who have just raised their Series A or Seed fund. They come to Tech Ladies, and they’re thinking about diversity from the start, and they actively want to hire a diverse team. I think it’s smart when we see that, because first, they’re going to have a better product with a diverse team building it. But also, it’s hard when you’re a company full of white men to attract and retain women and underrepresented groups.

So the companies that are thinking about this early are doing a smart thing because they’re setting themselves up: “we’re ten people today, but what does it look like when we’re 50 people? What does it look like when we’re 500 people?” The more women they get early on, the more it signals to other women that this is a place you might want to work.

Tech Ladies meetup
courtesy of Tech Ladies
Tech Ladies meetup

What would you say to founders who want to hire a diverse workplace early, want to hire women, but can’t afford to provide maternity leave?

If you’re going to take on full-time hires, you need to be prepared to give benefits. Those benefits, at bare minimum, have to include health insurance, maternity leave, and paid time off. If you cannot create those basic benefits, your product or company might not be ready to have full-time employees. You might have to work with part-time employees or raise more funding.

Or maybe, those early employees are cofounders and they’re making this exchange because they’re getting an incredible amount of equity. This is maybe the only fair tradeoff for a situation where there’s no maternity leave. In general, I think if you’re starting to hire people who are not founders, who are going to work under you, there are going to be women and they need this benefit. Whether you yourself are a woman or a man, you have to be prepared for these things. I understand these things are very expensive--we’re building a company out too--and it’s difficult when you’re small.

You see companies like Thinx, which had something like 30 people, and they hadn’t instituted their maternity policy yet. There’s just no excuse. You can’t say “well, nobody’s gotten pregnant yet.” Someone’s gonna get pregnant. Or, people might be worried and not get pregnant because you haven’t created that policy.

As we build out companies, we need to realize that these things are not nice-to-haves, they’re basics. People pay for a lot of stuff in start-ups. There are a lot of ping-pong tables, and roof-top bar events, but you have to just prioritize.

How would you respond to companies that say “We just want to hire the best person,” then see this pipeline of mostly men and assume that because more men are in it, men must be better for the role.

I just think that’s so crazy. We need to figure out how to dismantle that. But for us, when it comes to Tech Ladies and who we’re looking to work with, we’re looking for not that. If you’re a good fit for the Tech Ladies board, your reward is that you just hired an unbelievable engineer.

Sure, if you want to fill your team up with all male engineers, that’s fine. But you might be missing out on different perspectives, and you might be missing out on this other pipeline if you’re not looking to hire in a diverse way.

This idea of another pipeline is probably pretty compelling for a lot of companies.

Right. I think a lot of hiring managers understand this. We have a lot of interest, and we have so many companies on our job board. And we don’t do any marketing. None. All that we do is: we exist, women tell other women about it, and we have events.

There’s such a need to fill tech roles, and we want to work with companies who are open to those people being men or women. Or companies who are specifically concerned about the lack of diversity in tech and come to us to address the lack of women in their pipeline.

Were you surprised by the response when you launched?

All you read are these dire articles about the diversity problem in tech, so when we launched we were pleasantly surprised by the number of companies that came to us. And it’s not just lip service: people are hiring through us, so it’s working.

I’ve noticed that several companies have been coming back, repeat posters like The New York Times.

Yeah, we do have a lot of repeats, which is a great sign. New York Times is an example. We’ve had several hires at the New York Times, but our first hire there became the person in charge of hiring through Tech Ladies. So she works with diversity and inclusion at the New York Times, and she’s the one we forward applications to now.

The stronger a relationship we have with a company and the more times they come back, the more we get to know them, and the more success they tend to have. And you noticed, right? The fact that you noticed shows that women in our community are paying attention to the companies that are making themselves a presence on Tech Ladies and are committed to a real partnership with us.

Have you ever turned a company down?

We do sometimes choose not to work with companies based on publicly known facts about their policies. Or, if we’ve heard many times over or even a few times over from women in the group that this is a very terrible environment, we won’t work with the company. And that’s hard, because we’re a small, bootstrapped company saying no to income. But we need to do that because, even though we can’t be perfect--it’s possible that there’s a company on our job board that you may not have a great experience at--but we want to be as good at vetting them as we can. Most of the companies that seek us out seem to be committed to our cause. We probably work with about 95% of the companies that come to us.

Where do you draw the line between a company whose culture is too far gone, maybe like Uber, vs. perhaps a small company of fourteen men and zero women with a rocky start but a chance to change?

Uber’s a great example of a company where we found out they had a lot of problems. We were working on an event and job postings with them. But even before the Susan Fowler story came out, we heard some things from our community and decided to pull out of the event. We just didn’t feel like they were a partner that worked for us. They have a lot of work to do. Hopefully they’ll get there, but they’re not there yet. Our community is very vocal, and we do have women who are at Uber, and doing awesome work there. We just have to take it on a case-by-case basis. It’s definitely not a science.

As to what you were asking about--when you know if they have a shot at fixing their culture versus when they don’t, it’s hard to answer that without being on their board, or being an employee there every day. This is one of the reasons why it was difficult for us--like should we work with Uber? Can we help Uber? But ultimately, we’re not a full-service agency. We can’t go in and fix every part of your diversity problem. We have our community, we have events, and we have our job postings. So to us, it’s about what we’re signing our name to, and we think pretty carefully about that.

You came from Google. Is there a Google partnership with Tech Ladies?

The one thing we do with with Google, which is so awesome, is that they have a community called Women Techmakers, headed by Natalie Villalobos. Every year we work with them to get discounted and guaranteed tickets for women in our community to Google I/O, which can be pretty hard to get into. I know people who’ve been trying for years to go. They also have a problem getting enough women to go. So they had Women Techmakers reach out to groups like Tech Ladies to actively get more women to attend.

They’ve been able to increase female attendance by huge jumps every year, and being completely transparent about it [via stats released on attendance]. This is a great example of a giant company saying to themselves, “all right, we can’t fix everything. So let’s pick one problem and put some really smart people in charge of it.”

Can you explain briefly what Google I/O is, its significance in the tech industry, and why increasing participation for women is important?

So Google I/O is their developer’s conference, and it’s where they announce all the new things that are coming out from Google. They also have a lot of interactive workshops, and it’s so popular that there are even watch parties for it in Google buildings around the world. In addition to being a highly anticipated event, it’s a great place to network. So actively inviting women there is a great way to be inclusive. It started out with most of its attendance being male, and while it’s not 50/50 yet, it’s within reach, and when they do get there, it’ll be a great case study. “This is how we got here; this is what we did; this is how many years it took.”

Speaking of actionable items within communities, one of the uniting threads I see on the Tech Ladies forum is this frustration with getting other people in their office to care. Within Tech Ladies, there are all these passionate, vocal people, and I think that’s why they’re drawn to the group, but it looks from the discussions as though a common problem is when you’re the one diversity champion in your office. What actions would you recommend to people who want to influence their coworkers and get others to act on this issue?

Reaching out to like-minded people at your job. There can often be a lot of camaraderie in companies with women-in-tech slack channels, like a mini-Tech Ladies within the company. It’s free for companies to let women to organize in this way, and it can be a great tool to retain women, just allowing them to speak openly with each other.For people who don’t have friends in the office, which like you said, we see all the time on Tech Ladies, maybe they’re the only woman on the engineering team and they join Tech Ladies for that camaraderie and support.

Another thing to remember when you’re fighting the “diversity battle” at work. You can’t fight everything. Little gender microaggressions happen every day. Speak up when it feels right, or if you know you’d be mad at yourself if you didn’t. But it’s also okay if you don’t speak up every time, because at the end of the day you have to go to work, take care of yourself, and collect a paycheck.

That’s a solid piece of advice to speak up if you know that you’d be mad otherwise.

Right. Like if I’m being spoken over in a meeting and I know I’m going to stew about it for six hours when I get home, that personal cost is too high. So, knowing that about myself, I’d speak up when that happens. But if you do the math and you’d rather just get on with your day, then let it go. That’s okay too. I don’t think there’s a perfect way to be a feminist or an activist in the office. There’s already so much that we’re dealing with that this shouldn’t be another thing to worry about.

Let’s close out with metrics to watch for the tech industry over the next five years.

  1. Get more women in tech jobs.
  2. See stats go up for women going back to work after maternity leave. That would show that these environments are really built to retain women.
  3. See an increase in older people and underrepresented folks in tech. I think the age discrimination and lack of POC in tech is at crisis level.

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Cyndi Chen writes about jobs, women, and technology. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Yale University. Interests include human narratives, the brain, pop culture, art, the Bachelor, and railing against the wedding industry. You can follow Cyndi on Twitter here, and Tech Ladies on Instagram here.

See more posts by Cyndi Chen at huffingtonpost.com/author/cyndi-chen

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