The women in tech pipeline problem starts not with whether or not a male or female candidate is hired, but how a candidate is hired.
Maia Bittner, tech startup investor, advisor, engineer, and Pinch co-founder, who previously launched Rocksbox, a startup that raised $12.3 million, says the problem is the hiring process itself favors men.
“Often women do not come across in a way that gets them hired. I needed to change the interviews and focus on resourcefulness,” says Bittner, a 2011 graduate of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, an entrepreneurship-focused startup engineering college with a degree in Cognitive Science.
Recently “three female former employees of Alphabet’s Google filed a lawsuit accusing the tech company of discriminating against women in pay and promotions,” according to Fortune.
“The plaintiffs are a former Google software engineer, a former communications specialist and a former manager who worked in various roles at the Mountain View, Calif.-based company. They claim Google pays women in California less than men who perform similar work, and assigns female workers jobs that are less likely to lead to promotions.”
Other recent headlines about discrimination and harassment in tech at Uber, SoFi, Tesla, Greylock, Binary Capital, Ignition Partners, Google and more, point to an imbalance in tech.
“The soul-searching isn’t limited to firms that were engaged in litigation,” writes Maya Kasoff in Vanity Fair. ”Even tech leaders who haven’t been accused of sordid harassment are grappling publicly with their complicity in an industry culture that has too often treated women as sex objects instead of equals. Still, it says much about Silicon Valley that so much of its self-reflection has been extracted at knifepoint.
In a recent interview with Jessica Guyunn in USA Today, on the release of her new book, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, author Ellen Pao, chief diversity officer for Kapor Center for Social Impact, a venture partner at Kapor Capital and co-founder of the nonprofit Project Include, says:
There is a belief in tech that not everybody is equal. You hear that when you hear people talk about women being biologically less oriented or less skilled at engineering. You hear that when you hear people talking about lowering the bar to bring in women and people of color. It’s a view that now has become less popular because people are seeing the research. They are seeing the studies that show that diversity on teams improves performance. They are seeing the problems with products that are built by a small homogeneous group of people in failing to address a wider audience.
That inequality may well start in the interview process.
“In the traditional interview, men are faster and more confident,” says Bittner, a Washington state native who made her first HTML webpage in 9th grade. “But that doesn’t make a good engineer in the workforce. They don’t always have the right answers immediately.”
So the hiring model she initiated at Rocksbox, a subscription service she launched in 2012 for wearing design jewelry on loan, is to “have a candidate sit and work with a lead engineer on a problem together. You can ask questions and they will work together.”
Bittner says she hired 10 engineers this way, five of whom are women.
This “boot camp model” of the candidate working on a project with a team engineer for about two weeks – paid ― reveals if the candidate is a good fit. And not if the person interviews well.
“I don’t care if they know the algorithm off the top of the heads. I wanted to measure resourcefulness,” says Bittner, who worked as an intern in 2007 in Silicon Valley on a startup.
Working with a candidate’s schedule, Bittner says if she is employed, the candidate can work after hours or weekends on a project. At Pinch, in development since May 2016 and launching as an app nationwide this fall, Bittner has hired four engineers this way.
“A lot of people are underestimated and we have not evaluated them accurately,” says Bittner. “Our way is more instructive for the candidate and gives a much more accurate view” of what to expect, she says.
“A small percentage of engineers are women, and even if only 20 percent are women, at a big company like Google, you see a lot of women engineers. But for people who work in a 10-person company, odds are you agree the only woman engineer and the only woman at the company. They feel like they are the only ones,” Bittner says. “In the early stages, I never knew there were other people like me.”
Pinch is a startup she founded with fellow Olin alum Michael Ducker and not under consideration in a credit rating. “The idea is it can get you out of a pinch.”
The app offers renters the best way to pay rent—automatically—and reports each payment to the credit bureau, a large component for many people in a “pinch” whose rent payment is their greatest expense.
“We were interested in financial stability,” Bittner says, and Pinch started as an insurance company, following a 2011 accident when she was hit by a car as a pedestrian.
“I had this horrible insurance experience and $100,000 in medical bills,” she says, which were finally paid by her father’s car insurance policy. As it turns out, if you are a pedestrian hit by a car, your auto insurance covers it.
After investigating the possibilities of doing insurance on a loan, Bittner and Ducker decided “the insurance part didn’t make sense.”
Bittner is an early-stage startup investor with Parcel B. Her passion and expertise is with the “zero to one” stage of a company ― the composition of skills needed to get a new project off the ground. She has a passion for meeting founders to talk through new ideas and how to build successful companies.
Though she has been involved in tech full time for less than a decade, Bittner is doing all she can to make a difference for women engineers and entrepreneurs. She hosts a quarterly brunch at her home called Series XX for about 20 women in startups to connect with other women, share advice, and build a community.
Bittner is also an early-stage investor with Parcel B, named for the parcel of undeveloped land at her alma mater, Olin.
With all these initiatives, Bittner says in her time in tech she has seen changes. “You see groups demanding people be held accountable for they treat women, pay, diversity numbers—it is all much more forceful,” she says. “You also see more junior women see that tech is more attractive as a career choice.”
As for her number one piece of advice for a woman in tech at a start-up as an engineer or founder, “Have someone you can call on a programming issue, It’s a simple thing that can have you stuck for weeks.”
She also advises young women to call out sexist remarks and silencing behaviors. Working on Rocksbox, Bittner says in the funding stage she was asked if we were going to have kids. “I have a lot of guy friends and no one ever asked them if they would be having kids,” Bittner says.
As for getting interrupted in a meeting, Bittner acknowledges that as someone who has successfully founded two start-ups, she has more power than many women early in their careers.
“When I get interrupted, I point to the guy and say, ‘Do not interrupt me.’”
This ran originally in Take The Lead.