Here’s how we’re trying to improve our team’s (gender) diversity

Update in June 2017: we’ve created a diversity policy for our remote team in our Playbook and will be updating this over the next few months as we draft a clear policy. 

With all the media attention recently on allegations of pretty institutionalised sexism at Uber, it seems like a good time to write a little about our own struggles with diversity at Hanno and what we’ve been doing to try and improve this.

Pretty much everyone involved in tech would agree that diversity is a huge problem. It goes all the way from the smallest of startups to some of the biggest in town. But nevertheless, this is a very tough post to write because it’s such a (rightly) controversial topic. I quite strongly believe that it’s the right move to talk about this and draw attention to it, but I’m also fully expecting that someone will take offence to this post in some way — that just seems impossible to avoid.

So let’s look close to home: how is diversity at Hanno?

As with many remote teams, we do fairly well on the geographic diversity side of things: we’ve many different nationalities and many of us grew up in very different places. We try very hard to be culturally welcome, tolerant and inclusive.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that of our current 10 core shipmates and most frequent collaborators, 80% of us are white and 80% of us are men.

While I’m by no means ashamed of our team: I’m proud of the great group of people we’ve put together. I still think it’s quite reasonable to say that if, after a few more hires, our diversity ratios hadn’t changed somewhat, that would be a failing of us as a team.

You know you’ve got work to do on the diversity front when (as happened a few months ago) you have 8 team members, only one of whom is a woman, and her friends are nicknaming her ‘Snow White’ (with her 7 dwarfs!)

How did it get to this?

I like to think that we’ve made a pretty concerted effort to make sure that our culture is a long way from being a macho ‘brogrammer’ environment. But even with the best of intentions, you clearly can’t shape a truly diverse and non-masculine culture if you only have 2 women on your team (one of whom is also your wife).

We’ve done a lot of talking and thinking about this as a team to figure out how we’ve found ourselves in this position, both in the last few months and also over the last 2 years or so. One of the biggest failings we’ve noticed so far is something that I think happens in many smaller companies: we’ve repeatedly hired ‘within our network’ of friends and contacts, and as a whole, our personal professional networks have not been diverse enough.

That’s clearly great if you’re a small team that’s looking to find people just like you, who you can probably get along with. It’s much easier to be confident about making a hire if you already know a person well.

But it’s far more intimidating to make a bet on a new hire when all you have to go on is their CV and recent projects, plus a few Skype interviews. The problem is that almost all research shows that we tend to hang out with people like ourselves. Clearly hiring from our networks isn’t the perfect recipe for a diverse team.

In our 5 or so years of operating, we’ve actually not hired a single one of our 10 team members via an open job advert. Each person who joined has either been a connection from someone already on the team, or they’re someone who has proactively reached out to us, introduced themselves, and built up a relationship with us even though we weren’t publicly advertising that we were hiring.

Sure enough, after a little while of knowing (and mutually liking) each other, you find an opportunity to work together and before you know it, you’ve carved out a whole role for that person. That’s what happens when you build good relationships and have a good cultural fit: you tend to find a way to work together, eventually. It’s a very powerful way to bring really valuable people into a small team.

Our first attempt to hire more inclusively from our network: mixed results after 2 weeks

We’re in a position at the moment where we have not only a few projects coming up where we need collaborator support, but we’re also hoping to be able to make a few hires this year if we can find the right people to join the team on a more permanent basis.

That gave us an interesting opportunity to take a look at our current network reach on Twitter (including retweets from existing shipmates and friends of Hanno), our newsletters, plus postings into our channels and communities (like this one), before we start posting onto paid job boards.

Since our gender diversity is probably our biggest issue at the moment, we decided to focus especially on tracking and improving this metric to start with.

We’ve listed 3 jobs on the site in the last few weeks and crossposted those elsewhere:

Before posting each of those, we spent a lot of time thinking about wording and tone for the actual job ads. They’re far from perfect, but the excellent Hire More Women in Tech site was a fantastic resource.

We ended each job description with a quite explicit comment about diversity and inclusion, to try and make sure nobody felt intimidated by our male-dominated team page on the website:

We also got our 2 existing female team members to critique the wording of the job ads (for extra feedback) and ran the postings through the very cool Textio site for analysis.

Wording and tone came up as very female-friendly, and we were careful not to be too demanding about the advertised job requirements. Since research apparently shows that many women don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100% qualified (compared to most men, who apply when they feel they’re 60% qualified), we wanted to make sure we didn’t pre-filter a lot of women out of the applications.

Of the 3 jobs, here were the rough statistics of applicants:

Job posting % of female applicants (if gender is identifiable on posting)
Content Strategist 75%
UX Designer 35%
Frontend Developer 0%

Those statistics obviously don’t represent a win by themselves. It’s no good getting a high number of more diverse applications if you ultimately end up hiring the same type of people regardless. But it does, I think, represent a small, positive step. And of course, “measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement”.

But we’ve realised a bigger problem with our network here: engineering

It’s great to now be in touch with a slightly more diverse pool of potential collaborators, especially for content strategy roles that pop up.

The big issue though, is with that engineering role. It’s not a huge surprise that if we make an effort to be a little more inclusive, we can improve our chances of hiring non-male content strategists. But that’s inevitably going to be even harder with technical engineering roles.

For us to get 0% of non-male engineering applications, there’s clearly something wrong with our recruitment process at the moment: our current network is still far too weak to rely on it for some roles, especially engineering ones.

We’ve realised that our approach needs to change quite dramatically to ensure that we have talented non-male engineers in our networks. We intend to post on job boards for that engineering role in particular (especially some of the ones mentioned here). That should increase our volume of applications (and consequently, the number of diverse applicants, if not the proportion of them). But we clearly need to find a way to combine our hiring with a more focused attempt to go out and build relationships with great non-male engineers.

Clearly, we can’t rely on being able to find a great match at short notice by just throwing out a job advert. Equally, as a small bootstrapped business, we can’t afford to splash out on recruiter fees and compete with funded startups to offer huge salaries to get people’s attention.

We refuse to hire a non-male applicant just because of their gender and our current network isn’t generating enough great engineers. So, instead of posting and promoting a single engineering job position and hoping that we magically hear from the right people, we’re going to change tack a little bit.

We’re starting to actively promote the fact that we want to build relationships with great female engineers who are a good cultural fit with Hanno, even if they’re not looking for jobs right now. Even if the time isn’t right for us to work together right away (we’re fully aware that the best people are never on the market), just being in contact gives us a chance to find a way to work together sometime soon.

Are you a female web developer? Do you know any great female developers who might be looking to work on great projects in a remote team in the next year or two? We’re serious about trying to do this better.

P.s. Yes, gender is only one factor contributing to diversity. But it’s the factor we’ve identified as most significant to our current lack of diversity. I’m sure in the future we’ll target other areas where we lack diversity and attempt to fix these in the same way.