Need Diversity in the Workplace? Start Early

When I graduated from college, I had two job offers in hand. One was at an established company that designed machines to build airplanes. It was my dream job: a mid-sized company of mostly mechanical engineers in a city I wanted to move to. The thought of designing machines the size of buildings thrilled me. When they flew me out for the final interview, I met the CEO first thing in the morning. He greeted me warmly and told me I would talk to a couple of team leads and meet the two female engineers. 

The two female engineers. Out of over two hundred engineers. 

The CEO clearly wanted to hire women. He offered me the job that day, right after lunch. But one of the female engineers had just started six months ago and the other, almost hitting her two-year mark, didn't have a stellar report. Though she did not actively discourage me from taking the job, she was clearly thinking about leaving. The company was twenty-five years old. They hired their first female engineer at year twenty-three and she was already almost out the door. 

The team leads asked me some technical questions, standard force diagram, and beam-bending work, and described the kinds of parts I might design. I was excited to recognize the textbooks I saw on people's desks. This job would actually use my training. But the team leads also asked what engineering-related hobbies I had. At the time I didn't know how to defend my interest in the arts, so I fumbled and finally talked about rock climbing. I learned that they all liked to work on motorcycles. 

The visit left me feeling uncomfortable. At the time, I could not quite pin down why. I thought perhaps I was simply afraid: afraid of the technical work, afraid of the huge machines I would be building, afraid of the implications and responsibilities of a full-time job. No one said I had to like motorcycles. I like musical theatre and poetry. I felt incredibly out of place in a sea of muscular, white men. I am not a car mechanic kind of engineer. I don't even like driving!

Culture sets in fast and if all your employees are alike it is difficult for anyone that doesn't fit that mold to join. 

I ended up taking the other job as an early employee at a small tech start-up in a different city. The work was not as technical and did not utilize my training so directly. But the CEO was female and the men I worked under and with were easy-going and relatable. They were different from me—incidentally, they also worked on motorcycles—but there was no implication that this would be a problem. I came on as technical hire number two; person number five.

I see it at every company I know: it is difficult to hire women into technical positions once you are established. Even companies that look hard for female applicants and offer competitive jobs to the qualified ones often have those applicants reject the offer, so I've heard. Culture sets in fast and if all your employees are alike it is difficult for anyone that doesn't fit that mold to join. 

It becomes a perpetual problem that gets worse with the more people that are hired. After all, we naturally want to hire people like ourselves. We like them better; we are more likely to agree and get along and know what to expect. It can feel safer. On the other side of the table, we want to see people like ourselves in a company, especially people that have become successful. In a large company, if there is not a single leader that we can relate to, we're apt to wonder: Can I be successful here?

To be fair, hiring is hard. Hiring requires the serendipity of finding qualified, personable people who believe in the mission and are ready for a new job at just the right time. To request, on top of all the regular hiring constraints, that we must consider the long-term consequences of hires that are too similar to ourselves is obnoxious at best. At worst it feels impossible.

But building a successful company also feels impossible, so get used to it. If a company hits ten employees and all those employees are alike then that company is already in trouble. Obviously, at ten employees a company cannot have that much diversity, but it can demonstrate that its culture will not be homogenous. Think of early diversity like an investment. The consequences are long term and it will save you time and money in the future.

Katy Gero has been lucky enough to work at two tech startups with female CEOs. A year after finishing her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, she slyly transitioned into data and computer science roles. A long time writer and poet, she loves getting people interested in science and technology and bridging the gap between the arts and engineering.


                                                                                                               Katy Gero