by Katie Siegel

How your startup can recruit women

As a female technical founder who is heavily involved in recruiting efforts, diversity in hiring is an issue I think about every day. A growing body of research shows that diverse teams perform better, and as that research becomes common knowledge, companies of all sizes are prioritizing diversity efforts.

Though larger tech companies like Facebook and Google are making steady progress towards their diversity goals, the metrics for technical teams at startups remain dismal. I find it encouraging that so many startup hiring managers and recruiters have recognized this as a serious problem, but there are a few areas that are routinely overlooked. This article focuses on five points that I have found effective in helping our startup recruit women. While there are many different facets of diversity and inclusion, this post will specifically focus on gender diversity.

1. Recruit at least one female founder, investor, advisor, or leadership team member.

Hiring at early-stage startups is difficult and largely network-based. A diverse founding team will have a more diverse network from which to hire early employees, whereas a founding team who is entirely male can unintentionally recruit an all-male team.

Having no female leadership, no female investors, and no female advisors is signal that a startup doesn’t truly value diversity, and could influence female candidates against joining. Even if your founding team isn’t diverse, you can reverse the trend by recruiting a woman onto your leadership team. Female leaders often add a diverse network to the candidate pool, and their presence in an organization indicates less bias against promoting women into management.

While searching for the right hires, also put effort into finding a diverse set of company mentors. The right female advisor or investor can help recruit female candidates and serve as a role model for people at the company. There are so many accomplished women who would make incredible assets as advisors to startups relevant to their area of expertise.

2. Prioritize pipeline diversity at the top of the recruiting funnel.

Companies with women can more easily recruit other women, and the best place to start is at the beginning. Early diversity problems can compound down the road, when candidates may view a lack of women as indicators of systemic bias or a toxic culture.

To systematically focus on diversity from the beginning, constantly monitor your candidate pipeline. At our company’s outset, our engineering hiring pipeline was around 50% women. While we benefitted from the network effects of having a female founder (myself), we filled the pipeline by pushing ourselves to brainstorm a diverse set of candidates from our networks, looking at LinkedIn and Facebook to spark our memories. However, over the next few months, we noticed that our pipeline gradually became less and less diverse, and flagged this as an issue.

To fix the problem, we focused on balancing the top of the recruiting funnel. Early startup hiring tends to bias strongly towards in-network referrals, and team members often think of people to refer in an ad-hoc way, which is an opportunity for bias to seep into the process.

To improve diversity among referrals, hold one-on-one meetings with members of your team and ask them to systematically search their networks for female and minority engineers they have worked with in the past, even if they are unsure about their technical skill. Create an internal system for tracking referrals, and make sure to check in to see whether team members have reached out. Many people don’t realize that they subconsciously tend to only refer white and asian males, but by verbally acknowledging that common bias, the team can start to work against it.

3. Incorporate diversity efforts into every external company event.

“Women in engineering” events seem disingenuous when other company events are not ordinarily inclusive. Integrate diversity and inclusion into every event by aiming for a better gender balance at all office events (e.g. board game nights and dinners). Ask the team to conscientiously invite both male and female friends, with the explicit goal of reaching a 50/50 gender ratio at the event.

The benefits of making every engineering event inclusive go farther than helping the women who attend such events feel more comfortable. Often, the burden of throwing diversity-oriented events disproportionately falls on women and minorities, when in reality, it should be the responsibility of the whole team. Ultimately, the most progress happens when the men on the team participate in diversity and inclusion efforts as much as the women.

4. Encourage the team to actively reach out to and mentor women.

Men and women who have made it a priority to mentor women will have more diverse networks. Because there are fewer senior women than senior men in tech, it’s important that those who are able to provide mentorship go out of their way to do so for both the men and the women in their lives.

Good mentorship goes a long way, both inside and outside of your immediate work environment. Within a company, mentorship builds internal role models and helps teammates grow more quickly. However, not every person you mentor needs to be a current coworker, or even a potential hire.

I personally go out of my way to provide guidance to anyone who reaches out, regardless of if I know them or if they are a potential candidate. This involves assisting with interview practice, connecting people with companies that match their interests, helping others deal with workplace conflicts, and even providing advice over the phone to someone who cold-emailed me after reading one of my blog posts.

Providing guidance to a diverse set of mentees helps move the needle on an industry-wide problem. Besides, you might find that your help comes back around in unexpected ways; maybe you can’t recruit that mentee today, but you may be able to recruit them years down the line, or recruit someone else from their network. By consistently and conscientiously offering career advice to both men and women, anyone at your company can establish themselves as a role model for others, and role models are a powerful incentive for someone to join your company. Many people join startups because they’re following a mentor — myself included.

5. Focus more on the system than the statistics.

Often, startups focus too much on diversity metrics, seeming to forget that metrics are merely a symptom of systematic problems in sourcing, interviewing, hiring, and retaining diverse team members.

Lack of diversity is not a problem for which deployed solutions reap immediate results. There is no way for a startup to implement perfect hiring systems and see the metrics start improving the next day; often, results take years to manifest. By rewarding only the results and not the process, leadership may slow gradual improvement towards a better culture and a fairer system.

Instead, create internal metrics that focus on bite-sized issues that can be addressed through day-to-day actions. Reward team members who refer diverse sets of people. Reward those who come up with ways to make company events feel more inclusive. When performance and compensation reviews come around, reward employees who went out of their way to move the needle on diversity initiatives, especially those who are neither hiring managers nor recruiters. Improving diversity is a team-wide effort; to generate change, every person at your company should be aligned on its importance.

The press has placed a lot of emphasis on company-wide statistics — the percentage of women and minorities in leadership or technical roles. However, the companies who have most successfully fostered change didn’t simply discover a previously-unknown source of female candidates. Instead, they invested years into building an inclusive culture, and those years of investment eventually proved fruitful.

Long before working together on Impira, Ankur and I would discuss at length the bleak state of diversity at small startups. We wanted to make sure that, at minimum, we would build a company with an inclusive culture, following the guidelines set by organizations such as Project Include.

Our technical team is currently 30% women, and this number will soon be higher. By continuing to reflect on the successes and failures of our diversity efforts, reinforce diversity as a core value, and improve our hiring processes, I believe that that number can continue to grow in the future. If this is something you’re also passionate about, we would love to work together!

Thank you to Ankur Goyal, Sashko Stubailo, Carl Grennes, and Richard Ni for edits and feedback on this post.