How to Retain Women Engineers
Director of Engineering at Zillow
Significant efforts have been made lately to ensure the diversity of the tech workforce by focusing on improving recruiting of women. However, not as much has been done to retain women engineers, which is an entirely different part of the puzzle.
As a company, we refined our recruitment strategy but were not as successful in retaining women. We came up with different recruitment strategies that helped us attract more women engineers. For example, we decided not to be specific with job requisition because women tend to apply only when they find a complete matching. However, it took us time to come up with similar strategies to help women grow in their careers and offer them support, understanding, and flexibility to balance work and family life. Though the number of recruited women is increasing, there is still worrisome attrition of mid-career women.
A common scenario I witnessed across the industry is that women would try to balance work and family life, struggle for two or three years, go through frustration and burnout, and then quit their jobs. However, there is a significant increase of senior women, often successful and in leadership roles, who raised children and have more time to dedicate themselves to their careers.
Revising a career ladder
The problem with most career ladders, including ours, is that women engineers are more focused on doing a great job than gaining visibility and recognition for it. Promotions are tightly knit to getting acknowledgement for one’s work, and while women engineers are hard-working and talented, their efforts are not always mirrored in career ladders and promotion systems. For example, one of our key promotion criteria was for a person to do a public presentation or write a blog post. We noticed that most women shied away from that kind of exposure but were quite committed to mentoring. We believe that they should get credit for mentoring, which should be included in a new career ladder.
Furthermore, career ladders should be revised and adjusted to the needs of both men and women at different phases of their careers. If we put the same benchmark for everyone -- and a universal “everyone” typically stands for mid-career men -- then we are not helping women grow.
We have a strong allyship with men engineers who are very supportive of our efforts. When I initiated a career ladder revision, I sent my proposal to my VP and Senior VP for their input because I didn’t want that to be a ‘women’s thing’ but a company-wide initiative. I wanted new benchmarks to be inclusive and beneficial to any underrepresented group that the past benchmarks didn’t do justice.
Women’s Club and other activities
I also started the Women’s Club at my company. Every month we would come together to discuss challenges that we, as women, were facing and learn from each other. I also initiated the Dedicated Mentor-Mentee in-house program through which senior women leaders are helping junior women engineers who are stumbling across obstacles typical for women engineers. We launched a series of improvements for women engineers (for example, benefits for parental vacation) and would celebrate March 8, raising awareness of the women’s contribution to tech.
- Don’t make your efforts a women-only initiative; mobilize allies. Make sure to explain to everyone the severity of the problem and how your changes will address it.
- Women engineers feel supported when their hard work gets the recognition it deserves. It is rarely about financial recognition as much as it is about promotion and growth. I would even dare to say that women prefer other types of recognition other than monetary recognition. If they see a path for their growth, they are more likely to remain with the company.
- Be inclusive. Sometimes small, seemingly unimportant details could make women feel excluded. For example, if leadership refers to a mixed or women team/group as, “Hey guys,” women don’t feel included. As leaders, we have to make sure that the language and gestures we are using are welcoming and inclusive.
- More than anything else, mid-career women need an environment that will support their efforts to balance work and family life and where they can thrive and grow. This is the strongest incentive for them to stay with the company.
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