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Building a Gender-Balanced Engineering Organization in the Middle East

18 March, 2021

Alfaisal Eidajani
Alfaisal Eidajani

Director, Technology at Expedia

AlFaisal ElDajani, Software Engineering Manager at Facebook, shares how during his time at Expedia, the team managed to build a gender-balanced engineering organisation in Jordan, and how adapting the multiple levers in the hiring process helped accomplish this goal.

Problem

When one talks about gender equality in the tech industry, Jordan -- a country situated in the Middle East -- is not the first to come to mind. One of the advantages going for Jordan's tech scene is that the gender distribution for tech students is around 50:50 - far above the global average. With the tech scene in Jordan being more nascent, and most organisations being smaller tech companies, having a workforce that can burn the midnight oil and stay late is essential. That's why the gender balance in colleges wasn't translating to the workforce, as women weren't expected to stay late at the office and would not be hired.

Realising that fixing an organisation to become gender equal is a difficult problem to solve, and having the opportunity to start on a clean slate, the core team responsible for establishing the Expedia Jordan office was focused on making sure to build a sustainable gender-equal presence from the get-go.

Actions

As we set out to challenge the widespread assumptions of what a successful career looks like, and that there is a place for women engineers in it, the first stumbling block we encountered was that women were hesitant to apply for engineering positions in the first place. After years of being sidelined, the confidence gap women engineers faced was very wide, and many talented and highly-skilled engineers would not apply, out of fear that they are not good enough. To overcome this, we focused on top-of-funnel sourcing, and the recruiting team did a magnificent job pulling together lists of women engineers and then reaching out to help them see that there is a place for them. The recruiting team had their job cut out for them, and whenever they came back with a list of candidates that wasn't balanced, we would push back and ask for more women candidates before moving forward.

Once women engineers started to apply, and it came to the resume screening step, we sent out the resumes to other Expedia offices. While this did help with establishing a skill baseline, another benefit we aimed for with this exercise is eliminating unconscious bias. Since the people in other offices are not familiar with Arabic names, they wouldn't know if they are looking at a male or a female candidate, and this helped make sure that candidates were progressing based on their merit.

We then sent candidates a tech task that they had to deliver on their own time. This was one stage where women candidates were seriously lagging, and it was mostly because women were expected to help with home chores beyond their job and had less time to dedicate to the task. Again, our recruiters did an impressive job following up with candidates to encourage them to deliver. If one of them was getting disheartened with the load or missed the deadline, the recruiters would work with them to fit them in as they finished, or move them to the next hiring wave (we were hiring for almost a 100 positions, so there was always the next wave). We also ensured that the evaluation panel for the tasks was gender-balanced to help address any bias that might creep there.

Candidates that made it this far were invited for the onsite interview loop. Again, there was room to adjust the process here to make sure we support our candidates to be successful. We made sure the interview panel members were gender-balanced, and that candidates (both male and female) would get a cross-section view of what an average day of interacting with colleagues would look like. We also understood that hitting the gender equality target would not be enough if we don't also build a supportive environment, or the numbers would shrink over time. So we made sure to focus part of the behavioral interview on our desire to build a gender-equal workplace, and asked all candidates how they would feel about it and what they can do to help us achieve that goal. These steps helped show women candidates that we are serious about making a place for them and supporting them to be successful professionals.

The last thing we focused on was being very serious about closing the gender pay gap. All offers sent had to be approved and compared with other similar candidates of both genders, and past salaries were ignored since women candidates were almost always paid less than their men counterparts at previous jobs.

One significant thing we noticed is that while the above helped us have a healthy pipeline, we never managed to get it to 50:50, and it usually hovered around 70:30, but the outcome was 50:50. What this shows us is that women engineers were succeeding in the recruiting process at a higher rate (~35%) than men engineers (~20%). If you keep in mind the original 50:50 ratio in colleges, this means there is a massive untapped talent pool of female engineers in Jordan, and we are grateful to have managed to work with some of these amazing women engineers.

Lessons

Many people were skeptical of our approach and our goals. A lot of people, from government officials to leaders at other companies to our own internal employees, asked me if we introduced a quota system, or perhaps a reverse-bias system. They are all surprised to learn that we didn't do any of the sorts. We never compared two candidates and picked the woman engineer over a male engineer because of her gender. We just made sure to focus on top-of-funnel recruiting and made sure not to look for people that fit our process, but rather adapt our process to help people succeed.

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