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InfoQ Homepage News ThoughtWorks Recognized as Most Women-Friendly Tech Company

ThoughtWorks Recognized as Most Women-Friendly Tech Company

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At the recent Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, ThoughtWorks was recognised as being the top company for Women in Technology.  InfoQ spoke to Rebecca Parsons, CTO, about the company's culture and the award.

InfoQ: Firstly Rebecca, thank you for talking to us and congratulations to you and the whole team for this recognition.  What makes ThoughtWorks an organisation where "women technoligists can thrive"?

Thanks Shane. We're really honored to have won the award, but we also acknowledge that there's a long way for us, as well as for the industry and society, to go. 

I think there are several cultural factors at play here, but fundamentally it starts with our organization's very real commitment to social and economic justice. We do the extra work to recruit in non-traditional places; we invest in training people and in leadership development; we invest in diversity and inclusion training, including for unconscious bias; and we consider working towards gender equality as not only a business imperative but because it is the right thing to do. I have been in the industry for a long time in many different sectors. ThoughtWorks has been a home to me and many others because we feel valued for our talents and skills, our perspective, and our attitude, aptitude and integrity. We recognize that moving the needle is hard work, and we keep the focus on it. When we use external agencies we require them to give us a diverse pool of candidates. We do that to ourselves internally when we are staffing internal roles and promotions. We are constantly asking the questions about retention, advancement and recruitment. It takes focus. 

InfoQ:  There is a lot of evidence that diversity in the workplace results in better outcomes for the organisation, customers and employees, yet the number of women leaving the technology workforce seems to exceed those coming in.  What is driving this? 

While there is a legitimate discussion around the additional family responsibilities women carry, some studies have shown that only 25% of the women who left the tech industry left due to family issues . Many more leave because of dissatisfaction with the culture, and with a lack of opportunities for advancement. There are definitely places in the tech industry that are more hostile to women than men. One only needs to look at the news reports of harassment, or listen to the stories women tell about their experiences at conferences, in meetings, and online to understand the additional stress women operate under in this industry. Many women finally say that it just isn't worth it. 

Adding to this, there are unconscious biases that we all have as human beings. Men are often advanced based on potential, while women are advanced based on accomplishments, resulting in a bit of a circular argument. Woman and men both judge resumes with female names more harshly than an identical resume with a man's name. Again, dealing with these issues eventually just gets to be too much for some women and they leave.

InfoQ:  The numbers are pretty dismal in our industry- figures cited range from 25% of technical roles (according to Forbes) filled by women to only 19% in technical leadership roles.  What are some of the underlying causes of this disparity and what can organisations do about them?

I discussed some of the causes above, around unconscious bias. Another issue is the relative strengths of the networks of individuals. Men often have more vocal advocates or are more vocal advocates for themselves. Women sometimes self-select out but sometimes are just assumed not to want a more demanding role, due to their family commitments, for example. Women are also more likely to be steered into non-technical roles. 

To combat this, organizations have to take the issue seriously. They need to remain focused on making changes as opposed to simply taking an easy solution. They need to invest in developing people (not just women). They need to question their decisions to ensure they are based on facts and not biases. Unfortunately, it's hard work.

InfoQ:  We sometimes hear the excuse that there aren't enough women coming into the industry to fill the roles available, so organisations can't hire for them.  How do you counter this argument?

Paraphrasing the old saying, it's insane to expect that you'll get different results if you continue to do the same things. If you're looking at the same schools year after year, you're likely to see the same kinds of candidates. If you only look at CS degrees, you'll miss people who may be quite capable but chose not to pursue that degree, and we've certainly had success hiring software developers with no CS degree. If you recruit at conferences that have only 10% or so attendance by women, you shouldn't be surprised to find more men than women. This year's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing sold out in record time - just 21 minutes.  There were approximately 15,000 attendees and only about 1000 of the attendees were men . The women are out there. 

InfoQ: What sort of policies and approaches does ThoughtWorks have that overcome the inherent bias that seems to be prevalent?

Fundamentally, as in all things, awareness of the bias is the first step. Humans react defensively when they feel attacked, and unfortunately people react that way to discussions of bias and privilege. No one is evil for responding to an unconscious bias. Recognizing the existence of the bias and attempting to mitigate the negative consequences of the bias are essential. We need to have open conversations about the issue of gender bias. We must commit to working to overcome that bias, even when it is hard. Too many times, the easy and expedient decision, resulting in short term business benefit is taken over the harder choice that provides the longer term benefits of diversity you mentioned earlier.

We've improved our situation by looking in new places and looking into more of a different profile of person (both men and women). We've invested in training and in leadership development. We've focused management attention on the problem and made the hard decisions. That said, we still have a long way to go - we're not done yet.

InfoQ: Thank you and congratulations to ThoughtWorks for this achievement.

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