We’re approaching a significant milestone in our company initiative to employ more women. When our last Accelerator member joins in mid-July, 25% of Atoms will be women. Four years ago, that number was only 9%. We’ve gone from 1 woman maker to 9, and from 3 to 15 women overall.
We’re still moving toward more balance, but this milestone feels like a good time to celebrate progress and take stock of what got us here.
At First, We Failed
Our recent success comes after an earlier initiative that failed. Back in 2006, when the company was only five years old, I realized how very male Atomic was (one woman working part-time; no women makers), and I said we should change that. As a former professor, I was well aware of the gender imbalance in computer science programs.
That year I created, and Atomic hosted, the first BitCamp program. Inspiring 8th grade girls towards careers in software wasn’t ever going to be a short-term solution to our hiring challenge, but it felt like a good thing to do. SoftwareGR now runs BitCamp, hosting several events a year at many companies.
But while BitCamp was a success, we made very little progress on increasing the number of women we employed. In hindsight, I didn’t do a good job explaining why I believed it was important. I’m not sure I even fully understood why it was important. I got limited buy-in and quite a bit of pushback. Involvement was very limited. I didn’t define or publish our progress. I never stopped feeling the goal was important, but I didn’t do a good job keeping it top-of-mind in the company. I hid behind the stats of our local universities’ low enrollment of women in computer science programs.
What We Did This Time
Making progress has required a considerable investment in time, money, creativity, and effort over the last few years.
1. We changed the conversation.
I believe we were successful in hiring, first and foremost, because we made it a company priority, and got broad support and help. To get that broad support, we:
- Narrowed our goal from “improved diversity” (as that can mean a lot of things) to focus on gender diversity, and explained why.
- Described the business advantages we were seeking (see section below).
- Dedicated an Advisory Board meeting to getting feedback and alignment.
- Distinguished between efforts we made for societal good, and those we made for our immediate benefit.
- Decided how to measure progress (overall % of women as our primary KPI), and started publishing our progress on our website Diversity page.
- Published a series of blog posts on our initiative.
- Regularly shared educational articles and opportunities with the entire company.
- Kept the initiative and our progress visible through standups, company meetings, Slack, and email.
2. We made structural changes.
We also found we had some structural changes to make. By making these changes we freed ourselves from an unnecessary ball-and-chain that would have slowed our progress. Early on, we:
- Revamped and routinized our approach to compensation. Taking away the expectation that employees initiate and make a case for themselves for raises is appreciated by anyone who doesn’t like talking themselves up or negotiating.
- Significantly improved new parent benefits. We want to retain valuable employees and young parents by supporting them when they really need it, at the birth or adoption of a child.
- Changed our operating agreement to allow for part-time shareholders. Atoms looking to combine child raising and career (often, women) shouldn’t be locked out of shareholding through our operating agreement.
3. We changed our language.
- Reviewed and modified our hiring artifacts (ads, job descriptions, web copy) to remove any language that might discourage women from applying.
- Reviewed and improved our diversity statement.
- Updated images on our website to better show our current gender balance.
4. We reached out.
Structural changes and communication wouldn’t have been enough. We needed people engaging and taking action—reaching out to women in the community and encouraging them to join the Atomic team. To that end, we:
- Sponsored and attended conferences focused on women in computing.
- Sponsored and hosted women-in-computing groups and a lecture series.
- Made hiring more women a priority for me, our Managing Partners, and our Accelerator Lead, and invested senior leadership time in strategic recruiting.
- Got broad participation from the company in sponsorship, educational, and recruiting efforts.
How broad was the awareness and participation? I did an anonymous survey of the company and asked two simple questions. 95% of Atoms responded “yes” to the statement, “I am aware Atomic has an initiative to increase the number of women we employ.” When asked to self-evaluate their own involvement in the initiative, 39% responded either “moderate” or “high”.
Why We Care about Gender Diversity
18 months ago, I kicked off the public portion of this project off with a blog post called “Gender Diversity Makes My Company Strong.” Here’s a summary of my reasoning.
Diversity creates better products.
Everyone uses software. It’s easier to relate to and represent people like ourselves. Having both men and women on product teams, therefore, creates better a product for every end user.
Diverse teams are smarter, more creative, and operate differently than homogeneous teams. Gender is not the only dimension of diversity for which this is true, but I believe it applies.
Better products helps our clients succeed, and thus achieves our mission.
Diversity improves company performance.
Companies with more gender balance, and women in leadership perform better on a variety of traditional measures like profitability, revenue growth, etc.
Companies with women in leadership approach risk differently and think about employees differently. Having these differences influence the company makes us stronger.
Homogeneity is a risk to the long-term survival of many things. I believe gender diversity makes us more robust in the face of future challenges, threats, and opportunities.
Diversity improves society.
The under-representation of women in our profession smells like an impingement on liberty, and that’s something bad for all of society.
We’re not done with our initiative to employ more women. It’s still an active company priority. We’re still investing substantial amounts of time, money & energy.
But we’ve made major progress, and I think it should only be getting easier. This year, 3 of 5 members of the Grand Rapids cohort of our developer Accelerator program are women.
Comparing our efforts in 2006, and what we started four years ago, in 2013, I think it’s pretty easy to see why one failed and the other has succeeded. I hope sharing our progress, and how we’ve made it, helps other companies looking to improve their gender balance.
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