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You can hire diverse software teams, but can you keep them?

  • Publish Date: Posted over 3 years ago
  • Author: Jon Armstrong

If you’re in a technical focused business, you’ve no doubt already got a strategy worked out for recruiting more diverse software engineers. You understand that diversity will improve your teams and make you money. You may even have started putting that strategy into practice and hiring more women and minority candidates.

But how much thought have you put into retaining them? How do you think your first diverse hires feel joining a team that’s all white, straight, non-disabled, young, cis men? They’re all great guys. You’re sure they wouldn’t say anything racist or sexist. That’s enough... right?

Wrong. According to recent research, women are over twice as likely to leave the tech industry as men. The figures for minorities and engineers over 40 are similarly damning. That means that if you want to improve diversity, you can’t just hire diverse engineers. You have to make them want to stay.

Luckily, there are strategies you can use, and a lot of them overlap with standard employee retention techniques. Here are some tips successful teams and other tech sectors have used to maintain diversity.

Perfect your onboarding

For women and minorities, your onboarding process needs to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. You don’t just fly by the seat of your pants. You follow concrete processes. This will show that you offer equal opportunities for every new hire to succeed.

The lack of a formal onboarding process can leave women and minority employees behind while others get promoted, because when onboarding happens informally through social contact with teammates, those who have more in common with the team have a big advantage.

Your new software engineers need to understand three things: how the company works (org charts, internal tools, security practices, who to ask if they have questions), the tools and coding processes they’ll be using, and the architecture of the apps they’ll be working on.

They need clear goals and steps for their first day, week, month, 60 days, and 90 days. Even better, put those goals in the job description. Make sure they learn how other successful engineers in the team research problems, fix bugs, and make good decisions. The sooner they’re able to work autonomously with a degree of confidence, the happier they’ll be.

If your devs complain about the hassle of onboarding newbies, try a research-backed solution: have the next newest hire do the training. Research has shown they may actually do a better job than your oldbies who’ve forgotten what it was like to be new.

Don’t just mentor, sponsor

Mentoring is pretty common. You may well already set your software engineers up with mentors who’ll guide them through onboarding and beyond. But this is another area where inequality can lurk.

A study of 4,000 MBA graduates showed that even with mentoring, men received 15% more promotions than women. Were the men really 15% better?

On examination, it turned out that the mentors had been treating men and women differently. Women got advice on how to improve themselves to increase their chances of promotion. Men got advice on how to plan and ask for promotion - and public endorsements when they did.

The men didn’t just get mentorship, they got sponsorship. A sponsor goes beyond guidance and actively uses their influence and position to advocate for the person they sponsor. According to the Athena Project 2.0 study, women with a sponsor are:

22% more likely to be happy with their rate of promotion.

37% more likely to ask for a pay rise.

70% more likely to get their ideas endorsed.

119% more likely to get them developed.

200% more likely to get them implemented.

And studies by Harvard, MIT and Wharton have revealed that investors prefer pitches made by men to identical pitches made by women.

These effects are likely to be even stronger for minorities. Inherent bias is very real; Intel’s leadership development program has shown that sponsorship helps both women and minorities overcome the effects of bias.

A sponsor can support their protégé by:

Advocating for their good ideas. If their ideas go unacknowledged in meetings, repeat them and give them credit.

Recommending them for projects where they can make a big impact.

Making sure their performance reviews are fair and actionable.

Helping them prepare for leadership and promotion.

Putting them forward for promotions and pay rises.

Developing formal promotion processes and criteria to avoid bias.

The main reason we lose women software engineers is concern over a lack of promotion opportunities, so unbiased promotion criteria matter. If you’re relying on performance reviews to choose candidates for promotion, you should know that they’re often full of bias. Black employees are three times more likely to quit because of unfairness. So make performance reviews as transparent as possible and have them done by a panel, not an individual.

More tips

Make sure your managers get proper diversity training.

Not just lip service to the concept. 44% of women and 33% of men cite poor management as a reason for quitting their jobs. In tech in particular, managers are often promoted with little to no training, and women in tech are less likely than any other subgroup to agree that management decisions are fair or that it’s safe to speak up.

Offer equal pay for equal work.

That sounds straightforward, but there’s a clear wage gap for women and minorities in tech. Consider having a transparent, open salary system, or at the very least take a close look at the salary data for your company and figure out the reasons for any gaps. If women and minorities are less likely to be promoted than others with the same experience, that’s still a wage gap.

Make diversity an executive-level initiative

Diversity needs to be treated as a top-priority business goal, which means getting full executive buy-in and having company leadership setting diversity goals in public. If diversity strategies don’t come down from the top, there’ll be no requirement to follow through.

Don’t make meritocracy an excuse

The software industry has a reputation for being meritocratic, but the diversity numbers tell a different story. Companies that boast of being meritocratic are actually more likely to show bias Many diversity advocates say that the meritocratic reputation of the software industry is undeserved when you look at diversity numbers. Organizations that highlight their meritocratic practices are actually more likely to show bias in their hiring, promotion and pay practices.

Don’t make people wrong for being offended

Nobody likes to be the butt of offensive jokes or unjust stereotypes. You may be sure that your well-established, trusted employee didn’t mean to be prejudiced or hateful and was just having fun, but if the person on the receiving end doesn’t see it that way, it’s your job as a professional to create better understanding and empathy between them. That’s hard to do when you’re judging someone for being too offended.

Don’t force everyone to be the same

The default culture is that software engineering is masculine and white. Make sure your team bonding and social activities are ones everyone can enjoy, where women and minorities don’t feel they have to sacrifice their tastes to blend in with the majority.

Seek “more than one” and diverse leadership

Having more than one woman on the team: if Power Rangers can do it, so can you. Try to have more than one minority or woman (or both!) on your software engineering teams. According to Etsy research, teams with only one female engineer are less successful than teams with two or more.

Then it’s time for your final step: make one of them the red ranger. Diverse leadership shows women and minorities that they’re working for leaders who will judge them fairly, understand their challenges, and offer them the chance to climb high within the company in turn.