A four-stage approach for hiring women on your engineering team

Photo of Ann Kilzer

Ann Kilzer

Contributor to TokyoDev

“We’d love to have woman engineers on our team, but we don’t get any applying to us” is a common sentiment I’ve heard from startup founders, both in Japan as well as my home country, the United States.

If you’re in a similar position, and looking to increase the gender diversity of your team, I have good news! Today I’m going to share strategies for not only attracting more women as candidates, but also helping you hire and retain them. These are strategies I’ve learned from 12+ years in software engineering roles, at companies from 3 to 20,000 people.

I’m also drawing on my experiences as Senior Director of Women Who Code Tokyo, a chapter of a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women excel in tech careers. In addition, I’m sharing my learnings from reading and mentoring.

Before we dive in, let’s remember: Perfectionism is the enemy of progress. Just like we would with Agile software development, let’s aim to be better than we were yesterday, learn from mistakes, and move forward.

While this article primarily focuses on the balance between men and women, there are other important forms of diversity you should consider too: LGBTQIA+ (remember, gender diversity includes non-binary identities), nationality, race, disability, and more.

The four stages

I’ve broken the process of hiring more women into the following stages:

  1. Evaluate
  2. Attract
  3. Hire
  4. Retain

Many companies start by looking to improve the Hire stage, but they haven’t put in the work to evaluate their current state of gender diversity or to make the company attractive to women. For this reason, they have limited or no success.

Let’s learn more about each stage.

Stage 1: Evaluate

This stage involves an honest assessment of where your company is at with regards to gender diversity, as well as gathering more knowledge so your leadership is ready to support women.

Understand why your company wants diversity

A good first question to ask is “why do we want diversity at our company?” (While there are certainly some companies that don’t understand or desire diversity, we assume that if you’ve read this far, you aren’t in that category 😃)

A caveat: let’s start by breaking the myth that women need rescuing, or that diversity initiatives are “charity” or “lowering the bar.”

Reasons why some companies want diversity:

  • Your team will more closely match your customer base, helping ensure your product fits the market, according to the New York Times.
  • Diverse teams have a proven track record of better innovation and ideas, according to an article by UC Berkeley.
  • Companies that bring together Japanese and foreign talent can better innovate in a competitive, global market.
  • Diversity leads to fairer treatment, so everyone can succeed regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, caste, or creed.

Identify barriers that might make women feel unwelcome

Once you understand your “why,” next, reflect on what barriers might make women feel unwelcome in your space. This one takes more introspection, so take your time and again, no perfectionism! Look for areas to improve in.

  • Does the company have a rigid work schedule or lots of overtime? Family obligations fall disproportionately on women, according to TIME Magazine, so an inflexible schedule may prevent them from thriving in your organization. A 2018 article by Tomohiro Takami asserts that “‘overtime culture’ is a barrier to women playing active roles at a company.” Consider flexible schedules to allow for activities throughout the day, such as childcare dropoff/pickup, or allow working from home to care for sick family members. Also consider flexibility across longer durations for life events such as maternity and paternity leaves.
  • What kind of language do people use in the office? Masculine language like “war rooms,” “dominate,” and “guys” may create an unwelcoming atmosphere. Sexual slang or “locker room talk” needs to be nipped in the bud. Interestingly, I’ve known a lot of men who also find such topics exhausting.
  • How does the team socialize or build culture? If it’s only late nights with heavy drinking, women may feel uncomfortable. Parents may not be able to stay out late on a weeknight. While getting beers with the team can be fun on occasion, consider having different opportunities for people to build relationships, such as getting a team lunch. Make sure that all events have non-alcoholic choices.

Educate yourself about gender equity in the workplace

This article is just an introduction to the topic of gender equity in the workplace, and others have written more extensively about it. In particular, I recommend “The Good Guys,” which shows that men have a crucial role in promoting gender equity at work, and “What Works for Women at Work” by Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey.

Be ready to challenge assumptions

One question I’ve faced when discussing measures to combat gender equity in the workplace is: “Are we lowering the bar?”

I find this question to be loaded, and only raise it here to respond to it clearly. The reason it’s loaded: it assumes that we live in a meritocracy with fair hiring systems; it assumes that women are less apt at science and mathematics; it assumes that hiring women is some misguided charity, and that DEI efforts are some band-aid, feel-good fix.

To this I’ll point to the excellent book “Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,” in which Emily Chang breaks down the origins of the word “meritocracy,” and explains how Computer Science transitioned from a field of women typists and “human calculators” to a male-dominated industry.

But this may also shock you to hear me say: I don’t want your company to hire unqualified women. It does no favors to your company, and it also doesn’t help the woman who is chosen for a role she can’t succeed in. Nobody wins!

There are also myths that technically proficient women don’t exist, or that women have an easier time getting through interviews. Let’s be cautious about any assumptions that take a zero-sum approach to gender relations—women’s success does not mean men lose something; there is a future where everyone can succeed. We’ll also leverage scientific research as well as firsthand experience rather than generalizations.

Stage 2: Attract

The next stage is to adjust your company’s external strategy to ensure you are appealing to women candidates. Check if you are accidentally sending signals that may turn away women.

Create inclusive job postings

Job postings are often candidates’ first chance to learn about your company, and so it is essential that they make them feel welcome. Here are some tips on writing inclusive job postings.

Avoid assuming a gender in the description

Instead of writing “The candidate will design software systems in his day-to-day work…” you could use the gender-neutral “their,” or instead change the listing to use the second-person “you.”

Avoid buzzwords when describing employees

Cutesy nicknames like “rockstar,” “hacker,” and “ninja” not only turn away women, they also harken back to the early 2010s.

Keep requirements to those that are absolutely essential

Extremely long lists of requirements that may actually be optional can scare away women. It’s better to think about what’s required vs. nice to have in your listing. Women tend to self-select out of job postings when they don’t meet 100% of the requirements, whereas men apply if they meet at least 60%, according to a HBR article.

When referring to women, be careful about the term you use

Pay attention to the terms you use when referring to women, or your attempts to be welcome to them may backfire. Here are some nuances to be mindful of when referring to women:

  • “Women”: Used to refer to adult women in the noun or adjective form.
  • “Girls”: Refers to female children. While it may be used in an endearing manner in social or casual settings, such as “Girls’ Night,” avoid using this in professional settings as it is diminutive.
  • “Female”: Avoid using this as a noun, as it sounds overly biological and can refer to animals. It could be used as an adjective, though I prefer “women.”
    “We want to hire more females.” => “We want to hire more women.

Further resources for creating inclusive job posts

For examples of what inclusive hiring posts do look like, check out this blogpost by Gem Siocon. You can also use the free tool Gender Decoder to check your job post for inclusive language.

Ensure your employer branding promotes gender diversity

Review your company’s employer branding from the perspective of gender diversity. A woman is more likely to want to join an organization that’s already making strides to improve their diversity than one that is male-dominated and showing no efforts to improve.

Highlight any existing gender diversity

Even if your organization is male-dominated, chances are there are some women in your organization. Work with them to figure out ways you can highlight them. This can include encouraging them to speak at events (along with providing them the resources to do so) or featuring their profiles on your website. Note that not all women will be comfortable with doing this, so be careful about pressuring them to do this.

Avoid appearing in events that lack gender diversity

Unfortunately it is all too common for events in Japan to feature all-male panels, or for conferences to have a dozen speakers without a single woman. Should your company appear in one of these, you may lead women to think that your organization doesn’t value them.

If one of your male employees is invited to speak at such an event, raise this issue with the organizer. If there’s a woman in your organization who would be a good fit, consider suggesting her instead. Otherwise, you can ask the organizer to find a qualified woman on the desired topic through a resource like SpeakHer, something I built with Tutti Quintella and Yan Fan.

Is your company leadership hosting or speaking at events with all-male panels? Are most of the photos on your LinkedIn groups of men?

Participate in, sponsor, or partner with organizations that promote diversity

There are some great opportunities to get involved with women and girls in tech. Here are a couple organizations operating in Tokyo, many of which are welcoming to male allies:

  • Women Who Code - A global nonprofit dedicated to empowering women in tech careers. Events are free and open to all genders. Most events are in English.
  • Code Polaris - A Japanese-language organization supporting women in tech.
  • Waffle - A Japanese NPO supporting high school and college girls in technology.
  • FEW Japan - Though not a technical organization, they are a great group supporting women leaders and entrepreneurs in Japan.
  • Women in Agile Japan - An Japanese-language community aiming to create 100 women Agile leaders in Japan.
  • Women in Technology Japan - A local community supporting women in tech fields, with many international members.

Stage 3: Hire

Congratulations! You’ve reached the stage where you’ve got women applying to your company! Now how to shape your hiring process to find candidates who are a good fit.

Review your hiring process for implicit bias

The first step is to review your hiring process for implicit bias: where we make unintended actions based on stereotypes or prejudice. There are many studies that show that better rubrics and systems help remove bias and improve decision-making.

To do this, ask: “Is our current hiring process designed to help us hire people who are a good fit for [role]?

Processes often favor candidates based on factors that have nothing to do with their aptitude for the role. For instance, I have ground my teeth in hiring meetings listening a male colleague fawn over an interview candidate who “was such a great culture fit, I would love to get a beer with him.”

If you are in the business of consuming beer, please, go ahead and hire that guy. As for me, I’m in the business of creating great software, so I’d like the evaluation criteria to measure:

  • Technical foundations
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Leadership (depending on level)
  • Collaboration/Teamwork
  • Ability to take feedback/Coachability
  • Testing/Quality mindset

Avoid “culture fit” or affinity bias and instead look to “cultural additions.” Look for people who will nudge your culture in a healthy direction. Coach your team in collaboration and feedback so they can bridge differences in a constructive manner.

Offer equal pay for equal work

It may be surprising that pay equity is still an issue in 2024, but last year’s Nobel Prize in economics went to Claudia Golden who studied this very issue. Nikkei Asia also discusses the gender pay gap in a recent article, where they talk about how a “greedy” work culture that demands long hours makes it hard for women to remain in higher paying jobs. In the west, women have less success than men in negotiating their salary.

One challenge in Japan is the expectation that applicants provide their current compensation. Basing future salaries based on past values could perpetuate pay inequity. Nonetheless, there is hope: a Harvard Study from 2014 suggests that by giving women permission to negotiate in hiring discussion, the wage gap closes.

Hire women at various levels at your company

Remember, women aren’t only beginners. Having women in senior positions can demonstrate to potential hires that there is room for them to grow in the organization. It also establishes role models, and ensures that women’s voices are included in decision-making.

Stage 4: Retain

By this point your company is becoming more diverse. This step is about setting up your new hires for success, so they excel at your company, which will both help your product and make it easier to attract even more diverse talent.

Provide opportunities for mentorship

Mentoring is a really great way to grow your talent, produce better employees, and also keep people engaged. Larger companies may have enough opportunity to offer mentorship programs. While it can be helpful for women to have female role models at their company, having a male mentor can also be a great opportunity for both participants.

Even if you are a smaller company, consider external mentorship opportunities to develop your people. ADPList is an awesome site that connects mentees and mentors around the world, and it’s completely free.

Recognize growth through promotion

Provide opportunities for evaluation and growth, and be sure to recognize outstanding work accordingly. You can use the same techniques for mitigating bias in hiring to evaluate your promotion cycle. Consider the chapters on “Prove-it-again” bias from What Works For Women at Work, which discusses a phenomenon where men are evaluated on potential, while women are expected to demonstrate past experience. Understanding these patterns helps us identify and mitigate it.

One of the best ways to support women in their career is through sponsorship: when a leader champions someone through the promotion process. Studies show that sponsorship more than mere mentorship helps women thrive in their careers.

Support DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) internally

Internal support of DEI is another factor that keeps women happy at their company. Small companies with little budget can bootstrap DEI programs thanks to free allyship training from LeanIn.org. As companies grow, many form Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as a way of supporting initiatives and creating a sense of belonging. These tend to succeed more when the leadership of such works is categorized as real work for the organization rather than just volunteering. This means supporting DEI as part of the organization’s “currency” and setting expectations around time commitments. For larger companies, full-time staff supporting DEI can supplement part-time members and compensate for the emotional labor behind this work.

Establish HR processes

Lack of HR / immature processes is a challenge in smaller organizations (or even those going through transition). Nonetheless, this is a risk area that is good to prepare for.

Ensure you have mediation tools for healthy conflict resolutions. Avoidance will just push off things to the future, usually coming back in a worse form. An excellent book on this subject is Crucial Conversations

Provide parent-friendly policies

While parent-friendly policies can be good for employees regardless of gender, women often disproportionately benefit from them, both because of the physical burdens that pregnancy and childbirth place on them, but also because of societal expectations that are often placed on mothers.

Establish lactation spaces

Lactating mothers need privacy, calm, and a sanitary space to pump breast milk, otherwise they may experience intense pain, and their baby may not get proper nutrition. The women’s restroom isn’t sufficient—nobody wants to prepare their meal in the toilet. Also make sure your staff understand that the lactation space is a restricted space—interruptions such as coworkers barging into the door looking for a conference room, or interns using the space to take naps can cause mothers undue stress and may prevent them from pumping.

Allow parents to work flexibly

Parents may need to work remotely to take care of sick kids or arrange dropoff/pickup from daycare or school

Train managers about maternity leave

Despite its legal protections, Japan still struggles with マタハラ (matahara, maternal harassment), where women face professional consequences for getting pregnant. Make sure your managers are trained to make applying for leave an easy process.

Promote paternity leave

Under the law, fathers are provided paternity leave. Encourage them to take advantage of it, because it normalizes men sharing duties that stereotypically fall to women.

Prohibit overtime

Expectations of overtime tend to favor men, who are more likely to have a wife to take care of household duties such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare. Even when both partners in heterosexual couples work, there is often an expectation that the woman takes on a larger share of the household duties (known as “The Second Shift”). Setting reasonable work hours helps level the playing field, and may have added benefits of preventing burnout among all employees.

Putting it all together

Now that we’ve learned the four steps, what’s next? Remember, DEI is a journey, not a destination. Celebrate your successes, and keep growing. Look for ways your organization can support intersectional diversity, such as LGBTQIA+, disability, neurodiversity, and nationality or culture.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you for reading this article. For caring, reflecting, and doing the work to make the Tokyo tech environment more inclusive. I hope to see you at a future event.

Author’s Note: The views in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of my current employer. None of the examples are taken from my current workplace.

More about the author

Photo of Ann Kilzer

Ann Kilzer

Contributor to TokyoDev

Ann is a creative problem solver whose work spans multiple disciplines, from software engineering to visual arts. As a leader in the technology field, she champions equality and works to create belonging for underrepresented groups. Her determination and passion gets results, from serving as the first engineer at a startup, to a leap of faith move to Japan to build a new life, even though she hadn’t found a job yet. She grew up in Montana, USA, and enjoys spending time in nature. In her spare time she studies Japanese painting, calligraphy, and indigo dyeing. She currently works as a Software Architect, and volunteers as a Senior Director for Women Who Code Tokyo.

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