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How Etsy Got Over Middle-School-Cafeteria Syndrome

In the year after declaring diversity one of their core values, Etsy watched their female engineers drop to four out of 85.

Kellan Elliot-McCrea, the CTO of Etsy, recently shared the anecdote below at a private seminar held by a leading venture capital firm for its portfolio companies. (For the un-initiated, Etsy is a wildly popular online craft marketplace with over 15 million users—80 percent female—and, until recently, a 4.5 percent-female engineering staff.)

Etsy also had a substantial “boys versus girls” dynamic, where engineers (mostly male) sat on one side and the women on the other... It was a broken system that required changes on both sides of the house.

Not a surprising circumstance given the scope of tech’s gender imbalance, but what is surprising is that, through an aggressive response to concerns about its engineering corps’ lack of diversity, Etsy increased their number of female engineers four-fold in a year. Not only were their unusually concerted efforts successful, but the entire approach is an interesting counterpoint to the boot-strappin’ “just keep your foot on the gas pedal, ladies” message that figures like Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg spread around the world.

It’s also a pretty different effort than what I've seen in media or in the world of news, opinion, and literary magazines specifically (we in media havehad similar issues). Instead of putting the onus on society at large to change, or on women to change their behavior, as Sandberg and others in media have essentially done, Etsy pro-actively put the onus on themselves. It quickly paid dividends.

The video (above) is worth watching in full, but here’s a quick summary: In the year after declaring diversity one of their core values, Etsy watched their female engineers drop to four out of 85; so they looked at more substantive changes, like avoiding or relying less on technical interviews and instead offering need-based scholarships to women engineers enrolling in their ‘Hacker School’ in New York (“a three-month hands-on course designed to teach people how to become better engineers”). After an aggressive recruitment effort they enrolled more than 50 percent women in a 40-person class, out of more than 660 female applicants (compared to seven the previous semester). I’m no tech reporter, but those ratios sounds like a pretty dramatic departure for computer science.

Etsy ended up hiring five female participants, and started getting inquiries from “very senior” female engineers (ultra-rare people in Silicon Valley) at other companies that, while not ready to leave their jobs for Etsy, were impressed. The company had more “data” on the Hacker School participant-applicants than they could gather from a traditional evaluation process, and hired engineers who might not have survived a less holistic assessment.  Etsy committed to not “lowering their standards,” which everyone from George W. Bush to Sandberg have decried in one form or another, but “changing” them, by simply getting a fuller profile of candidates.