Interviewing While Female

Personal    2016-09-14

This year has thrown a couple of tough interviews my way - nothing too difficult technically, they just didn't work out for one reason or another.

I've always been a nervous interviewer - clearly I have skills or I wouldn't have been employed as a developer for the last fifteen years. But when I'm under interview pressure, you could ask me to concatenate two strings and I might choke.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, but performance under pressure is certainly something I struggle with, and I know I'm not alone.

So it sucks that my gender should be an additional challenge. We have so many problems with diversity and inclusion in this industry, and so I have to consider how people perceive me because of my gender, for better or worse.

It wasn't always that way - my first programming job was on a dev team made up entirely of women. The only men in the building were artists. Even the 'IT guys' were women. I had no idea how unusual that was. The thing is, I don't think it was so unusual at the time.

Maybe that's why I didn't give a lot of thought to the teams I was joining in the years that followed. All that used to matter was the job itself. There were often a few other women around - I was only alone when the teams were small, 3-4 people, and I never felt isolated or alienated then.

I bring all this up because at one point during my recent job search, I went through the interview process with a company that gave me pause.

They sounded great on paper, they ticked all my boxes in terms of having challenging and varied work. But as we were setting up the tech interviews, I found out that I would be the only woman on a team of 50 or so. Not only that, but this company has a nearly 20-year history and has never employed a woman as a backend developer.

Whether the company's bias is deliberate or unconscious, it's clear that they have not made an effort to improve the diversity of their team in the decades before now. That's not just bad business planning, it's a huge red flag for me, an indicator that I would have a tough road ahead if I joined them.

And the weight of expectation would be crushing. If I did interview, I'd feel as though I were representing my entire gender. If I stumbled, it wouldn't just be me that looked bad in their eyes, it would be all women programmers.

Someone has to go first and open those doors for other women at this company, but why did it have to be me?

I wish I had the luxury of looking at a potential programming job solely on its merits. But these days I have to consider the environment I may be wandering into.

For the record, I did go through the first few rounds of the interview process, because practice is never a bad thing. However, I stopped short of the final steps because I knew I wouldn't be able to accept a job offer there. The whole situation was too fraught, I knew I wouldn't love it. I couldn't be certain that I would be treated with respect or even taken seriously.

I'm a competent, smart programmer and a good problem-solver who struggles with interview nerves. Interviews are hard enough, I shouldn't have to carry the extra weight of inclusion concerns with me too.

I don't know how to fix these things. I don't have a lot of answers.

But if you're a technology business that can't find women to bring onto your development team, maybe the problem is you - or at least your process. So adjust your message, try a different approach.

  • Interview differently. Try collaborative problem-solving exercises, or talk about code projects that interviewees work on ahead of time. Be flexible, try new things.
  • Communicate differently. Describe your job in realistic terms. Don't ask for "rockstar" skills, because no one is a ninja, we're all just good developers who want to do interesting work. Asking for ALL THE SKILLS does not make your job sound interesting, it just signals a lack of focus.
  • See yourselves differently. Examine your biases. What do you really mean when you look for 'culture fit'. Do you want someone who shares certain values as a developer - team collaboration, a strong belief in testing, review process, etc. Or do you just want someone who looks like you? Be honest. Be specific.

If you're not finding women to interview, then you're not looking - I promise you, we're everywhere.

And if you're interviewing and not finding any of us competent enough to hire, the problem is you. I guarantee it.

Incidentally, I finally wrapped up my job hunt and accepted a new position recently. I'll be starting next week, so for those of you who follow me on Twitter, expect to hear more about it there. The new position is a slight change of direction for me, and I'm a little uneasy about being in a position where I am no longer the expert on everything and instead have to learn a lot of new skills very quickly. I think it'll be an exciting challenge though.

Wish me luck!