Career WISE women in computer science

Reasons Why It’s Hard to Find Senior Women Engineers

Credit: Flickr / Nomadic Lass

People ask me about this topic sometimes, especially as I’m no longer close to being a “new grad” but at the point where I look for bigger opportunities. I’m collecting it here for reference – reasons and observations from my own experience, of why it’s so much harder to find senior women engineers.

Universities are the easiest places to find technical women looking for jobs, and all the top companies have systems for making the most of this (the job fair at GHC is really good for this in North America, although I’m not clear on a UK or Australian equivalent). For more senior women, it’s exponentially harder.

The Pool is Shrinking

Lindsay wrote really well about this, so I won’t elaborate much, but the statistics about the percentage of women who have left at 10 years should worry you. And this doesn’t include when women move into less technical roles like product management, project management, and just management. If you’re looking for senior(-ish) engineers, the pool gets smaller every year at a faster rate than for men.

Demand is High

The women you want (mostly! periods of high-layoffs can sway this) have jobs already, and typically strong networks and people who are looking to poach them. I get great, personalised emails from recruiters on a regular basis, as well as the usual LinkedIn dross. New grads you’re typically persuading between unknowns, later on you need to convince women you are better than the devil they know. I know guys who have hated their job (or their manager) and quit, trusting they will find another one. I do not know any women who have done this.

People Leave Managers

Everyone knows this, but the converse is also true. When my female friends talk about options, we talk about who the manager is, what they are like, if there’s anything we should know. We don’t go and report to people where we saw a friend having a bad time.

When I last looked at my options internally, I wasn’t even interested in talking to teams where I didn’t have a personal recommendation for the manager. As a new grad (/grad school drop out), I started my job with no idea who my manager would be. I can’t imaging doing that ever again.

Playing a Long Game

Whenever I seriously think about leaving my current job and trying something else, it comes with a 6-18 month plan. This looks something like: “this is what I want that I don’t have / this is my plan to get it where I am / this is my plan to prepare to find it elsewhere”. I don’t think I’m that aberrational here. Whenever I see my friends making career moves, they play a long game. They consider their options. They value loyalty and because of that they work to try and find reasons to stay where they are.

(The corollary of this, is that when someone loses a woman from their team and is shocked, they shouldn’t be. They were usually just downplaying concerns as “emotional”, or just plain choosing to ignore them.)

Go Where They Are… If You Can Find It

I went to a women in tech meetup recently, it was a good group of 30-40 people. Everyone went around and introduced themselves. I was one of 3 women who wrote code, and one of 2 where it was our main activity. It is really, really hard to find women working as engineers. I encounter a lot of female engineers on Twitter, but the last time I met one in person (I’m not including academics here) outside the office was at the womENcourage event. Conferences with strong code of conducts (like PyCon, and Strangeloop), and a high proportion of women speakers are the best place that I know of to look.

Who Do They See?

Facebook and Yahoo both have prominent female leaders. One of them is well known for talking about going home in time to have dinner with her kids, the other for banning working from home.

For me, whilst it worries me when companies have few, or no female execs, I find mid-level women much more relevant. Do I follow any of them on Twitter? See them speak at conferences? Read their blogs? See them featured in more traditional media?

And what about the wider context and discussion relevant to women at these companies? Which company had a CEO who beat his girlfriend? At which company was the term “brogrammer” invented? Which company’s engineer sexually assaulted a woman at a tech conference? Which company hung their female employee out to dry after she was the victim of vicious online harassment? Which company was talked about in that post on Secret for the aqui-hire of everyone… except the one woman? Which companies are known for their horrifyingly sexist ads? Which company just had a high-profile incident that they later claimed wasn’t gendered – it just so happened that a woman was collateral damage.

I don’t want to be collateral damage. I worry that “isolated incidents” have wider implications.

Is It a Better Job?

The data shows that women often have to switch companies for their “big break” [source]. This is a big reason why I keep an interest in what is going on in the outside world, and what is on offer.

A while ago, I actually did one interview and got feedback that I wasn’t enough of an “iOS expert yet” but “might be soon”. At the time, I was running an iOS app that I had architected and lead from scratch that had great reviews (and test coverage!). I thought about doing a follow-up, but really that was the thing that tipped the balance and I concluded it wasn’t worth it – I wasn’t going to find a better job there than I had already. At every point in the process, it has to seem worth continuing.


This relates to my datapoint about about men who’ll quit and trust they will find a job. Women tend to be more risk-adverse (at least financially, although I’m somewhat wary of findings relating to hormones after reading Delusions of Gender – Amazon), and there is good reason for this. They are more likely to have a bad experience (so much data, here’s my fave), and likely to find it harder to get a job due to biases in resume screening and perceptions of competence [source].

And then there’s the risk of rejection. I am, and I know other women who are, terrified to interview in case it goes horribly and confirms our fears (regularly re-enforced by gendered behaviour and common-or-garden tactlessness) that we’re not really that good at our jobs, that we don’t really deserve to be where we are.

Honestly, I’m more likely to interview at this point where I’m happy and feel appreciated than I was when I went home in tears regularly – my self-esteem at that point was so shattered that thought of interviewing elsewhere was an idea that I could only envisage ending in various and assorted Disaster Scenarios. I couldn’t deal with the risk of failure.

The End

Maybe there are no actual answers or suggestions here, just things to worry about, or reasons why it is hard to find women engineers. But if anyone discovers where they hang out in London, let me know. I’d go and hang out there, too.

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