Against the “pipeline problem”: Elissa Shevinsky on getting women and minorities into tech

Shevinsky hopes to give recruitment a rehaul with her new project, “Hiring Goggles”. 

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Elissa Shevinsky is pissed off. Shortly before we speak over the phone about her new project to encourage gender diversity in tech, the news broke that Michael Moritz, CEO of venture capital firm Sequoia, had blithely announced in an interview that he simply can’t find enough women to hire. “Oh, we look very hard,” he told a Bloomberg reporter. “We just hired a young woman from Stanford who's every bit as good as her peers, and if there are more like her, we'll hire them. What we’re not prepared to do is to lower our standards."

Shevinsky first went deep-dive on the lack of women in tech while editing a collection of essays, Lean Out, which illustrates the toxic conditions they (and LGBT people, and other minorities) face in the industry. The book's anecdotes of sexual advances in interviews and casual racism and sexism in offices act as a rejoinder to the argument offered by men like Mortiz: that women either don’t want to work in the field, or aren’t qualified or skilled enough to be there. As Shevinsky has learned, this argument, sometimes called the “pipeline problem”, just isn’t good enough. “He needs to start seeing the people who he’s not seeing. I see candidates everywhere.”

Lean Out gave a platform to those who had been harassed or discriminated against at large tech corporations, start-ups and venture capital firms, but now Shevinsky is trying to do something about the problems it highlighted. “People kept asking me to come into their companies and fix things, and I thought, ‘that’s not a bad next step’.” In recent months, Shevinsky has buddied up with Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, who is CEO of an employee management company and was lead author of Women in Tech, a book of advice for women seeking to enter careers in Silicon Valley. Together, the pair have launched “Hiring Goggles”, a campaign to create videos and training sessions for companies struggling to hit their diversity quotas.

It’s a clever name, because it acknowledges the filter seemingly worn by those, like Moritz, who can’t see candidates from under-represented groups - or see them as inherently inferior. Shevinsky says the pair chose it because “it’s a little bit corporate and dorky”. It appeals to the kind of HR jargon companies feel comfortable with, and, in turn, Hiring Goggles' educational materials and consultations fit neatly companies’ existing training structures. For Shevinsky, the campaign is not so much about sexism as it is about business sense: study after study shows that companies thrive on a diverse workforce. "If you want to build something for every demographic, then you need some kind of representation within your company to make sure that the product and messaging is a fit. There's a very strong business case. I'm not a social justice person, I'm a capitalist."

The proposed videos include “hiring your first female programmer”, “how to provide a trans-inclusive environment”, and, controversially, “managing and firing underperformers”. Shevinsky said the latter was necessary because companies may be “reluctant to bring on people who are in protected classes” if they’re uneducated on the processes involved in letting someone from these groups go. “This campaign took a little bit of heat for including firing as part of the curriculum, but we want to make sure that we do everything we can so that these companies are prepared to bring on underrepresented people. We want to look at everything that's holding that back.”   

So far, the pair have run a Kickstarter campaign, (which didn’t meet its target by its deadline, but spread word of the project), and are figuring out how best to market their offering. “We’re in talks with some larger companies right now. This is a very universal problem – for big companies, but also for start-ups”.

The videos will be designed to have broad reach and appeal, but Shevinsky will continue to go into companies to offer a more personalised service. This can be much more effective at identifying the (sometimes surprising) roots of the problem: “A doctor friend once said that they can give out medical advice all day, but if there’s a snake in the house, that’s what’s putting your child at risk.” Improving everyone’s outlook on gender diversity is all well and good, but a bedded-down sexist near the top of the company could be your real problem.

What’s unique about Hiring Goggles’ approach is that it is top down. So far, attempts to get women in particular into tech have been very focused on education, coding camps for girls and attracting women to the science and technology subjects (STEM). “Of course I want more women to get into STEM, of course I do,” Shevinsky says. “But what about the ones who are already there?” 

The attempt to change attitudes seems to be working. As she points out, Moritz’s comments would have been totally acceptable a few years ago, but in late 2015, they caused a notable backlash. “When I first started working on Lean Out, it was kind of a novel idea to say that the pipeline wasn’t the problem. But now, many executives are acknowledging that it’s a retention problem, that it’s a cultural problem, that companies need to actively seek out candidates.

“That’s why it’s such a good story when the CEO of Sequoia says he can’t find any women to hire. Because it’s an unacceptable message now.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.