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Inside One Tech Firm’s Quest to Attract Women Engineers

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In 2015, Julia Lee, a top performer on the engineering team at the payroll-software startup Gusto, asked Edward Kim, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, why only one of the 18 people on Gusto’s engineering team was female. Before she got to Gusto, she told Kim, “people often assumed I didn’t know the answer to a problem because I was a female engineer.” Kim was extraordinarily receptive and made it a personal project to study the gender breakdown on the engineering teams at other tech firms. The numbers he found were dismal: only 12% of the engineering staffers at 84 tech firms were female.

“The fact that no one else in tech was able to really crack the gender diversity nut and solve it represented an opportunity for us,” Kim says. So Gusto’s human resources team launched a plan to attract women engineers with initial steps like writing job descriptions that avoided masculine phrases, and devoting 100% of its engineering recruitment efforts to women. Emails signed by Lee inviting female candidates to have an initial talk with her were sent to potential candidates, and the company committed to a two-year $60,000 sponsorship at biggest annual women’s tech conclave, the Grace Hopper conference.

Though hiring women engineers took more time, Kim says, Gusto never dropped its standards. “It bothers me when people say that prioritizing diversity lowers the bar in terms of the caliber of talent you’re able to hire,” he says. “That is simply not true.” Nor, he says, was there any push back from inside Gusto.

Gusto’s women-only recruiting effort “exceeded our goals,” Kim says, and, now 17 of Gusto’s 70 engineers are female. “It’s kind of a domino effect,” she says. “Women know they’re joining a welcoming community.”

While Gusto has made progress, its engineering team still lacks Latinos and African-Americans. Kim says Gusto has two hiring goals in 2018: senior women and racial diversity in engineering. “The way we make progress is by focusing on one problem,” Kim says, “and then we move on to the next.”

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