Workforce Development

Diversity hiring for engineering companies: 7 tips

Don’t give up at hiring a diverse team for robotics and engineering companies. Get better at it. These seven tips can inspire a more diverse engineering workforce.

By Andra Keay June 9, 2021
Courtesy: Silicon Valley Robotics

Diversity hiring is the most overlooked aspect of company success. Hiring members of underrepresented groups offers both economic and social value, but it’s not easy. If it were easy to successfully hire and retain a diverse team, everyone would be doing it. Which would mean you’ve lost a massive competitive advantage. I’m going to address diversity hiring from a gender perspective, but the core principles are the same across all areas of underrepresentation.

Get inspired by these seven tips to increase diversity in your engineering workforce.

1. Get rid of negative ideas: Diverse engineering candidates are available

The first, and hardest thing to do, is getting rid of the negative ideas that are holding companies back. Do you think women are unavailable and that it’s a pipeline issue? Do you think women are not interested in the work, or are not as capable as the average white male? All of the evidence says the opposite. Although robotics is not a very diverse industry, over the last year, the Silicon Valley Robotics Online Job Fair averaged 33.3% female job applicants with 10% applicants of color. This is close to the local demographics, and that is our goal.

Qualified, smart women are out there, which means companies are usually the problem. The problem is the whole process from job descriptions and qualifications, to the recruitment process and workplace culture.

2. What’s preventing a diverse engineering workforce?

Get rid of the “pipeline” myth. It’s not applicable to the discussion about diversity hiring today. Think about it instead in terms of what is preventing women from applying for positions at the same rate as men? What’s preventing them from progressing through the hiring process, and what’s preventing them from staying at a company? Women leave the workplace at twice to three times the rate of the average white man, which means smart women are going to be reluctant to join a company without awareness of diversity issues.

Women aren’t broken and trying to “fix” them doesn’t help you hire them. However, you can fix the recruitment process and company culture. The ideal recruitment pipeline should reflect the demographics for the area. Every stage of the process should be measured and evaluated to see where target numbers aren’t being met. This is a multistage process with many solutions. There is no silver bullet.

3. Recruiting sources for engineers: Ask for diversity

Let’s start with where you recruit: A company’s own “friends of friends” network is the single most useful hiring resource unless you’re looking for diversity. The same applies to alumni networks. Have you tried using affinity networks such as Women in Engineering, or women’s colleges? Have you explicitly asked women and underrepresented groups to apply in your job ad? It helps if you show your awareness of diversity issues.

4. Reduce bias in advertising for a diverse engineering workforce

It also helps if the wording of your ads is less biased towards men. Services like Textio can show how ad wording is perceived and how to make it more successful. [For example, Textio suggests more women would apply by changing words “driven by” to “inspired by.”] Women are generally unlikely to apply if you’re asking for “rockstars” or “ninjas.” It’s not that women aren’t competitive in those or other areas. We definitely are. The obvious answer to that request is “not female,” so why would we bother applying? Timed technical interviews and personality tests are both discredited and work to exclude underrepresented groups.

This May 14, 2021, excerpt from the Silicon Valley Robotics home page, www.svrobo.org, shows that recognition and outreach are important for hiring and retaining diverse engineering talent. Courtesy: Silicon Valley Robotics

This May 14, 2021, excerpt from the Silicon Valley Robotics home page, www.svrobo.org, shows that recognition and outreach are important for hiring and retaining diverse engineering talent. Courtesy: Silicon Valley Robotics

5. Change assumptions, patterns to increase engineering workforce diversity

Showcasing the social and communicative aspects of a job are more likely to attract interest from a diverse group of applicants. Overall, it really helps to reevaluate assumptions about the qualifications for positions across the entire company. Diverse applicants have likely attended less well-known colleges, or had years in different work (parenting) or in adjacent industries. They have not followed the same career paths as the average white man, so don’t exclude them by searching only for the same patterns.

Most have seen studies showing women tend to apply for jobs when they have 100% of the listed skills, whereas men will apply when they can only tick 50% or fewer of the boxes. What is much less well known are the details. In interviews, women are asked to show proof they have all the skills whereas men are accepted as showing potential. The key takeaway isn’t that women need more confidence. Interviewers need to focus equally on the potential of both men and women, and make that an equally positive assessment.

6. Diverse engineering workforce retention, advancement

This inequality in assessment continues in the workplace, leading to women (and underrepresented minorities) being paid less and progressing more slowly up the career ladder. Women are pushed out of fast-track opportunities for various invalid reasons, and then doubly penalized in workplace assessments as not showing leadership material. Studies show that women who assert themselves are also perceived far more negatively than men who do.

Can you show your company is a great workplace for women? If you can showcase women in technical roles, enjoying their work and being rewarded for it, you will start attracting women to your company. By the way, we all recognize those stock photos of women in hardhats and lipstick. Have you considered making pay bands (salary ranges) and remuneration more transparent? Historically, the negotiation process has not favored women or minorities and we are aware of it.

Transparency in pay bands is a big attractor, so is showcasing a company culture that celebrates diversity and promotes diverse people to the top positions. It’s hard to believe that a company is committed to diversity when the top tiers, the C-suite and the board of directors are all white men. Why not create a management track with a diversity commitment, where you mentor a range of candidates for success.

7. Start early with engineering workforce diversity

The sooner a company addresses diversity, the easier it is to succeed. If you only have 10 people, then every new hire can make a significant difference to your demographic ratio and your company culture. Once you have hundreds of staff, it’s hard to change the ratio and have the same comparative impact. You’ve incurred a “diversity debt” and your culture is going to be difficult to change and companies may struggle with churn.

Don’t give up; just get better. Diversity hiring isn’t just about doing the right thing. It provides you with increased innovation potential and better hiring practices give you a competitive market advantage.

More about how to hire more women engineers

Here’s a case study of how Etsy grew their number of female engineers by almost 500% in one year:

Here’s a collection of tips and resources for diversity hiring in technology industries.

https://www.hiremorewomenintech.com/

https://projectinclude.org/

Andra Keay is managing director, Silicon Valley Robotics, a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

KEYWORDS: Women in engineering, diverse engineer hiring

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Andra Keay
Author Bio: Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics