Artificial Diversity: Creating a Feminine Culture

| Shannon E. Thomas

This year marks my tenth year out of university. It’s also my tenth year as a full-time designer. I’ve been around. I’ve worked in-house. I’ve consulted. I’ve worked in advertising and in UX. I’ve designed social networks for cats and music lovers. I’ve designed game UI and interfaces for financial analysts. I’ve choreographed experiences in retail and predicted tech trends that we’re finally seeing come to life. I’ve worked with clients on three continents.

Then I decided I wanted to do something more than design. I decided to build a great company. For the past three and a half years, I’ve been doing just that. This summer, we decided to get serious about growth, and, after combing through hundreds of résumés, we’ve brought on an intern and two new full time employees. Somehow, unexpectedly and unintentionally, all of our new hires are women.

This isn’t the first time either. Two years ago, we began the hunt for a new designer, and in our final candidate pool (those who made the cut for interviews), less than a third were men.

We’re a design shop in the tech industry. We pride ourselves in our ability to integrate with development teams and in understanding the technologies we design for. We expect much more tech-savviness in our designers than other places I’ve worked. And somehow, unlike previous workplaces, we don’t suffer from the usual pipeline problem. In fact, over 50% of our applicants are women.

It was easy to dismiss this as an accident at first, but our recruiting has been so consistently the opposite of what I’ve experienced at past companies, it’s obvious that chance isn’t what sets us apart.

Attracting Female Applicants with Culture

It’s no secret that women find many company cultures unappealing, so let me start with some observations around this.

I think of company culture as those things that the employees of a company enjoy together, including and not including the work itself. “Company culture” is usually what makes its way to Instagram and Facebook. Looking at a company’s culture is often like perusing stock photography – it’s all men on leather couches with scotch and cigars or men drinking beers around foosball tables. Sometimes there’s a token woman. She’s probably in HR.

Small steps can go a long way. For example, visiting women often comment on how nice it is that we keep tampons in the ladies’ room. But tampons don’t change culture. Culture is made of people, and changing a female-unfriendly culture means hiring people who don’t fit the usual scotch-cigar-foosball mold…in multiples…to positions of power.

The Artificial is made of powerful women. We ooze not only with power, but also with support, collaboration, passion, and curiosity. How does this help our pipeline? When women look at potential employers, we want to see ourselves working there. When we see a group of women hanging out, it’s easy to imagine ourselves in that photo. When those women are having cocktails on a roofdeck, the enthusiasm gets real.

And it gets better. Seeing a company that has groups of women (not just the token one or two) in relevant positions of power means that we have a place to learn and grow. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by our applicants that The Artificial is women all the way up.

Recruiting Women by Looking for Feminine Traits

What keeps women from making it from the candidate pool into interviews and jobs? In my experience, it’s often the unintentional biases of male recruiters and hiring directors. This bias is often present from the job posting to the interview process.

Early in my career, I read countless “entry level” postings that required 3-5 years of experience. Only when I embellished my experience was I able to break through this barrier, but this résumé padding wasn’t natural. I was raised (as many women are) to be humble and curious, two things that recruiters are often blind to when sifting through résumés. Now that I’m on the other side of the recruiting software, I feel the pressure to look for years of experience, but I’m also quick to discount portfolios from applicants who brag about their work or boast about their skillz.

One surprise we’ve encountered is that, whether we use the word “senior” or not, we still get applications at about the same experience level. We’ve also discovered that hiring senior-level designers (with years of experience) isn’t something we’re good at. It’s not something that my past employers have been good at either. Fortunately, we’ve been able to avoid one of the worst mistakes: hiring non-senior people into senior positions. Instead, The Artificial focuses on creating a challenging environment that compensates for experience with support. And we hire for humility and curiosity.

In screening for these traits, my greatest learning has been to ask a simple but pointed question to hopefuls as a part of the application process. Does the applicant take the time to read the question and provide a thoughtful and relevant response? Is the response authentic to the applicant (versus something generic from Wikipedia)? It’s surprising how many applicants repurpose the question to sell themselves with some copy-and-pasted POV that can also be found on their websites or CVs.

What’s more surprising is how many men this tactic weeds out, while their female competitors tend to answer this question both more thoughtfully and authentically. And even without the question trick, the cover letters we receive show similar patterns. Our male applicants tend to talk more about themselves and what they can do for you, while our female applicants convey interest in The Artificial while expressing excitement for what they’ll learn.

The Magic

We have a team that is almost entirely women. It may be serendipity, but it works because we’re all humble and curious and passionate and supportive. There are exceptions – we have a man who fits this mold, and we’ve hired women who haven’t.

When we hire women, they’re often straight out of school, and grow into senior responsibilities. As a company and at our individual levels, we develop our practice, we perfect our craft, and we enjoy learning from and teaching each other.

So is it wise for a young company to overlook experience in favor of a few traits? Based on our results, adamantly yes.