Hoping to hire superstar female engineers?

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You may want to adjust your recruiting practices

By Jessica Gilmartin, Chief Business Officer of Piazza, the social learning and recruiting platform for tech students

Last week I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. It was awesome to see that attendance at the world’s largest gathering of women technologists was up 70% year-over-year to 8,000 attendees, due to increased awareness about the technology gender gap and an explosion of interest by technology companies in hiring more female engineers.

It’s clearly challenging for companies to find enough qualified female candidates, since only 18 percent of undergraduate computer science majors are female, a decline from 37 percent in 1985, according to National Science Foundation data.

Given the fierce competition for engineering talent, coupled with the imbalance of female engineering supply and demand, it’s safe to say that the top female engineering graduates are going to have their choice of job offers.

My company recently hosted a Silicon Valley Tech Tour for 10 top female technical students, chosen from an applicant pool of 2,200 female CS majors. The students from MIT, Harvard, University of Michigan, University of Waterloo and other competitive programs were treated to VIP sessions at hot Valley firms AirbnbYelpPinterestPalantir and VMware. Below are some things I observed, both from the Tech Tour and from my observations of the 100 companies clamoring for female technical talent at the Grace Hopper Celebration.

Sell the technology first.

It’s an old and tired stereotype to assume that the first thing female engineers want to talk about is work-life balance. Female engineers are engineers first and foremost, and what they love is solving the biggest challenges. If your company is solving really hard problems, showcase them as prominently as possible — just as you would for top male engineers.

Include technical female employees throughout the recruiting process.

Many company recruiters remember to bring female technical employees to career fairs or on-campus recruiting events, but then forget to keep involving them throughout the process. If female candidates see nothing but men once they arrive at your office (HR personnel excluded), it’s going to be hard for them to see themselves working and succeeding at your company. Involve technical women in every stage of the recruiting process, from the initial contacts through the selling process. I’ve seen companies make significant yield improvements among female candidates just by making this one change.

Arrange on-site visits that include more than just interviews and demos.

Top students would rather meet one-on-one with engineers with whom they can relate. To be frank, this can be much more gratifying than hearing platitudes from an executive — especially a non-technical executive — standing at a podium. Top technical students want to speak with a number of engineers — male and female, entry-level and more experienced — to understand what kinds of problems they’re solving and how their skills and careers are progressing. The interviewing process should include casual, low-stress interactions with your technical team so it’s easier to visualize life one or two years out of school. Bonus points for meetings with alumni from a shared alma mater.

Expose candidates to a variety of roles.

Most college-level computer science students are not exposed by their professors or career services offices to the full variety of technical roles available. Many candidates assumed they could be hired as coders, but nothing else. Several of the women on our tour were shocked by the sheer breadth of opportunities available, such as Project or Product Management. Candidates really appreciated the companies that took the time to educate them on options beyond coding.

A little cheerleading never hurt anyone.

Many women — even brilliant and capable women, from celebrated Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to the technical entrepreneur Clara Shih — have admitted to facing a confidence gap. Several candidates noted that they were weary of technology panels that glossed over the very real challenges engineers — and especially women engineers — face. They appreciated hearing honest stories from employees who admitted to initially not being experts at all elements of their jobs and even occasionally failing, but who then ultimately received the training, tools and support necessary to succeed. At the conference, I heard women talking repeatedly about “imposter syndrome,” which was referenced by quite a few speakers. It’s a notion that resonated with many attendees, who felt both amazed and grateful to know they weren’t alone in their occasional feelings of insecurity.

For many, getting women into technical fields is a cause.

I was astounded at the number of women I met at the Grace Hopper Celebration who were participating in or had even started mentoring organizations for technical women. Time and again, women conveyed to me their feelings of isolation as one of 10 women in a 300-person computer science class, filled with hacker men who had been coding since junior high. They felt they were already behind on the first day of class! These women conveyed a deep sense of responsibility to help other technically-leaning girls and women avoid that feeling of isolation. In fact, my own company, Piazza, was created by Pooja Sankar, a female engineer who felt isolated as one of only three women in her undergraduate computer science program (she used this experience as inspiration to create a free educational platform that facilitates collaboration among technical students).

Facebook, Pinterest and Box recently created a mentorship program for women in technology, and I think that employers who encourage employee participation in similarly focused organizations such as Girl Develop ItGirls Who Code, and Black Girls Code will find both increased satisfaction among their existing employees as well as increased yield rates among women engineers to whom they extend offers.

Be explicit about your differentiators, from culture to size.

This is true for any college-level hire — female or male. College students with limited work experience don’t necessarily intuitively understand why corporate culture matters or how widely it varies. Be sure not just to sell your corporate culture but also to explain why the candidate should care. Some candidates had assumed that the larger, more well-known companies hired the most talented people and were pleasantly surprised by both the caliber of the employees at the mid-sized firms they visited, as well as the benefits, such as gaining a broader range of work experience, getting more ownership over large technical challenges, and having the opportunity to work side-by-side with senior leadership and even the occasional founder.

Get creative.

Most companies can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with the biggest organizations that are going to spend big bucks recruiting top collegiate technical talent. Spend what you can by participating in targeted on-campus recruiting, career fairs, hackathons, tech talks, and so forth, but also get creative about how to stand out. Consider offering complimentary trips to the Grace Hopper Conference next year, organizing Tech Tours for promising students, or partnering with companies such as Piazza to help you identify top technical talent in a cost-effective way.

All of us — as employers, colleagues and consumers — benefit from a more diverse workforce. I hope these tips prove effective in your search.