How Do You Attract Woman Software Developers?

This isn't a typical topic for this blog, but I have an opinion, and it's myyyy blog! I'm not a manager or HR expert, but I am a woman software developer, and I know what I look for in a job. Take that for what it's worth.

Software companies and departments often claim to want to recruit more women, and I believe (most of) them that it's not just lip service: they really do want more equality in what can be a male-dominated workforce. But you'd never know it from the job ads they write, which say, to me, codedly, but repeatedly, "This is a boys' club. Stay far, far away."

Now, every human being is different, so I'm not trying to claim that there's a way to write for All Women. But I do think managers are often blind to the ways their ads are secret beacons that attract only Moar White Men. (Actually, I'm white, so I'm not sure how much of what I'm saying also applies to racial minority candidates, but I suspect some of the problems are the same.)

Here are some of the problems.


It was a trend for awhile to recruit "rockstar" or "ninja" developers, and while those particular words may have fallen out of fashion, the attitude has not. Ads are designed to attract super-confident people, but there are problems with this when it comes to attracting women:

  • Confidence doesn't necessarily map to skill. Men are typically socialized to be more confident while women are typically socialized to be more humble. Assuming both are equally skilled, the man will seem more skilled if you use confidence as a stand-in for skill.

  • Confidence may not seem so cool to you when a woman does it. Women who have avoided or broken humility socialization are often judged as bossy bitches. Make sure you're not asking people to be confident, and then punishing them when they are!

  • Looking for arrogant people makes you seem arrogant. Your company culture is reflected in the type of person you claim to be looking for in your ad. For the reasons stated above, many women are uncomfortable tooting their own horn, and they may not want to be expected to do it all the time; to be surrounded by people who do it all the time; and to be constantly judged by their ability to do it more convincingly than their peers.


Even if you don't outright state that you are judging employees by their ability to best each other, the same words that imply an arrogant atmosphere also tend to imply a competitive atmosphere. Research suggests that women prefer, and do better in, cooperative than competitive atmospheres.

Personally, I don't think that's because we're inherently worse at, or don't enjoy competition, but that most of the time, in the real world, competitions are subtly and invisibly stacked against us.

  • A manager may think he is judging employees objectively on their relative merits, but in fact he is relying on subjective measures such as perceived competence and/or likability, which can hurt both humble and confident women for the reasons stated above.

  • A manager may, without realizing it, judge employees on their ability to read his mind by giving vague instructions and expecting specific results. Employees that are demographically similar--that have a similar background and worldview--have more chance of success here.

  • Every woman I have ever met has a story like this: "It was my idea, but when I said it, everyone ignored me. When the same idea was repeated by a man, suddenly everyone thought it was a great idea." Men taking credit for women's work just happens. In a competitive atmosphere where it matters who gets credit, women lose out.


Some companies, especially startups, pride themselves on going against the grain and making their own rules. You can just throw out the book, because we don't do things by the book here! Purely as a developer, I love that--I like exploring and not being locked into a particular framework or cookie-cutter coding style--but as a human being who has to work for this company, I have concerns.

The thing is, the book--the rules--whatever you want to call the generally agreed-upon ways of doing things in companies--this is where the structures are that protect me as a person who is in a minority demographic in this industry. I know what you are trying to say is "At our company, there's none of the usual big company bullshit," but what I hear is, "At our company, there is no consequence for sexual harassment."

Extremely Casual Language

Casual language is supposed to read as friendly and approachable, but to me it's a red flag. Even when the wording is not offensive in and of itself, unprofessional-sounding language implies that you do not have functioning legal or HR departments.

Jokes and Obscure References

Similar to casual language, jokes and references are meant to come off as fun and friendly, but they can also make the ad harder to understand. There is a certain extent to which people who quality for the job can be assumed to understand a shared professional culture, but often ads go further, making jokes about specific subcultures or tangentially related pop culture. Jokes that require a shared cultural context are alienating for people who don't "get it", and unfair if any aspect of that cultural context is not a direct requirement of the job.

In other words: if the job requires you to know binary, you can make a joke about binary. But you can't make a joke about Super Mario Bros.

"Why is this unfair to women particularly?" you may ask. "Can't women share the same cultural context as men?" My answer to you, Straw Man, would be:
  • If you're at all concerned about other types of diversity, it should be obvious that assuming a shared cultural context is unfair to people from an actual other culture, including applicants whose native language is not English.

  • "Developer culture" generally means geek culture, parts of which can be extremely hostile to women (cf. Gamergate). Even women who are great developers may avoid online coding forums and the like because they are so very clearly unwelcome in those spaces.

  • It certainly doesn't help to admit to enjoying those parts of geek culture that are not hostile to women, such as fanfic and cosplay. Woman-dominated geek subcultures are held in contempt by the world at large, but especially by guy-geek-types (narcissism of small differences).

Overemphasis on Fun

This may be more about my age (not 22 anymore) than my gender, but I am very, very wary if half your ad is about the fun perks your company offers. Beer! Games! Live music! This doesn't attract me; in fact, it repels me, because:

  • Emphasis on fun perks implies lack of real benefits, such as health insurance and time off. If I don't find the same things fun that you find fun, I essentially get zero perks.

  • In particular, it implies lack of work/life balance, since the company appears to be trying to make the workplace so appealing that people never leave. There is no inherent reason that work/life balance should be more valuable to women than men, but the unfortunate truth is that the brunt of housework and childcare duties still fall unfairly on women, so it should understandable if women disproportionately decline to work insane hours on top of that.

  • It also makes me concerned that I will be judged on how fun I am. Now, I think I am very fun, and my jigsaw puzzle club would agree. But they're not the ones who'll be judging me. It's just easier for a man to seem fun to men. My strategy has typically been to try to become "one of the guys" and do the same thing the boys are doing, and reactions have been mixed. Trash-talk seems meaner coming from me. Sex jokes come off as crude, odd, or critical (if it seems like I am turning the tables to make a point--which I sometimes am). And so on. Women who take the opposite strategy and try to seem fun in a separate-but-equal, stereotypically feminine way risk being dismissed as ditzy or silly. It's just a really narrow line to walk.

So what do I look for in a job ad?


I want to be judged fairly on my skills, and that means being judged on specific, measurable criteria. It's easy to convey in your job ad that you will judge employees that way: simply state specific, measurable job requirements. Applicants may not know what you mean by "iOS jedi" or if they qualify as such, but they know what you mean when you say "3-5 years of experience developing apps in Objective-C or Swift."


I am attracted to a job ad that's clear and easy to read. This makes me feel that the instructions and success conditions I am given on the job will also be straightforward and clear.


I would take a company that takes me seriously as a human person over a company that's "cool" and "fun" any day.

Emphasis on Cooperation

I want to work for a functional team that works together. The goal should be getting quality work done as a group, not who gets credit.

Indicators of Healthy Work/Life Balance

This is tricky to judge because companies that claim most strenuously to value work/life balance are often protesting too much, but a strong benefits package including time off is a good indication, as are parental leave benefits. I'm not even planning to have a child, but generous parental leave policies (including paternity leave) are good for everyone. Still, it can be tough to ask, because it makes people think you're about to leave to have a baby. Making the policy accessible to the public somewhere on the company website can be helpful and attractive to applicants.

Evidence of Functional HR Department

Just in case.


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