Why start-ups should be concerned about hiring a diverse group of engineers

Posted on March 1, 2013

I wrote this as a first draft after taking The Op-Ed Project seminar in the fall of 2012. It inspired a later article published on Entreprenur.com

Hiring engineers for start-ups — or any company — is hard. In fact, hiring engineers was the 2nd hardest position to fill in 2012. So one of the last thing you want to add to your list of must-haves — Ruby, Javascript, Ops, TDD, etc — is gender diversity.

A lot is at stake when you hire someone, especially for start-ups. You need a great developer, someone who understands your product and market, is quick, works hard, and understands the unique way of start-ups. Hiring is expensive and, especially at early stages, it can be catastrophic to make a wrong choice.

But here’s the thing — not hiring a diverse work staff can be catastrophic for your business also. There are real consequences to having everyone in the room with the exact same life experience and sense of the world. And I’m not just talking lip service, I’m talking better returns, business decisions, and company communication.

In August of 2012, Credit Suisse came out with a study of 2,360 global companies showing that those with women on their management boards outperformed those with boards comprised only of men. Companies with just one women on their board had higher returns on equity and better than average growth. We aren’t talking minor returns either — companies with women on their boards outperformed those with all dudes on their boards by 26%!

But let’s shift out of the business world and talk about the world of medicine. I promise it’s instructive and transferable so bear with me.

Despite popular belief, heart disease is the top killer of women in the U.S. Disturbingly, more women than men die during heart surgery. According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the reason that women have twice the mortality rate of men during heart surgery is their smaller body size.

In other words, more women die during heart surgery, because the tools and techniques were created for bigger bodies. As of 2001, only 2.5% of cardiac surgeons were women and I have to wonder: if more women were involved in developing the medical techniques would the significant and obvious fact that women’s bodies are smaller have been overlooked? Would techniques been development to combat smaller bodies before all these women died?

Your start-up’s product may not result in the death of women or other groups not represented in your company, but what are you overlooking that could either cause your company to flop or dramatically increase its success? How much money are you leaving on the table by not including them in product development?

For example, studies have shown that women and men use and view the internet differently. Women use the internet more, buy more online, and, probably most importantly to start-ups, use social networking much more than men. Depending on the gender breakdown of your target audience, this may push you one way or another in your design, user experience, and feature prioritization. It can also be a blind-spot if most of the people making those designs are of the opposite gender as users.

It’s clear that having gender diversity in your start-up can help you see problems and issues for your product from the perspective of a more diverse customer base, but it can also help your team do better at their jobs.

In my ten years as a professional engineer and 5 years working at start-ups, I have consistently found myself bridging the gap between departments and facilitating more communication in the organization. My working theory is that as a women and thus outside the cultural stereotype of programmer/hacker/nerd, I am much less intimidating to approach than other engineers.

Marketers, business development folks, design, and customer service have come to me to talk about technical issues they are having. Sometimes these are features that need to be prioritized, but many times it is just to verify if it’s a real issue or can be fixed — my sense is that they are afraid to look stupid and thus ask for what they need. That is a serious problem for the company — no start-up succeeds without their small team talking about the product, its problems, and solutions. Getting things done is critical and spending time on a technical problem that can easily be fixed, is a cheap and simple way for everyone to be more productive.

And it’s not just me who sees these benefits. A study from Columbia University by Professor Katherine Phillips showed that there are significant benefits to having a more diverse group solving problems and finding solutions. Not only do diverse groups tend to diverse a wider array of topics, but a diverse group is more likely to find the correct solution to a problem than a homogeneous one.

The researchers noted that these effects were most significant for learning, sharing, creativity, and complex problem solving. You know, all the stuff that start-ups work on every single day.

Is it hard to find female and minority engineers? Of course it is. But so is building a company.

You are evaluating a million things when hiring great people — thinking about making the diversity of your staff a priority is one more thing you should consider. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do — hiring more women, minority, and older engineers is good for your business, your team, and your likelihood of success.

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