All You Need is Friction

Leaders in tech companies, this post is for you.

Two weeks ago we started a wonderful tradition: the weekly morning coffee for engineering managers in Stockholm. We are a forum of leaders in engineering who want to grow our skills and network.

During the introduction round, one participant said that diversity has its limitations, because communication of people from different backgrounds creates more friction than of people from the same background.

I believe in diversity

I have been a woman in engineering for the past 13 years. I have worked for 7 different organisations in different roles. I am a senior full stack engineer and engineering manager. I love my job and I’m good at it — and sometimes I struggle to stay in tech. The struggle is not mine only — actually it’s a phenomenon called “the leaky pipeline”.

The leaky pipeline is impacting people from underrepresented groups in tech. Research shows that women are less mentored than men and more likely to pay higher penalty on mistakes at work than men.

A colleague told me this week that he called old colleagues in order to try to hire them. Zero of the women engineers he worked with were still engineers. Many of the men stayed in the field.

Look closely at the graphs below. They are from a research conducted by McKinsey and LeanIn in 2018, and they show that for every 100 men that are promoted to management positions, only 79 women are promoted. They also show the rates of micro-aggressions women experience at the workplace.

This is not caused by cruelty or stupidity of people.

It is caused because of “different culture” between men and women, that is emphasised at workplaces without balance between the genders and with uneducated leaders.

The different culture is expressed for example by the fact that women are less confident about their knowledge, which can be a good characteristic to an employee who will check themselves, collaborate, and not assume things. But in meetings with over-confident employees this might cause women to not share their ideas and opinions.

Because of the confidence gap together with the higher penalty on mistakes and less sponsorship, women are less likely to speak at conferences or write tech posts, which are often perceived as great signals for high professionalism, regardless of the content itself.

The reasons for the difference in culture are varied. A lot of them are because the way we are raised and our different expectations from boys and girls from a very early age, as you can see in this video, where adults meet babies with the opposite sex’s cloths, and hand them over toys according to the cloths.

I’m less interested in the reasons, as long as people don’t assume that my brain is inferior than theirs due to biology, an outrageous prejudice that unfortunately some people in tech still hold.

Women should be 50% of the workforce in your engineering organisation

I wrote in the past about how, and now I want to write about the why.

Women deserve to be 50% of the workforce in engineering. It’s easy to forget that not long ago women were not allowed to work, study or vote, in many countries. The change takes centuries and we’re still in the middle of it. Women are as smart as men, and when they are being pushed out we all lose. Men lose because homogeneous culture is harsh for individuals that have to follow strict rules to fit in. In addition their family members and friends who are women earn less and get hurt and even die because of products that don’t fit them, because they don’t take part in the development process.

The business value of diversity

This benefit of diversity is pretty well known: more ideas. When you have more ideas the chances you’ll work on better ideas is bigger. Another advantage of hiring and retaining diverse employees is that they are more likely to do a good job, because the threshold for success is higher and it’s hard to survive in the industry below it.

I want to focus on other two reasons that are not spoken of enough: ease of hiring and communication skills of your team members.

Friction will save your company

I work as a tech director at Apegroup. Our tech department employs 27 people from 10 different countries. We’re located in Sweden, but we speak in English. English is the native language of only one person in our department.

In my day to day work, I see how the diversity helps us reach better results. Because we know we have cultural differences and misunderstandings due to accents and phrasings, we’re more cautious in our communication. We make sure we really understand each other before starting an argue. Having good communication in a team saves a lot of time, and reduces the chance for burnout.

I believe that if your product is magnificent but your employees are generally miserable — you failed, because you created suffering in the world. Overcoming the friction caused by diversity is not only making your product better — it’s making your team members better to each other. Yes, you need to be a better leader to mentor your people into better communication. Won’t it be fantastic to be a better leader?

Hiring

Look at the outlier, blue, node. Which organisation will succeed better in hiring and retaining them? This is the entire story. It’s much harder to attract diverse employees when your organisation is not diverse. It’s much harder to create an inclusive culture when your organisation is homogeneous. In times like today, when finding good candidates is hard and expensive, it’s problematic to narrow the candidate pool by having a homogeneous team, and that is true for every company with more than 3 employees. It only gets harder when the team grows, and a larger amount of resources is needed to support the transformation.

It’s not the amount of applicants

I sometimes hear the excuse “we just don’t get enough CVs”, and for that I’d say only that: you’re hiring 1 engineer, not half of the engineers in the world. Find that amazing experienced woman and make her want to work with you.

A few last comments

  • In 2020 I’d like to see more men “come out” as allies to women in tech, and expose their goals and efforts for diversity — publicly.
  • Although I think it’s important for women to be aware of discrimination at work, under the current atmosphere I think it’s a better strategy to avoid talking about diversity at workplaces before acquiring a certain amount of political leverage.
  • Is this a global problem? One of the reasons I was excited to move to Stockholm from Tel Aviv a year and a half ago, was to be able to experience a more equal society. In the tech ecosystem in Stockholm it is very common for men to take half a year to a year paternity leave. It impacts the workspace, and another factor that makes a difference is anti militarism. It is much less cool here for men to be aggressive and tough, and much more cool to be empathetic and kind, which brings gender friction to minimum. Nonetheless, it’s not like what a group leader I interviewed for said to me — “there are no diversity issues in Sweden”. Until women are 50% of the engineering workforce — there’s a lot of work to do even here.

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The writer is a co-founder of Baot (extend-tech.com/baot) which is probably the largest community of experienced women software engineers and data scientists in the world, of HackExtend, a 24 hours hackathon targeting underrepresented groups, and of a podcast for junior developers called Extend — as the name of the organisation that groups these three activities.

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