The difficulties women have finding jobs in IT

In December of last year (2015), I had to lay off two employees.  We had expected the loss of one customer (they wanted to migrate to a single system and while my day-job’s software is awesome in many ways, we don’t support all types of insurance so they made the right decision.), but hadn’t expected the loss of another customer as they had unexpectedly merged with another company.  Layoffs are always hard, both for the managers and the employees, but part of being an executive is making those kinds of tough decisions when life throws a curveball at the company.

Of the two employees, I laid off, one of them was my wife.  A lot of people would say it’s hard to lay off your spouse or family member, or say this is why you don’t hire friends & family, or maybe think that to do otherwise would show favoritism; but honestly, you have to make the best decision for everyone involved, and I thought it was the right choice.

How I came to the decision was by calculating a lot of different variables, the two most important of which was who has the most redundant skills at work and who could most easily make it to another job.  That is how I balanced my obligation to the company (removing redundant skills would have minimal effect on what we could accomplish but would limit how much we could accomplish) with my other obligation of the well-being of my employees.

My wife is a highly skilled developer in the arena of business intelligence, project management, and even just plain relational SQL.  She has a Masters Degree in Applied Statistics, four years of developing in a very complex relational database, and extensive experience managing software applications, developing training programs, and customer expectations.   Unfortunately, we didn’t use her for most of those skills, though we often wished we were at the stage in our corporate growth that we could, we just weren’t (and aren’t) there yet.   She probably was the second most advanced SQL developer in a company where EVERYONE knows and uses SQL, but that still meant that her useful skillset was somewhat redundant.   She also, I had assumed, be able to easily walk onto another job.

Unfortunately, here I am, seven months later, watching my wife struggle to find a job.  She did, indeed, find another job nearly immediately.  It was awesome, really an upgrade from working for me in many ways.  More pay, equal benefits, a work environment that was supposed to be more caring about each other.

Unfortunately, the same week that she was hired, her boss was fired and this old-school Italian guy became her manager.  This guy couldn’t stand a woman in his department, and a month later, when “HR” training of the boss didn’t work, they gave her 30 days severence and 2 months of job placement services.  I don’t know how that works, but I guess with both employees being new, she was lucky for what she got, in a right to work state, the manager technically could have just walked her to the door.

Still, its been 5 months without work, what is going on?  A few things.  First, she gets the “you’re over-qualified” a lot.  She is willing to compromise on salary, in fact, has indeed several times applied to positions with low salaries where she would have been rewarded emotionally for being able to be in a good company.  Still, I get it from the perspective of a person who hires people, you see someone so eminently qualified, the last thing you want to do is train them up, then see them be dissatisfied with their pay, and leave.

Second, she is sometimes lacking some random skillset that they’ve decided her position should have.  For example, maybe they post that they want a SQL DBA, but they really want a C# full stack developer.  She could do C#, JavaScript, whatever, but her school, her skillset, it all leads to SQL and data analysis.  If someone would hire her for lower salary as a C# person so she could get up to speed, she’d do it, but that isn’t what they want.

The previous two things happen to anyone right? Male or female, you might lose out on a position for these reasons.  This next reason is more particular to women, and I believe, particular to IT.  What I really started this to write about, is the way people react to a potential female IT employee.

When I thought she could easily get another job, it hadn’t even occurred to me that her gender would have anything to do with how easily or difficult it would be for her to get another position.  But here it is.  I see her apply, be told that she has all the right skillsets and more, only to strike out on the 3rd interview.  The 3rd interview (or sometimes 4th) is usually a personality fit interview.  This is where a bunch of people who often don’t know what you do, decide on whether or not they’d like to work with you.

My wife is a social geek.  Unlike myself, who would prefer to be in a dark room alone, she LIKES to talk.  So these personality interviews, should be good for her. In fact, she is often complimented on her social skills by recruiters, the first couple interviews (usually by the people who are testing her for her technical abilities)..Until the ‘personality’ interviews.  She seems to fumble with two primary types (who often turn out to be the decision makers over the technical people).  Female executives and non-geek male executives  For reference (in case you haven’t seen the rest of her content on this site), her particular type of Geekness is that she likes to bake, edit videos, build Legos, and yes, she likes working on tough data problems.

Here is how the interview goes: Things go well at first.  She chats, gets people chuckling, and the interviews go for a long time, even hours.  But at some point, there is a point where she sees people’s face fall and go from laughing and chatting to serious and end the interview.

“what do you like to do in your spare time?”

Anna, “baking, sewing, playing video games.  I usually bring baked treats in anywhere I work, people say they love my cake pops!”

Male executive 1, “I love treats! he he he.  I watch football”

Male executive 2, “watch basketball and football”

Male engineer 3, “work on SQL…and watch football”

Really?  Work on SQL in your spare time? Really?  I get it that you could be writing a book about SQL, could be learning new versions of SQL, or I don’t know, maybe building an application utilizing SQL.  But SQL is about “doing”, I doubt you’re “working on SQL” in your spare time unless you’re saying you don’t have any spare time and are ‘just working’.

Anyways, so then sometimes alternatively she’ll have interviews with potential female bosses.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but women are bitches to each other.  No, I don’t often swear, but if it is appropriate, I won’t hesitate, and in this case, I can’t describe it any other way.

In my opinion, men are hyper-competitive but are team focused.  Women are hyper-competitive, but mostly snipe at direct competitors, and they seem to often view other women as competitors.  When a woman manager interviews a potential employee, there is NO reason to tell the potential employee that they’re better in SQL than that person.  Really, there is no reason to tell ANYONE that you’re better than that person, let your results speak for themselves.

Woman executive, “So, how would you perform this Y task within X deadline?”

Anna, “{Talks about SQL} This is what I would do to focus on performance and efficiency, while still completing it within by the deadline”

Woman executive, “That’s not as good a way as how I would do it, but ok”

Anna, “How would you do it so I can know?”

Woman executive, “I don’t really do that kind of work anymore since becoming a manager”

Anna, “…”  silent thought bubble then what is your point?

Or alternatively, like in the earlier example.

woman executive, “what do you like to do in your spare time?”

Anna, “baking, sewing, playing video games. I usually bring baked treats in anywhere I work, people say they love my cake pops!””

Woman executive, “Everyone likes my baking”

Anna, “…”

Wait, did someone say that Anna’s baking is better?  Or that someone didn’t like your baking?  Did it somehow threaten your femininity by suggesting that Anna brings in baked goodies?

Well… the fact of the matter is, Anna will bake and throw away 5 cheesecakes in one day just to get one perfect one, so yes, her baking probably IS better.  But why argue about it? Why are women bitches to each other?

It isn’t like this for guys, at least not in my experience.  When a guy says he likes to play video games in his spare time, the sports guys just look sadly at the “Geek”.  But actually, in many cases, the extroverts are proud of having a “Geek” in their corner, so they get hired BECAUSE of the sad geek that they are.  They’d proudly show me off like a prized pig, this strange creature that works on fixing the toughest problems and working late nights and weekends.  I was ok that a lot of them were subtly making fun of me even as they relied on me to fix their toughest problems.  The reality is, I make more than most of those people now, by being ME, not by pretending to be something else.

And to be fair, I am similarly hard to get past the culture fit when I interview people for positions.  The fact of the matter is, if someone tells me during the “personality” fit interview, that they don’t do anything technical in their spare time, then I won’t hire them.  Period.

It doesn’t matter if they seem like a good fit, unless they’re the “only” applicant, I just won’t hire them.  If I hire someone who plays sports in his spare time, then that means I probably have to pay to train that person.  I wish I had the budget for training, but I don’t, so I really need to know that everyone is a technical enthusiast that is keeping their skills sharp.

But for women, it doesn’t seem to work that way.  I’ve given her some advice, ways to “frame” the conversation as a “yes”.  My thought process is that I don’t want to do more interviews than I need to, so really, the faster I can say “yes” and hire someone, the better, I just need a reason to, or at least no reason to say “no”.

So here was my advice to her.

“You’re from Wisconsin, you love supporting the Packers, its ok to say Go Packers!, even though you really only watch a few minutes a year”

“Talk about the technical things you do.  You spend more time in Adobe Premiere than anything else, week after week.  Say that.  Don’t just say ‘I make YouTube videos’, at least not until they ask, because visualizing someone working long hours carefully editing video gives a different perception than someone staring into a camera and talking about their day”.  (Yes, ironically I’m the one who stares into the camera and randomly talks about whatever is going on in my life, where-as Anna does focused videos specifically doing something, but I’m cool with this dichotomy).

“If you feel like the crowd is open to it, talk about the props you design, building things with your hands that look like they come from movie sets can resonate with guys”

“Don’t say anything that sounds feminine around a woman, they’re usually bitches and will think its an attack on how good they are at the same things.  Instead, talk about anything they’re likely NOT to do. “

I don’t know if I gave good advice, I hope it was.  I only gave it a few weeks ago, so only time will tell.  Be cautious before applying my advice to your situation, I gave this advice because she regularly makes it to the final interview, THEN is told that everything was great, but they just decided on someone else.  Later discussions will reveal that she was the stronger technical choice, she either was “late” (she is often submitted for a position after someone else was already the favorite) or the CEO or other executive just flat-out preferred a different candidate.  If she wasn’t making it this far, I’d give her different advice related to working on her resume or framing her skillset differently.

I still feel like she is struggling more than any guy would for the same positions.   When I laid her off, I hadn’t even taken her gender into the equation.  I assumed that her being “awesome” would be enough for her to easily find a new job.  And I think she “could” succeed at getting the same job positions in other job markets, just perhaps not easily here in Vegas.   She has been told many times that she would easily find a position in Seattle, and headhunters keep wanting to submit her to jobs there.  The reality is, we may have to look at moving to a more IT-friendly city.  

As a native Las Vegan, that depresses me, because I “wanted” to believe we were growing up as an IT-friendly city, but it feels like its still old.  We’re exploring some other options, perhaps she just isn’t getting in front of the “modern” companies, but four months is a long time, and we’re definitely considering all options.

Richard Mathis

Author

Richard Mathis

Richard Mathis is a software architect and CTO of CHSI Technologies. When he isn't imagining new ways to help insurance companies run their business, he's writing, gaming, or performing. You can follow his meanderings on twitter.

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