Over the past five years, global tech consulting firm ThoughtWorks has aggressively pursued female employees with impressive results. The Chicago-based firm, which has 3,000 employees and a remarkable passion for social justice, has nearly doubled the percentage of women in tech roles since 2010, from 17% to 32%. Moreover, the firm’s most recent hiring cohort was 57% women, surpassing the laudable 50% target. Such numbers are simply unheard in the tech industry.
One of these recent hires was Danie Banks, a software developer that no tech company wanted just two years ago. Yet after submitting her resume to ThoughtWorks, she went through an interview process completely different from anything she’d previously experienced. ThoughtWorks tested her coding skills, but then engaged her in a long conversation about her views on social justice. Danie also interviewed with a wide spectrum of employees, and ultimately landed the position. The way this happened offers lessons for any company in tech or other industries aiming to boost the number of women and minorities on the payroll.
The status of women in tech is pretty depressing: only 26% of computing jobs in the U.S. were held by women in 2013, according to a recent study. At big companies like Google, Apple and Facebook, women are a significant minority, particularly in engineering and technical roles. At big trade shows, participants captured the imbalance by tweeting photos of long lines at the men’s bathrooms and no lines at the women’s bathrooms.
Most tech companies today are aware of the problem and looking to hire more women, strongly promoting groups like Girls Who Code and investing substantially to encourage more women to pursue computer science degrees. Some have even started offering workshops and seminars on unconscious bias to reduce forms of discrimination that keep women and minorities out of this industry.
ThoughtWorks is certainly proactive in this regard, but two major factors really set the company apart: First, it actively recruits workers from outside computer science, hiring unconventional applicants and offering extensive training once they join. 40% of its software developers have degrees in fields other than computer science — like music, economics, accounting, or history.
Joanna Parke, managing director of the company’s North America division, identifies this as a way of “thinking outside the box.” Rather than just considering education and other typical standard criteria when interviewing a candidate, the company takes a whole picture approach, including “Their life journey, their curiosity and of course their technical proficiency.”
Second, and perhaps most compelling, the company conducts very non-conventional interviews that deliberately counteract the unconscious biases that can lead interviewers to choose someone they assume to be just like them.
To curtail bias, a minimum of two employees interview each candidate. Additionally, while discussing those applicants with company recruiters, interviewers try to identify and describe any unsupported prejudices that may have crept into their assessments. When making a claim like “they just didn’t seem to fit” or “she talked way too much” or “we just didn’t click,” the interviewers then must analyze and support those statements, and toss them out if they are irrelevant or unsupported by facts.
Next, ThoughtWorks includes at least one female interviewer in the process – both to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and to evaluate a candidate’s reaction. As Parke explained, “You’ve got a candidate and two interviewers — one male and one female — and the candidate only makes eye contact with the man. It happens all the time. It’s a flag. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s something you want to look at.”
The company also makes an effort to have applicants interviewed by someone who looks like them so that candidates see that ThoughtWorks’ commitment to diversity is more than just talk. This was tricky, however, in Danie Banks’ case: she was interviewed by a woman, but no black women. Currently only 8% of the company’s employees are black and 3% Latino. The company realizes it has a lot more room for improvement in this regard.
ThoughtWorks brings in nearly $350 million of revenue each year and has an impressive list of corporate clients, such as the Gap, Southwest Airlines and Caterpillar. Yet it also markets itself as strongly committed to social and economic justice.
Developing talent can be a double-edged sword for companies: workers who get extensive training can then end up leaving, taking everything they learned to another company. That’s not the case, however, at ThoughtWorks. The number of employees who’ve left the firm remains unusually low — only 10% for women and 16% for men.