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How to find supportive workplaces

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These notes are based off of an Ada Camp group discussion session held in Portland, Oregon in 2014. Minority groups including women do not fit the existing tech culture that is dominated and shaped by white straight men, so they have to be especially vigilant in their criteria of choosing a healthy workplace. The goals of the session were to answer and discuss the following issues:

  • How does one find a supportive technical workplace?
  • What questions should candidates ask the interviewers to find out more about the workplace and if it's a right place?
  • What are some signs of a supportive technical workplace?
  • To what extent does the PR or outreach diversities of a company reflect how supportive a workplace culture is?

We define a "supportive" workplace not merely as one that supports equality and diversity in practice, but also strives to be as unbiased as possible in terms of hiring and promotion practices. In general, a good workplace is one that enables all employees to not be afraid to be themselves.

As a job interview candidate, you should feel empowered to ask sharp questions during the interview process to delve deeper into the culture of the company. Asking the right questions will shed light on whether or not a workplace is the right fit. Here are some sample questions to ask recruiters and managers at any stage of the interview process. You may ask any or all of these questions depending on your personal comfort level.

1. Follow this advice on asking recruiters for the transgender policies of the companies. You can also include questions about the length of maternity vs. paternity leave and if employees will be paid full-time during either of those leaves. Does the office have a nursing room for mothers? As more job candidates ask these questions, companies will be more likely to take steps to address and reform their inadequate medical policies to make them more inclusive to a larger and more diverse demographics.

2. To what extent does the company support the local community? Does the company sponsor women-in-tech events, open the space up for tech initiatives and meet ups, or sponsor conferences that have a strongly enforced code of conduct? Does the company host open source events for women and minority groups? Does the company allow engineer employees to volunteer at events such as teaching local high school students how to code as an after-school activity on work time? Even if the answer to all these questions is in the negative, to what extent is the company willing to start up any of these initiatives in the future? Is there buy-in from upper management in supporting or implementing these community outreach initiatives?

3. To what extent is the term "cultural fit" being used as a disguise for employers to look for homogenous employees that already fit within the existing culture? Be aware of how the term "culture fit" is being used by the interviewers. Instead, we support the idea that "culture fit" be disposed of altogether in favor of the term "culture contribution" in which job candidates are evaluated on how much they can contribute or complement an existing company culture.

4. Is there a #diversity IRC channel used internally in the company to spread news about the latest tech-feminist article or latest gender-bias incident? If that answer is a yes and the channel is actively used by employees, you are in luck! Your workplace is taking the right steps to educate themselves about diversity-related topics and therefore the employees are probably comfortable talking to one another about issues of gender bias and lack of diversity in tech. If the company does not have a #diversity chat channel, ask if company is receptive to creating a #diversity channel. Note the tone and the body language of the interviewer's response as that can be a good indicator of how receptive the management really are towards diversity issues in their local community.

5. Do the interviewers come from diverse backgrounds? This is especially important on an on-site interview when a candidate speaks to multiple interviewers. If the interview panel is not diverse, ask to speak to current employees who are from a diverse background to get their input on what it's like to work at that company.

6. Do any interviewers describe the workplace as a "meritocracy"? This is a huge red flag, as workplaces where managers believe that they are in a meritocracy are often more subject to implicit bias; self-identifying as a meritocracy makes workplaces less fair.

Advice for interviewers and managers: it is crucial to have a diverse interview panel as a method to identify problematic job candidates who may exhibit sexist behavior. There have been reported cases in which the job candidate asks male technical interviewers all the technical questions, while s/he does not ask the female technical interviewers any technical questions. This is a red flag that can only be identified when the interview panel consists of diverse backgrounds and can give different perspectives of a candidate's performance.

For Junior EngineersEdit

How does a junior engineer identify a healthy supportive workplace to work? What makes a workplace healthy especially for a junior engineer? Most of the above advice also apply for junior engineers in the interview process. Here are some important questions to ask:

1. Is there a mentoring culture already in place and if so, describe some examples. If the company consists of mostly senior engineers, the interviewer may describe how senior engineers learn from other senior engineers. Are there tech talk meetings in which senior engineers present on a practical technical topic appropriate for junior engineers? That is a good sign that the workplace is conducive to learning and growth as an engineer.  

2. Ask to talk to a junior engineer on a similar team to ask for their perspective on how difficult it was to ramp up on the domain knowledge. Ask if code reviews are conducted and if the engineers are respectful towards each other in reviewing each other's code. Ask about how long it took for the junior engineer to become familiar with the existing codebase.  

3. Ask for advice from your manager and your other interviewers on what makes a successful engineer at the company.  

4. What is the attrition rate and the average number of years that the engineers have been working for the company? What is the attrition rate for female engineers on the team? If that average number of years is less than 2 years, don't even consider that company, because this statistic indicates that the engineers are abandoning ship quickly in search of better workplaces.  

Further ReadingEdit

"Questions I'm asking in interviews" by Julia Evans

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