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How One Hardware Startup Solved Silicon Valley’s “Woman Hiring Problem”, with 11 women of 21 employees, by Andrew Leonard on Medium

Stashed in: Hiring, Culture, DIY

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At Other Machine, a hardware startup at the base of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, 11 out of 21 employees are women. 

The list includes mechanical engineers, software developers and the CEO. In an industry notorious for skewed gender ratios and outright hostility to women, the balance is one of the first things a visitor to Other Machine notices. It’s also no accident; a commitment to gender diversity is at the core of the company’s DNA.

Other Machine’s primary mission is to put high-quality precision manufacturing technology into the hands of the masses. The two-year-old company’s first product, available since last October, is a tool called the “Othermill” — a relatively inexpensive device that can cut a variety of materials, such as wood, plastic or soft metals — into the precise shape desired. These objects can be anything from gewgaws to circuit boards.

Until very recently, computer-controlled mills were prohibitively expensive;a top-notch machine could easily cost between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars. But the Othermill takes full advantage of the same advances in miniaturization and processing power that have given us smartphones, drones and 3D printers. It retails for $2000 and is light enough to carry in one hand.

How did Other Machine hire so many women? It's the CULTURE.

Ask any woman who has worked in the technology industry and you will hear tales of similar “micro-aggressions,” little digs that, over time, contribute to an unwelcoming atmosphere. Researchers who have studied the experiences of women in technology report that expectations for what are considered “appropriate” gender roles form very early on in life. The workers at Applestone’s lab were not used to having a woman tell them what to do. Study after study have shown that conflicts due to clashing assumptions around gender roles contribute a great deal to making Silicon Valley’s corporate culture seem hostile to women.

But there’s also a moral to the mosquito story.

“The thing that made the culture get better [at UT] over time,” says Applestone, “the thing that mattered, was that any time there was an issue, I brought it up with my boss, he listened to me, then he brought everybody into his office, and gave everybody a talking to, and things got better. We had to repeat that process a couple of times, but it made all the difference.” Exit surveys conducted by technology industry employers after women quit their jobs suggest that corporate cultures in which women feel unheard or disrespected is a major source of ongoing attrition — women leaving the technology industry and never coming back.

Interviews with Applestone and her employees, both male and female, reveal several different, potentially replicable strategies for nurturing a technology workplace that women find collegial and respectful — to the point that, as Other Machine web developer Cassy Jens told me, “I brag about it to my friends all the time.”

It starts with the hiring process. Applestone doesn’t just pick through the applicant pool that comes to her; she goes out and actively looks for qualified women.

There’s no question that the pool of applicants contains more men than women — a fact that undoubtedly makes it more difficult for a Google or Facebook to achieve gender parity than a small company like Other Machine. Yet Applestone reports that the culture she is creating has turned out to be a potent recruiting tool: “The ladies know where the ladies are.”

Some of Applestone’s initiatives are small, such as her determination to avoid obviously gendered language. (She recalls, ruefully, telling a couple of her employees that the company needed more “manpower” and then realizing she had made this comment to two women.)

Other efforts have more obvious impact. She screens potential employees for a quality she calls “technical empathy” — a capacity to think about the company’s product design beyond its technical merits, and instead, speak to a sense of “connection” with the needs and capabilities of consumers and co-workers, as well as the larger mission of the company. One of the benefits of putting together a team with high technical empathy, says Applestone, is that “there is not a mansplaining bone in our body.”

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Other Machine’s corporate culture to emerge from conversations with its employees is the sense that at this startup, nobody is going to be labeled a mosquito. This is not a company where micro-aggressions will fly. This is a company where the first bedrock rule is that nobody gets interrupted, and the second is that everyone gets their say.

“The dynamic in meetings is the most important thing,” Applestone says, “because that is the thing that you do every day, every week — it is the reinforcement of what the culture is. You sit around the table and you speak — and the way you address others and the way they address you is reinforced every single day.”

Applestone says that “one of the most satisfying things” about being the founder and CEO of Other Machine is that she was able to personally write the Employee Handbook. With a wealth of experience dating back to her own struggle as a single mother in graduate school, she made sure things would be different, and better. “I was able to say I want this, and I want this, and I want this,” recalls Applestone.

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