She’s a woman founder and self-proclaimed ‘militant feminist’, so you can imagine Olympia Yarger’s disappointment when her job ad for a head engineer received 200 applications, but not one from a woman.
Last week, Yarger, founder of robotic insect farm startup Goterra, made a public callout on LinkedIn, asking her connections to help her tap into a network of women engineers, “to see if we can diversify our applicant process, if only a little”.
However, while her callout has led to a few more applicants reaching out, and prompted some useful feedback, Yarger maintains there’s a bigger problem at play here — and it goes way beyond one maggot farm in Canberra.
Speaking to SmartCompany, Yarger says since she wrote the LinkedIn post on Friday, she’s received about 10 applications from women. Most said they didn’t apply originally because they didn’t have the management experience required, she explains.
She’s also heard from women who are well qualified, but who are happy in their roles and aren’t on the market.
“The biggest challenge was that women with that level of seniority or that level of management are so unique,” Yarger says.
“They’re not necessarily looking for jobs.”
But, while questions were raised on the original post about the wording and gender coding of the original ad, the founder says it was run through a testing app before it was released and came back as 50/50 — as in, not skewed towards men or women.
The issue, she believes, is a wider-reaching cultural one.
Bias in business
The role Yarger is hiring for is one, like many in technical and management fields, that requires “a lot more investment in self”, she says.
It’s not a nine-to-five position, and it’s not suitable for remote work. And so, some women may feel they have to choose between this kind of career and their families.
“As a mum and somebody who has changed careers a million times, the things that define us in our careers are still the things that shouldn’t,” Yarger says.
Conversations she’s had since the LinkedIn post have also pointed to workplaces that aren’t necessarily woman-friendly, a lack of mentoring and a lack of role models. All of this contributes to the scarcity of women in tech, and particularly in hardware engineering, Yarger says.
“It’s 2020,” she notes.
“It’s kind of depressing that that’s still a thing.”
Speaking of which, she says the experience also served to unearth a swathe of bias — both conscious and unconscious. Online, several people assumed she was discounting all of the applications from men, or holding off the hiring process until she got some applications from women, she says.
“Nothing in what I wrote indicated that, but people perceived it,” she adds.
“It’s interesting that we still think that way whether we realise it or not.”
But, equally, she says the very fact she’s having these conversations, and is surprised by them, unearths a kind of unconscious bias on her part too.
“I have two children, and what’s had to happen for me to be able to do what I’m doing today is an au pair and a husband that has completely accepted that I will walk out the door at 6am and I will not look back,” she explains.
“That’s a privilege, which it shouldn’t be.”
It’s not over yet
There is, of course, no easy fix here. Getting women into STEM roles, even into the pipeline of education and training, cannot be done overnight.
But, at Goterra, while Yarger hasn’t quite got it figured out yet, it’s a conversation that’s on the table.
“It is now at the very front of the cultural conversation we’re having of who we are as a company,” she says.
And the power of community should not be underestimated. The founder was struck by how many women shared her post and suggested potential candidates, no questions asked.
“This is how we solve these problems — collectively, together and with each other’s ideas,” she says.
“It was a beautiful example of the fact that we belonged here. And the business world needs more of that, please.”
There is work to be done in tackling conscious and unconscious bias regarding what it means for women, and people of all minority groups, to hold top engineering and tech roles.
“We need to really stay focused on that as a problem and make sure we’re having better conversations across hiring or in mentoring,” Yarger says.
“On a small level, where we can do the most impact is to just remember that it’s not over yet,” she adds.
“We need to really focus on making sure we break down some of the things we do that have become part of our DNA, that are not helpful for progress.
“Aside from wearing our underpants outside of our jeans and protesting on street corners, that’s all I have.”