Defending my tech company’s efforts to hire more women taught me how much further we have to go

Workers protest against Google’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations.
Workers protest against Google’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations.
Image: AP Photo/Noah Berger
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Half of the newly graduated software engineers that my company hired this year were women. We’re not a giant company, but our previous class of new engineers had all been men, so this was a huge improvement. Because we were proud of this gender parity, we tweeted about it.

And that’s when I broke one of the primary rules of the internet: Never read the comments.

Responses to our celebratory tweet included hateful reactions like these:

“That’s sexism. Engineer hires shouldn’t be conditioned by gender!”

“You are short-changing your customers by hiring based on political agenda instead of merit.”

“This diversity crap makes me want to delete your app. Just hire based on ability.”

Many of the top comments came from men who argued that what was an important accomplishment for our team was actually sexist and discriminatory against, well, men.

I responded personally after reading several of the detractive comments, and the replies I received were not much better. One that angered me the most was someone implying that the gender balance on our team somehow explained why the Duolingo app had been “buggy” lately (it hasn’t been buggy, but that is beside the point).

Looking at these sentiments alone, it’s no surprise that the tech industry has a gender diversity problem. Women earn 18% of all undergraduate computer science degrees, hold 25% of computing occupations, and are 45% more likely than men to quit Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers.

When we reached a 50:50 gender ratio for new software engineer hires this year, we did not do it by “lowering our standards,” as some suggested. In fact, our approach was pretty simple: we stopped recruiting from universities with less than 18% of women represented in their computer science departments (to reflect or beat the national percentage), and we were open with them about why we would not be recruiting on their campuses. It was important that we recruited from universities that had higher percentages of women in their computer science programs.

In addition to changing where we recruited, we changed how we recruited. At the heart of this was involving the entire company in unconscious bias training to help everyone understand what could be done to minimize unconscious bias throughout our interviewing process. For example, we ensure that at least one woman is actively involved with every job candidate’s hiring process. We have also implemented a third-party tool that automates the first programming task that each software engineer applicant must complete, and removes each candidate’s identifying information in order to assess their skills without bias.

The idea of maximizing diversity within companies should not be a controversial concept. Beyond being the right thing to do, research has shown that diverse teams perform better and are far more productive than teams that are less diverse. In the case of Duolingo, women represent half of our user base. We would be doing our users and ourselves a massive disservice if our workforce didn’t come close to reflecting this balance.

While a better gender balance is a step in the right direction, there are areas of diversity where Duolingo is falling short and has much more work to do. The most pressing one is having a more racially diverse employee base. This is currently the largest weakness in our workforce, and something that we have prioritized to improve as we continue recruiting and hiring new people.

In my response to the comments on Duolingo’s tweet, I wrote, “I’m amazed that it’s 2018 and I still have to defend gender equality.” In a time when gender diversity in tech (and everywhere else) should unequivocally be positive, it was shocking and upsetting to read the angry sentiments. I learned that we still have a long way to go with this issue.

At the same time, I believe that as long as companies, universities, and the general public support gender diversity and inclusion, we can collectively help make tech a better and more welcoming place for women.

Luis von Ahn is the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo.