This story is part of Solving for XX, a CNET special report exploring what people and companies are doing to make the tech industry more diverse, more equitable and more welcoming to women.
Everyone has an opinion about how hiring managers can ease unconscious bias, how technology companies should cultivate more young female scientists, what Fortune 500 companies should do and how executive men should behave. One fascinating breakdown of compensation patterns among male executives suggests CEOs may pay women more if they have a daughter.
And -- perhaps most famously -- Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg urges women to lean so far into corporate culture that we effectively topple the old paradigm with brute force. Sandberg and her David Goldberg set an example for shared family workload as a means to corporate achievement. (For a comprehensive feed of all these arguments, you should follow Forbes writer Caroline Howard on Twitter. She's fantastic.)
Fine. Each of those suggestions probably has some degree of merit.
Draw your own virtuous circle
But from my perspective as one of two women leading the world's largest team of women writing and creating video about technology, I say the answer is simpler -- almost laughably easy. To give women more opportunity at your company, hire more women. Hire them at the top, at the bottom and everywhere in between. Make finding those women or training them up a priority for the sake of your bottom line at the very least. Just do it.
I know my advice sounds circular. How do you hire more women if they don't want to work for you? How do you find them if they're not pursuing the career in question? What if they drop out as they progress through the workforce?
Let me tell you the story of CNET and how we became one of the largest employers of women in online tech journalism. Yes, I've counted. At 46 female editorial staffers, making up 41 percent of our editorial staff, we have more female writers, editors and video pros than many of our competitors in the online tech media world. Hat tip, though, to Recode, which employs a higher percentage of editorial women at 46 percent.
(To come to this conclusion, I counted names on the mastheads at all the mainstream tech media properties including Engadget, Gizmodo, Recode, TechCrunch, The Verge and Wirecutter. I included all content positions, but left Wired out of the count because their online masthead doesn't differentiate between editorial and business positions.)
I started at CNET in 1999 when I was 23 years old.
In 1999, we were partying our way through the dot-com boom, and to tell the truth, I was likely underqualified for a job reviewing software. Sure, I had two years under my belt as an HTML jockey at The Sacramento Bee right out of college, but I had never built my own PC. My hiring manager never copped to it, but she -- a senior editor in her 20s -- probably hired me because I had attended a good college and had solid journalism experience. I could also truthfully answer the interview question, "How many computers are in your household" with "three and a cell phone."
I had no less experience than my male peers, however, and at the time, it didn't occur to me to worry about my qualifications. I walked into CNET, worked hard, learned my beat and wrote good articles. I proved my smarts. Within a year, I was tapped to manage a small team of software reviewers.
So why was my experience different from that of many women today who doubt themselves while their equally qualified male peers happily accept responsibility beyond their qualifications? It's possible I'm simply an outlier, but I don't think so.
The promise of the accidental role model
It honestly never occurred to anyone in my organization to wring our hands about women in tech journalism -- none of us thought the large number of women writing about technology at a fast-growing Internet media startup was strange or even notable. My team numbered six, and four of us were women. Two were women of color, my boss was a woman and for some period of time, her boss was a woman.
I realize now that the reason I felt comfortable marching up the ranks in my company, despite its traditionally masculine affiliations, is that I saw myself in my managers, many of whom had children and successful careers. I didn't struggle to imagine myself in charge. Success didn't look foreign. Those female leaders at CNET didn't mentor me per se in success as a woman -- they served as what I call accidental role models. The mere existence of these smart and successful ladies opened doors for me within my own mind.
We weren't alone -- just look at the founding PC World staff more than a decade earlier.
The original staff of PC World, circa early 1983. pic.twitter.com/NFEojT6slE— Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken) April 19, 2015
And then something changed. I'm not sure why the tech media turned heavily male, but it did. Without calling out direct competitors on their lack of diversity, suffice it to say that women comprise a mere 20 percent of some tech editorial staffs. Some are making progress, but the progress is slow.
Example-setting matters across industries
Sure, you say, fixing the problem in media may be easier because there are many women studying liberal arts. But what about the hard sciences? It may not be as easy to hire a female physicist if girls just aren't taking physics in school.
But that's exactly what needs to happen.
A 2013 study by University of Texas sociologist Catherine Riegle-Crumb followed 10,000 high school students and found huge variations among schools when it came to how many high school girls studied physics. According to an interview with NPR, Riegle-Crumb found that communities with more women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields had more girls taking physics -- sometimes even more girls taking physics than boys, even after controlling for income, parental influence (say, kids whose parents are scientists) and other variables. These communities' science workers weren't the girls' mothers -- they simply lived nearby, shopped at the same grocery stores and were the parents of these girls' peers.
In other words, these girls had accidental role models in the STEM fields.
While there are the challenges in reaching a 50-50 male-female workforce in my industry, change is afoot. In tech journalism, female editors top the mastheads at a number of tech-focused publications -- CNET and Recode, yes, but also The Wirecutter and Gizmodo. Women hold executive or managing editor positions at Engadget, Macworld, and PC World.
Can't find a woman for your team? Hire at the bottom and promote from within. Go on a recruiting trip. Reach out beyond your circle of friends. Make it a priority, because an accidental role model just may be the best role model.