Red Hat: Women want to code together, not alone over the internet

Chief people officer DeLissa Alexander shares her plans to create a diverse open source community

As a player in the highly innovative open source space, Red Hat is enjoying a market boom that shows little sign of dissipating. Given its enviable position, and the manner in which the company has outmatched its rivals over the past year, it's no surprise that when Red Hat talks, people listen.

It's great to see then that the company hasn't shied away from throwing its weight around when it comes to diversity, and getting more women and minorities interested in not just technology, but open source.

"Our vision is to be a diverse and inclusive meritocracy," explains DeLissa Alexander, Red Hat's executive vice president and chief people officer, speaking last month at the company's 2018 summit.

"[Being] a meritocracy means you're getting the best ideas out, not just those from the loudest speakers. What we want to do is make it so that we're a magnet for people who want to be in that type of environment - so that they come running to Red Hat."

Red Hat faces a challenge in this respect. Despite years of campaigning by industry, promises, proactive policies, and a genuine desire from the technology community to create a diverse and culturally representative workforce, we're still far from the end goal.

"It's true that the data isn't good, and it continues to get worse," says Alexander. "The good thing is that there's so much conversation happening now, with the #metoo movement. It's something that many companies and institutions are passionate about solving, and so I'm very encouraged that it's not something that's in the closet anymore, it's something that we're actively talking about as a society."

Gender pay gaps

Red Hat UK released its own gender pay report in April 2017, revealing that the mean hourly rate for women was 26.9% lower than that of male counterparts. In other words, female employees were earning 73p for every pound given to men.

However, Alexander argues that the way data is presented in the reports is misleading: "To explain the data, the way the data is required to be reported is not requiring us to report things that are apples to apples, so you're not able to actually compare position by position, what you're looking at is the whole population.

"When you look at position by position, we don't have that type of problem at all," says Alexander. "In fact minorities are paid more than non-minorities."

Although Alexander confirmed to IT Pro that the company is working on a new report for 2018, she believes there's still plenty to learn from past reports, even if the data doesn't paint a full picture.

"What that data is telling us is that men are in positions that are more highly valued in the marketplace than positions that women are employed in, and that's the crux of the issue we need more women that are in power positions that are valued by the market. We need society to look at positions and say they're valuable."

The challenging nature of open source

Creating a diverse workforce in technology as a whole is one thing, but the open source community, by its nature, is one that's proven to be a difficult nut to crack.

"Frequently in tech, there are people coding that are perhaps more interested in doing that alone and through the internet, versus being in a room together," says Alexander, arguing that such a culture isn't necessarily in-tune with the needs of female coders.

"I think the sense of belonging is really important. Girls like to collaborate, so having an opportunity for them to come together and share and help each other with bugs, and get more confident, I think is a really powerful way for girls to continue to be interested in technology."

"What we are trying to do though is try and understand where we're not getting our fair share on female talent in the market, and understand why. We're also trying to make sure we're contributing to people wanting to be part of open source - so that's a long play."

A big chunk of that effort has been funnelled into Red Hat's Co.Lab initiative. Originally pitched as an experiment back in April in 2017 that brought 25 middle school girls together to learn about open source, Co.Lab is now a fully fledged outreach programme that's taught youngsters in Boston, New York, Washington DC and Raleigh. Its workshop approach allows girls to learn about open source while working collaboratively on projects, using tech like the Raspberry Pi.

"[With Co.Lab] we're trying to figure out how to keep [girls] interested in the long haul - what other things can we do to be able to see more women staying in open source. So we've made this investment in Co.Lab, it seems to be working - we're going to be expanding that, but it's a long play."

"I don't want to say that by next year we want to be at X%, but I think we're on the right track," says Alexander, pointing to the number of women currently employed by Red Hat. "We don't have quotas or targets in that way at this point."

Unlocking the other half of the population

Red Hat isn't immune to the wider skills shortage facing the technology industry, which is partly fuelling the company's drive to create a more diverse workforce. Alexander believes that companies will soon "hit a wall" when it comes to acquiring talent at the pace that's required, particularly when only half of the population is actively engaged in open source.

"We're doing some really serious recruiting," she explains. "We've been really fortunate in the last couple of years, that all of our senior leaders who are hiring for positions in senior levels are really requiring our recruiters to bring them a diverse pool of candidates. Not just an easy pool and not just to move things rapidly through the recruitment process, but to take the time to make sure they're considering a wide variety of candidates."

Co.Lab invites young female coders to collaborate on projects in person, rather than over Github

"When we do that we're seeing that we're naturally having more females joining our senior ranks without any quotas or requirements. It's just a matter of taking the time to have the right candidate pool, and that we have diversity on the interview team so that the candidate actually wants to come."

Yet retention of female talent is just as important, and initiatives to date are helping to shape Red Hat's understanding of how women prefer to work within its community.

"We watch our numbers like a hawk," says Alexander, "so we're trying to understand whether women are leaving in a way that's unexpected based on our numbers. We're also very focused on slicing and dicing our data on how women feel being at Red Hat."

'Parents were becoming annoyed with us'

Alexander admits that Red Hat historically never competed for talent based on the benefits it offered, instead relying on its culture and industry renown. However, it quickly discovered that female talent was more likely to favour perks like generous maternity packages over pay - quality of life considerations that had dissuaded many applicants by their absence.

"We have been really working on our benefits," explains Alexander. "[But when] we started to create our diversity and inclusion communities, we started having engaged conversations with those communities about the benefits we were offering, and if we're going to be able to afford to do more, what are the most important things for us to be able to do."

"There are things we never even thought would be really making parents annoyed with us. The fact we weren't offering some paternity was actually something getting in the way of retention of the men. So not only have we increased our maternity benefits, we've also made more family-friendly policies."

Red Hat has welcomed a shift towards more transparent reporting of employee statistics, particularly when it comes to legislation and compulsory reporting of data. "I don't it's a bad thing for us to have to report out to the government on how we're doing on affirmative action," explains Alexander. "I think it does help us all hold ourselves accountable."

However, she believes that the tech industry itself will need to change before real progress is made, particularly in the open source community that's seeing an explosion of innovation.

"We know that more diverse teams tend to produce more innovative solutions, more rapidly and more effectively," says Alexander. "I think that's the biggest business case for why you would want to have people from different backgrounds.

Image: Shutterstock

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