Interviewing With the 'Token Woman'
It’s no secret that the tech scene in Boston, Seattle and the Bay Area is heavily dominated by men. Given the positions I've had in information technology and technology marketing, I’ve been the only woman at countless meetings.
In San Francisco, I’ve even been literally the only woman in a restaurant for lunch, or in a bar for happy hour. Nowadays, as I walk the streets of Seattle, I see a lot of men in groups taking up sidewalk space, many wearing the “blue badge of courage” from Amazon.
Last June, I started at my current company, and before that looked for a job for several months. That’s when I noticed a curious pattern in interview loops having to do with women. Looking back at my career, I recogized the same pattern, and now can say with some authority: When it comes to woman interviewers, companies tend to fall into one of three categories:
- No women interviewers
- A “token woman” interviewer among the men
- Women at the company who seem to be a natural part of the process
The first category is probably the most common in the tech industry. In some cases, there are simply no women around to do interviews at all. This was the case at RecruitLoop, where I was the first employee and the four cofounders were all men. In other cases, I interviewed for high-level roles and, sadly, there were no women around to be part of the interviewing process at all.
Over my career, in fact, I’ve taken five different roles where no woman was a visible part of the interview process, and I really enjoyed many of those jobs. Sometimes, the people involved were even aware of their lack of estrogen and were excited that I was coming on board to remedy that situation. Other times, they were oblivious to their lack of diversity, but I obviously assisted with that problem a bit.
As a woman still in the tech sector, I’m accustomed to this situation, and any woman in tech likely feels the same way.
I find the second category -- that of “token woman” -- to be the saddest. I remember realizing I was dealing with a token woman one time when the company told me I’d be talking to the C-suite, but no female interviewer was part of that lofty team. Other times, companies would have me come back specifically to talk to women on or below my level.
Both times that I took roles where I had interviewed with token women, I encountered clear gender disparity in the companies. Certainly, the companies themselves knew that they had a diversity problem and were attempting to counter it; but they were doing so with varying success.
One rather memorable company told me, “Well, the execs all have women as second-in-command. Dan has Becca; Anthony has Susan; and I have you!” Um . . . almost, right? That company, years later, still has no women on its executive team. Surprise, surprise.
When it comes to the third category of companies -- women interviewers as a natural part of the process -- I find it remarkable when a woman fits in as part of the interview process at a tech company. In those settings, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a woman walk into the room and start asking real questions. Like the first category -- no women interviewers -- this one felt more, well, right: No awkward apologies were needed. No strange, job-level disparities were evident.
Three times, I've taken roles in companies like this, which included women as a natural part of their process. Interestingly, those companies all had women in senior officer and executive positions, which may have influenced their natural inclusion in the interview process.
When I interviewed with the female VP of business ops and general counsel at Indix, I remember thinking, “Wow. I want to work with this woman; I wonder if she’ll be willing to stay in touch with me even if I don’t get the job?” She was secure in her role, asked great questions and clearly impressed me. When I later was torn between multiple offers, her presence at Indix definitely influenced my decision.
How can you tell when you’re dealing with a token woman?
Having a token woman on your interview loop shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it can be an indicator of women’s status at the company. Spotting a token woman isn’t always easy. However, here are a few tips to help you figure out whether you’re talking to one:
- She'll be lower level. If you’re talking to all directors, and there’s a single female individual contributor, you will have yourself a token woman.
- Whoever does meet will you will apologize for the lack of women . . . and then you'll suddenly be talking to one. Maybe in round 1, they'll show their discomfort, and in round 2, they'll try to remedy it. Maybe they'll apologize for not having a woman around, then throw in a bonus coffee with a woman at the end.
- She won’t interact with you in your future role. Sometimes, token women get pulled from very different departments in order to show a female presence.
- She won't know what questions to ask you. Maybe that will be because she’s junior level, or from a different department, but you'll be able to tell that she’s fairly unprepared for the interview. She may not understand your role well enough to ask good questions, or she may have been pulled in at the last minute in order to provide a female presence.
- She'll be overly reassuring about gender. “Methinks she doth protest too much,” comes to mind when I encounter someone who talks a little too much about the women at the company. If the conversation becomes unnatural in this way, your token woman sensors should be registering.
So, those are the indicators: If you spot a token woman while interviewing, there are steps you can take to make the situation less awkward. Try asking her questions about her career at the company. Make sure you volunteer more information about yourself if you realize she’s not asking the right questions.
If you’re willing to tolerate some awkward pauses, go ahead and ask the token woman straight out about how the company treats women and whether it wants to improve. Ask whether she needs to repeat herself in meetings and whether she interacts with female execs or board members (if any of them exist). By asking awkward questions, you may be able to spot a few deal-breakers (or lack thereof) that will help you make your decision should you receive an offer.
Token women aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves. They show that a company recognizes its lack of diversity and that it's trying to repair that gap, somehow. If you’re interviewing with a tech company and you’re a woman, you’ve probably encountered token women before.
But spotting them can save you some interview awkwardness, and if you take the job, you can do so with your eyes wide open.
Related: The 5 Richest Women in Tech
Jenn Steele is director of product marketing at Indix, a product intelligence platform that helps ecommerce businesses make smart product decisions. She previously worked for Amazon and HubSpot and holds degrees from MIT and Simmons School of Management.