So much discussion around the gender gap in technology focuses on women and what they can do to solve the problem: negotiate harder, be more assertive, talk a bigger game. But being cockier isn’t enough to grow women’s 11 percent share of the engineering population to 50 percent. The drivers of inequality are systematic, institutionalized, and far bigger than just women’s attitudes. Why, then, do women shoulder the burden of making change?

The burden should be on the people who have the power to level the playing field: leaders in business and technology. I realize demanding change of leaders sounds more than a little anti-establishment, so rather than talk about it, I want to highlight some examples that show how top-down change doesn’t have to be radical to be meaningful. The following cases illustrate what it looks like when leadership recognizes that they, not their staff, are responsible for correcting gender- and pay-imbalances in their companies.


The people behind Buffer, a social media platform, noticed that women made up less than two percent of their candidate pool. Unsure where the problem was, they reached out to Hackbright Academy, an engineering fellowship for women. Hackbright saw something Buffer missed: the gendered connotations of the word “hacker.”

Buffer used the word “hacker” in their job titles to refer to engineering positions, e.g., front-end hacker, iOS hacker, etc. They opted for the word because “hackers are just people who work well and fast,” but the people at Hackbright pointed out the word can be difficult to identify with, especially for women. When Buffer dropped the “hacker” title in favor of a more inclusive “developer” they saw an improvement in the gender balance of their applicant pool.


When Marc Hedlund, head of engineering at Etsy, found himself with only three women engineers out of a staff of 97, he connected with the Recurse Center, the host of a three-month long programming retreat for both new and seasoned coders. Etsy made a deal with Recurse: If they could achieve gender balance in their participant groups, Etsy would provide them with more space to increase the program size, and they would pledge 10 grants to support women students.

Despite having graduated only two women students in its three years of operation, Recurse agreed. Their partnership with Etsy helped build their first gender-balanced class, with 23 women and 28 men. Etsy then, having created a pool of engineers, hired five of its women graduates. Thanks in large part to their work with Recurse, Etsy grew its population of women from three percent to 14 percent of the staff in just one year. 


Study after study shows that salary negotiation doesn’t reward women the same way it rewards men: Women are less likely to negotiate in the first place. When they do, they’re more likely than their male counterparts to be perceived as pushy and aggressive.

In response to this inequity, Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit, recently eliminated salary negotiations for the company. “Men negotiate harder than women do, and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,” Pao explained. “We come up with an offer that we think is fair: We aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.” 

Shifting the blame

Buffer, Etsy, and Reddit made small changes to their organizations: a name change, an inexpensive partnership, a policy tweak. But these small efforts create real, measurable change.

My alma mater, an engineering-focused university with a student population of only 30 percent women, offers workshops for women on how to negotiate their salaries more effectively. The rationale is that if women want to be paid the same as their male colleagues, they needed additional training.

The same university also recently celebrated National Women’s Day by handing out sewing kits to its women students.

We wouldn’t have to go out of our way to develop self-confidence if universities would stop giving us sewing kits, if companies would stop describing our jobs with words we don’t identify with, if our employers would eliminate policies and practices that blatantly favor men. We shouldn’t have to adapt to a broken system. The system needs to change, and leaders are the ones to make it happen.