A thoughtful reader recently asked about the role of male allies in solving the gender imbalance in the tech industry:

As a guy in the tech industry, I honestly don’t know how to fix most of the issues… I do want to help, but like many other guys I don’t know the best way to do it. I recognize and accept that there are biases and barriers in our industry, but I don’t on know what can be done.

This is quite a common question, and I’ve attended several conference panels on the subject – though I confess that after a bit of googling, I’m not finding much on the subject in writing. (Anyone have links they’d like to share?) Of course, it’s not only a question of what men can do, but rather what everyone can do to make a dent in a huge, systemic problem.

My take on this is that the best approach depends on your position, ie what you have the power to do, and on what sort of stuff comes most easily to you. There isn’t one thing you need to do, any more than there is one way you can solve climate change or stop people from behaving badly on public transit.

But in the interest of giving you more actionable advice than, “It depends,” here are some thoughts.

If you’re a conference organizer:

  • Read these posts: Increasing Diversity at Your Conference, by Ashe Dryden (amazing roundup of resources – if you read just one, make it this one); Solving the Pipeline Problem, by Sarah Milstein and Eric Ries; and How to Ensure Speakers Diversity at Your Conference, by Julius Solaris.
  • Get as much diversity as you can on your selection committee.
  • Actively brainstorm lists of women, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, etc. who you could invite to speak and attend. Reach out to them individually. Understand that they may need more active encouragement and coaching during the submission process. Make it easy for them to propose talks, and let them know their perspectives are wanted.
  • If you’ve had a lack of diversity at the podium in the past, or harassment/safety issues, step forward and admit it – and make a public pledge to do better. We don’t need you to be sorry, but we do need you to make it clear that you’re aware of the problem and actively working on it. Invite input into what you can do differently this time.
  • Adopt an anti-harassment policy (more here), and make good on it.
  • Do a post-mortem analysis of what worked and what didn’t. Write it up as a blog post, speak about it where you can, and help others learn from your experience.

If you’re an employer:

  • Check out what Etsy has been up to in their successful efforts to recruit more women engineers.
  • While you’re doing your research, here’s Google’s approach to hiring and retaining women employees.
  • If your team is currently all-male (or if your only women employees are in non-technical roles), recognize that many women won’t apply for a job with you until they feel confident that it is a welcoming environment. Yes, this means that recruiting your first female, technical employee could be extra challenging. So you will need to comb through your address book, ask everyone you know for referrals, and dig deep to find promising candidates – and then actively encourage them to apply.
  • It never hurts to put language in your job postings that explicitly states that women, people of colour, and GLBT candidates are encouraged to apply.
  • As with conferences that have had harassment incidents in the past, some workplaces have a reputation as “brogrammer” hangouts. If that’s the case for your company, consider making a public statement (like this one from Klout) to let women and trans people know that you are working to change your stripes.
  • Check your job postings for gendered or exclusionary language: Yes, this means dropping “ninja” from job titles.
  • Review your hiring process with an eye to making it gender-blind. Again, I’d look at Etsy’s evolution here; they’ve dropped changed their approach to technical interviews for some of their recruits [edited after reading Martha’s comment below], acknowledging that the technical interview is largely done in deference to tradition (CTO Kellan Elliot-McCrae describes the standard coding-at-a-whiteboard test as “Prove to me you’re smart”), rather than because it’s actually effective.

If you manage or lead a team:

  • Consider providing coaching or mentoring to female employees to build confidence and leadership skills – either yourself or by bringing in outside expertise. Many successful women, especially the pioneers who blazed trails in formerly unwelcoming industries, credit male mentors for giving them opportunities to advance and grow.
  • Actively encourage women to apply for raises, promotions, and recognitionresearch shows that women are more reluctant to ask for them (and that even when they ask, they receive less) and it has an adverse effect on their lifetime earnings and status.
  • Ask for feedback on what you could be doing differently to make the workplace better for your female employees. If possible, make it easy for them to submit feedback anonymously.
  • Ask the women on your team to help you recruit more women.

If you’re an investor:

  • Read up in the stats about women’s lack of VC funding, versus their average profitability and success rates.
  • (Other ideas? I confess I’m a bit out of my depth on this one.)

Things everyone can do:

  • Keep reading and listening to women’s voices in the industry. We all have different perspectives (which is kind of the point), and we ain’t going nowhere if we don’t have men working alongside us to change the ratio.
  • Watch for sexist or exclusionary behaviour in yourself and your team members, and call it out when you see it. That includes everything from ditching bikini-babe desktop wallpaper to subtler things like paying attention to who talks more (and is listened to) in meetings. Pay attention and practice saying, “Hey, I know you probably didn’t mean to do this, but I noticed [offensive behaviour] and here is the impact it is having on me.”
  • Talk to girls about what technical work looks like. Share your enthusiasm for what you do with kids, and explain how it feels to make cool stuff with code. Offer to teach them if they’re intrested. Consider visiting a school to share your skills or talk about your work. Focus your attention on the girls and invite them to ask questions.
  • Got skills, cash, or connections? Offer to teach a class for Girls Who Code, Girls Learning Code, Ladies Learning Code, Hackbright Academy, or one of these other groups – and while you’re at it, promote their courses to the girls and women in your life, and/or contribute to a scholarship fund.
  • Write a blog post about why gender balance in tech matters to you.
  • Check out this awesome Dad’s hack of Donkey Kong. How can you hack something for your daughter (or someone else’s) to make it work better for her?
  • Celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, and write or speak about the women in tech who inspire you.
  • Follow some techie women on Twitter. Listen and engage. Keep learning.
  • If you’re invited to speak on a panel, ask who the other panelists are. If they’re all men, recommend a woman who could take your place. (Or consider taking the pledge proposed by Rebecca Rosen in The Atlantic a couple of months ago.)
  • Advocate for decent parental leave and work-life balance policies in your workplace.

I realize this is a long post already, but I know it’s woefully incomplete. Ideas on how to improve it? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.