A few midsize tech companies in the Seattle area — including Redfin, Zillow, Expedia and Tableau — have had some success in changing the gender makeup of their workforce. The not-so-secret secret, the companies say, is to treat diversity challenges much the same way as tech challenges.

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Bridget Frey was the only woman on Redfin’s engineering team in Seattle when she joined the online real-estate company more than six years ago. She wasn’t surprised, having worked in the male-dominated tech field for much of her career.

But Frey was determined it would be a short-lived imbalance.

One of the reasons the tech field is so heavily male is that people tend to hire job candidates who remind them of themselves, feeling immediately most comfortable working with similar people, studies find. So Frey made it a mission to participate in many of Redfin’s interviews with potential hires, and she called several female candidates herself to recruit them to the company, reasoning that more women were likely to accept job offers if they knew they wouldn’t be the solitary woman on the team.

Her attempts — together with multiple tactics the company has employed — are starting to work. Women now make up 31.7 percent of the company’s technical workforce, up from 12.5 percent when Frey joined in 2011. In Redfin’s upper ranks, the number is even higher: Women hold 46 percent of positions at the manager level and above.

“Now I walk around, and it’s rare that I’m the only woman in a meeting,” she said in the company’s downtown Seattle headquarters.

Tech companies are notorious for the dearth of female employees in their ranks and for the treatment of those women — something that has been put in the spotlight in recent months with the gender-discrimination lawsuits against Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Oracle.

It’s one hurdle for women to get in the door in the industry, and another for them to advance within a company. At each higher level, there are fewer female employees, partly because they are promoted at slower rates than men. Other studies suggest they leave the male-dominated companies in droves.

Local tech companies’ progress
Female representation in some Seattle-area tech companies:
Company % of workforce % of leadership
Expedia 52 35
Redfin 58 46
Tableau 33 26
Zillow 42 37
Microsoft 25 21
Source: Company data

In Seattle, a few midsize tech companies — including Redfin, Zillow, Expedia and Tableau — have had some success in changing the gender balance of their workforces, particularly in management and leadership roles.

Testing solutions

The not-so-secret secret, the companies say, is to treat diversity challenges much the same way as tech challenges: Test solutions, kill those that don’t work and implement those that do as companywide processes and systems.

For Redfin, where Frey now serves as chief technology officer, that means a “bug tracker” for its diversity initiatives: a software system that allows anyone from the company to log on, check out top priority “bugs” — meaning anything that isn’t working at the company — and tackle a project. It’s the same kind of system that Redfin uses to solve technology issues.

A couple dozen engineers pitch in to work on diversity bugs at any one time, Frey said. One project focused on the company’s use of the Slack internal messaging tool. If a Slack user, composing a message, includes a term that could be offensive to a specific group, the system generates an automated reply noting that the word could be derogatory and sends information to the user about it.

Bridget Frey was the only woman on Redfin’s Seattle engineering team when she joined the company more than six years ago. She made it her mission to help in the company’s efforts to right that imbalance. “Now I walk around, and it’s rare that I’m the only woman in a meeting,” said Frey. (Courtney Pedroza/The Seattle Times)

It’s a small effort to make all employees feel welcome at work, Frey said, but that welcoming attitude is a major factor in retaining women and minorities and advancing them into management positions.

Women, especially women in technical roles, tend to fall out of the ranks the higher up the corporate ladder you look. According to AnitaB.­org — an organization for women in tech, formerly called the Anita Borg Institute — the average U.S. company’s technical workforce is 28.5 percent female at the entry level. That falls to just 19 percent at the senior leadership level.

“I don’t think there’s a company in the world that has no cause for concern,” said Joelle Emerson, CEO of San Francisco consulting firm Paradigm, which helps companies implement diversity and inclusion strategies. “The default is for organizations to not be inclusive and equitable because they are mirroring society. They have to be proactive.”

It might also have ramifications for their bottom line. Several high-profile studies show that more diversity within workforces, particularly at the leadership level, is healthy for a company’s profitability.

Women at the top

At Zillow Group, another Seattle internet company focusing on real estate, women hold 37 percent of leadership positions. At Bellevue online travel company Expedia, women fill 35 percent of leadership roles, and they hold 26 percent at Seattle data- analytics company Tableau.

That puts their gender splits higher than at many Big Tech companies, including Microsoft, where women hold 19 percent of leadership roles, and Google, where the leadership is 25 percent female. Among the giants, Sunnyvale, California-based LinkedIn — when looked at separately from parent company Microsoft  — had the highest percentage of women in leadership at 38 percent. (Companies have different definitions of leadership roles.)

In some ways, the real-estate industry has a leg up because more than 60 percent of Realtors are women, according to the National Association of Realtors. But the industry suffers from similar gender imbalances in its business-leadership ranks.

Zillow started off with few women in leadership roles. Amy Bohutinsky, who is now chief operating officer, remembers that she was the first woman at the company to take maternity leave in 2007. Her male colleagues were supportive, but they hadn’t had to reckon with the issue before. When she later advanced into the company’s leadership ranks, she made sure a parental-leave policy was put in place as the company grew.

“It’s the perfect example of why diversity is important,” she said. “It’s not that the other people at the table didn’t care, it’s that they had never had that experience.”

Working with Emerson’s company, Zillow committed to implementing specific tasks and practices to increase diversity — of women and other underrepresented groups — across all its brands, including Trulia and HotPads.

The company now recruits from a much larger range of schools to find students who come from diverse backgrounds, including by geography and income levels. Sticking to just the same top computer-science schools, Zillow reasoned, could cut out those who couldn’t afford the tuition or didn’t have opportunities to attend.

The company established affinity groups for employees of different races, as well as LGBTQ employees and employees with disabilities. Zillow also has made sure both men and women are interviewing potential hires.

Role models

Many Seattle companies know they will have a hard time advancing women into leadership roles without role models.

That’s why both Frey and Elissa Fink, chief marketing officer of Tableau, take time to mentor women who are in earlier stages of their careers. The Tableau human-resources team also works with every department to review data on all promotions and pay raises to make sure they are equitable, or that the differences are at least intentional.

Elissa Fink, center, Tableau’s  chief marketing officer, attends a meeting at the company’s Fremont office. Fink mentors women who are in early stages of their careers.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

Expedia will expand its diversity practices across the company in 2018, including having at least one female candidate come in and interview for each open senior leadership position in many parts of the company.

The online travel business has seen a “measurable increase” in the number of women they’ve hired just from testing that method in the last couple of years, said Megan Kiester, Expedia’s vice president of people inclusion.

One of her goals is to run language analysis on interview feedback, to make sure biased phrases aren’t being used.

“Training is useful, but I think it’s more useful if you can catch someone in the act and give them feedback on how they could change it,” she said.

Not a perfect picture

All of these companies concede that their leadership teams are a far cry from being equitable, or from representing the general population. And they’ve had significant stumbling blocks.

Zillow was sued in 2015 by a few women working in its Southern California office. The suits contended that office was a “frat house” where sexist comments ran rampant. The cases were settled in 2016 with undisclosed terms, and the company didn’t admit wrongdoing.

The settlement came not long after Zillow started making sure every team across the company is following diversity-related tasks.

Expedia has also faced a couple of discrimination lawsuits, though not at its Bellevue headquarters. The company declined to comment on specifics but said it has a “strict code of conduct” concerning sexual harassment.

Trying new tactics

Several large tech companies began releasing their workforce demographic data in recent years, partially in response to the Rev. Jesse Jackson traveling around the country to shareholder meetings and calling for transparency. That glimpse inside the companies has inspired acclaim from advocates and workers grateful for the transparency, but it also raised a central question: Are companies really putting practices into place to increase diversity or is it just a lot of talk?

The answer seems to be a little of both, said Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO of Textio, whose language-analysis software has been used by Zillow, Expedia and hundreds of other companies nationally.

“The first question I ask (leaders of diversity and inclusion) is ‘OK, what are you doing differently than a year ago? What have you tried?’ ” Snyder said. “And the answer is often ‘nothing.’ ”

When companies do try things, she sees fast results. At Zillow, 12 percent more women applied for jobs when the company included equal-employment statements in its job postings. Now, 94 percent of its postings have that language, compared with 10 percent before it started working with Textio.

Expedia also uses Textio software that flags certain words and phrases in job postings to make sure inclusive language is being used — for instance, some words, such as “maniacal” or “ninja,” appeal more to men than women, research shows.

Expedia found that when it reviewed job postings and took out loaded words, it added more female candidates and filled jobs three times faster.

Many businesses have begun to embrace training sessions on unconscious bias and inclusive interviewing. It can be a good base for changing behavior, but what really helps is putting specific tactics in place, said Elizabeth Ames, vice president of AnitaB.org.

Uphill battle

The situation at individual companies is improving. Zillow’s proportion of women in leadership roles increased by 11 percentage points from 2016 to 2017. For Expedia, the change was 2 percentage points.

But sometimes, Emerson said, her work with Paradigm can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill. When you look at the industry as a whole, she concedes, the change in representation of women and especially women in leadership is not that impressive.

The issue becomes even more complex when looked at with a holistic eye — female representation is, of course, just one part of having a diverse workforce. Black, Latinx and Native American employees, among other races and ethnicities, are severely underrepresented within tech-company ranks.

And women of color have an even tougher time than white women reaching leadership ranks. A 2017 study from management firm McKinsey showed that women hold one in five C-suite level jobs across all industries in the U.S., and women of color make up just one in 30 executive positions.

Companies that have made progress have followed the advice of experts in the field, who say the first step is to be willing to try new tactics in both recruiting and advancing employees.

But “no company should be patted on the back,” Emerson said. “Companies are making progress, but they have so much more work to do.”