By Elizabeth Frank, Ph.D.
Every year on March 8th, the world honors the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the globe through International Women’s Day. Here at First Mode, we celebrate the efforts of our female team members who contribute to the success of not just our business, but to the success of our clients around the world. This is no small contribution considering women compose 42% of our staff, far higher than average for an American engineering organization.
The contributions are large and small, in the U.S. and abroad, technical and decidedly non-technical. They all weave together to enable First Mode to “Build the Barely Possible.” We didn’t start that way, however, and the shift in gender balance was no accident.
First Mode was founded in early 2018 by 11 people, 10 men and 1 woman, making the team 9% female at its inception. One year later, the team totaled 14 with 3 women (21%). Not long thereafter, work kept rolling in, and we needed to grow the team. Lacking a formal interview process, we had to create one from scratch, knowing that the principles and values we put in place would ripple long into the company’s future. We thus designed it with an eye toward removing opportunities for unconscious bias from our process to that ensure the best candidates weren’t just the ones who are most similar to us.
Typically, the standard job interview requires the applicant to explain why they are the best fit for the role. This forces candidates to fit themselves into a predetermined box that is strongly influenced by the interviewers’ biases about what the candidate should be like. A more inclusive approach is to consider what is unique about the candidate and how that uniqueness could be an asset to the company. This philosophy is woven into every step of our interview process.
The results speak for themselves. In 2018, the Society for Women Engineers reported that 13% of U.S. engineers were women. In the tech industry, according to CNET, 15.6% of technical staff and 29.1% of total staff at major tech companies are women. In contrast, First Mode is currently 32 employees, with 37% for our technical (engineering + science) staff and 42% overall identifying as women.
How did we achieve this? Let’s be clear: We have never done any targeted recruiting of women, and we certainly have not “lowered the bar.” Every single team member earned a spot on our team on the basis of her or his own merits. Nor do we believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion can be addressed with any one single action. Rather, we strive for these ideals through a collection of small steps that underpin our culture of valuing each individual for their distinct perspective and skillset.
Numbers don’t paint the full picture, though. Here’s what our staff have to say about working at First Mode:
“When I started at First Mode, I was caught off guard when my teammates actively asked for my input on topics I’ve never even been exposed to. Then it happened again and again. Every time it happened, I spoke my mind, answering questions as well as questioning answers.
Discussions at meetings are not driven by preconceived notions of expertise, experience, or gender. It’s a room full of smart peers trying to solve a hard problem with a smart solution.”— Christine | Mechanical Engineering
“At First Mode, I am not a female engineer — just an engineer”— Clara | Modeling & Simulation
“The tone of our technical discussions has always been centered around building and nurturing the very best idea no matter who it comes from. Having a more balanced share of voices in our team settings gives us an innate direction toward a team-based solution, and not any one individual’s idea. It makes for a really great atmosphere that I enjoy working in.”— Pete | Mechanical Engineering
“ Interviewing at First Mode was unlike any technology company I’ve interviewed with. Most striking was the intentionality with which everything was communicated and handled. Every company talks about diversity being important, but First Mode is the first company I’ve interviewed with that actually does something real and systematic about it, which is a large part of why I took the job.”— Marie | Mechanical Systems Engineering
It’s imperative to note that there are many dimensions to diversity, not just gender identity: age, race, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, disability, veteran status, and many more attributes all collectively make us distinct, complex individuals. As a company, we live and die by the diversity of our staff on an infinite number of axes because having different perspectives on a technical problem will result in the most robust solutions for our clients. On March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day, but every day we celebrate that collectively it is our differences and not our similarities that make us strongest as a team.