Where are all of the women software engineers?

affix’s experience recruiting for gender diversity with 99designs by Vista

Written By: Kushla Egan

Tech shapes the way we navigate the world and paves the way for the future. Yet over 80% of the tech workforce is made up of men, while they only account for half of the population. It’s time we design our workplaces and technology in a way that reflects the world around us.

Consulting in product engineering recruitment, affix customers always ask us a version of the same question: “Where are all of the women software engineers?” Sure, there’s the obvious pipeline issue, seen through the lack of women receiving an education in tech for a whole host of reasons. But although this is the sad reality in Australia, it shouldn’t be used as a licence to not take meaningful action.

As a Talent Advocate at affix, I’m more interested in looking beyond that problem as the sole barrier to building gender diverse software engineering teams. There are always opportunities for us to take action. And there are brilliant, technical women out there.

You’ve just got to do things a bit differently if you want to find and hire them…

Since 2015, women’s university enrolment in STEM fields of education has increased by 2%. (Australian Dept. of Industry, 2021)

A note on ‘diversity’

While we share our journey with you, it’s important to acknowledge we are taking a narrow and binary view on the term ‘diversity’. Diversity goes beyond gender, and gender goes beyond the binary constructs of man and woman. Cultural diversity, age diversity, neurodiversity, First Nations representation, and so on… these are all ways we must continue to explore inclusion and diversity. It’s an ongoing conversation to understand how we can create tangible changes for underrepresented folks in tech. This is only the beginning for us at affix as we expand our impact beyond gender and continue to work in embedded partnerships like the one we have with 99designs.

99designs: A world without borders (nor gender imbalance)

For 18 months affix has proudly been partnering with the humble folks at 99designs by Vista, one of Melbourne’s absolute darlin’ product success stories, as they scale. They’re the world’s go-to global creative platform for clients and designers to collaborate and create designs they love, imagining a world without borders and creating the platform of their dreams. Today I want to share with you just one of the reasons we’re so damn proud to be their partners.

To date, we’ve had 35 folks become ‘99ers’ in the 99designs software engineering team. 40% of those software engineers have been women, including 3 women in senior leadership roles. This didn’t happen by accident, rather by design. We undertook a deliberate diversity recruitment strategy, with a heck of a lot of effort, heart, vulnerability, curiosity and creativity.

I’m sharing our learnings and advice with you in the hope that it might inform your own strategies… or simply give you hope that progress is possible! We are not experts. We sure aren’t perfect either. We are simply people who care deeply about equity, and we aren’t afraid to try something new.

A few members of the affix team

Building the foundation – the employer’s efforts

You cannot achieve diversity without a foundation of inclusion that supports folks to thrive. Here are a few of the building blocks that 99designs already had in place:

Vocal support from leaders

This diversity recruitment campaign has been actively sponsored by 99designs’ Director of Engineering, Tom Broerse. He supported affix by investing in different activities and approaches and staying engaged throughout the entire process. His involvement has helped keep diversity on the agenda and progress ticking along.

Existing culture of inclusion

Businesses are not ready to invite diversity into their teams and culture until they’ve created an environment where folks will thrive. 99designs was already an inclusive environment before affix came in. They had policies and initiatives that set people up for success once they joined, including support for working parents (and non parents), and an emphasis on flexibility, wellness and belonging. From the get-go, 99designs have been transparent with their progress and always open to our feedback.

Stories from the source

affix had the opportunity to spend time with and privately speak to the women software engineers who were already on the team. This was important in order to truly understand 99designs from the people most impacted by it, not just the leaders. Their candid reflections informed our approach in articulating the values and employee experience of 99designs to prospective candidates.

67% of women will explore employers who they feel have positive role models similar to them. (PwC)

Inclusive interview process

The existing 99designs interview process was designed with inclusion at its core. To limit bias, technical tasks are reviewed without revealing the candidate’s personal identifiers. There are no time limits on take-home tests to allow flexibility for working parents and others. And women sit on every interview panel to include diverse perspectives when assessing candidates. These and other ways they’ve invited in gender diversity are small things, but they were done deliberately. It was a great existing process to walk into where equity, inclusion and access were already on the table.

Trust in their recruitment partner

Simple, but oh so important. Trusting us and the process, and being patient was critical to the success of this initiative. Getting women in technology engaged with a brand doesn’t happen overnight. So when 99designs wanted us to hire for critical roles, their trust and patience gave us enough room to build a diverse pipeline. They were open to new ways of doing things, explored different approaches together, and welcomed a healthy challenge to their perspectives.

Talent Advocate, Kushla Egan (left) and Tech Recruitment GM, Breanna Skeen (right)

Bridging the gap – the recruiter’s efforts

Creating an inclusive culture is only one half of the Inclusion & Diversity puzzle. Here are some of the activities and approaches that we took at affix to help us attract women into the tech roles at 99designs:

It’s all about attitude

From the start, we acknowledged that we weren’t diversity experts (yet). So we didn’t pretend to be. Our approach was research-informed, but in terms of our efforts, we agreed to test sh*t out and strive to make an impact in any way that we could. Mistakes were made. And conversations about diversity can be tricky to navigate. But we knew we didn’t have to be experts to give it a go. Progress will come at a glacial pace if we wait and leave it only to the experts.

Try this: Have difficult conversations, even when you’re scared of saying the wrong thing or making a mistake. Fear stunts progress and innovation. Get comfortable putting it all out on the table, being open to feedback, and changing your mind and approach when you learn new information or perspectives.

Dedicated time (and looots of it) for market research and talent mapping

Setting aside dedicated time to research, create a pipeline, and approach women was the biggest time investment for us at affix. Recruitment can be a reactive beast, so consistently dedicating time for this was critical to our success. We first focussed on the people we already knew before mapping out the rest of the Australian market. This process included refreshing our competitor analysis, and researching different networks and spaces that women in tech spend time in.

Try this: Talent mapping with inclusivity at the core requires a shift in mindset. Invite women with diverse work or education history instead of only looking for those with the “right” mix of skills and experience. Think outside the box – this isn’t about finding a perfect match, but looking for people who likely didn’t have the opportunity to gain exposure to or learn the skills you are looking for.

Women are 30% less likely to be selected for a job interview than men with similar experience and qualifications. (Zippio)

Breaking down “requirements”

To be inclusive and inviting, we needed to keep the list of role requirements as short as possible. We broke down (aka said ‘bye-bye’) existing requirements with hiring managers and the team. It was about separating what’s essential for the success of the role vs. everything else that simply… wasn’t. So we were inclusive with how we described our tech requirements (i.e. stating explicitly that no prior Golang experience is required). Even then, the most common thing I heard from women is that they didn’t think they’d be considered without having prior Golang experience.

Try this: Ask questions like: Can “X” requirement be learnt on the job? Is “X” a ‘nice-to-have’, or is it essential for this role? If the answers are ‘yes’, then get that baby off the list. We’ve all heard the popular anecdote about women applying for jobs if they think they meet 100% of the requirements, whereas men apply if they think they meet around 60%. This damn near rings true to my experience speaking with women software engineers considering a new role, especially with a business like 99designs using new tech like Golang.

Investing in inclusive language and comms

People should feel a sense of belonging, inclusion, warmth, and fun when they read, hear and learn about a business. To achieve this with 99designs, we use inclusive language. Language matters – it holds power and history; it’s laden with sociocultural connotations; and it’s also gender-coded. Some words are more feminine associated, others more masculine associated, and others can be pretty gender neutral. We played around with different tools to analyse our writing and help us craft more inclusive content.

Try this: Invest in tools like Textio and Applied. Textio is a brilliant resource for insights about gendered language. Applied’s Job Description Tool helped us most as this was a platform 99designs were already familiar with. Sign up for a free trial of each tool and run a report on some of your own copy like job ads and emails to see how you score!

Crafting consistent content

We love a bit of content at affix. For each role with 99designs, we create narratives for the position descriptions and job advertisements with a big emphasis on the “what’s in it for you”. We focus on the good 99designs does for the world via their product and community, and articulate their amazing culture, perks and benefits. We’ve also run social media campaigns, shared internal docs with candidates, articles and more.

Try this: Treat everything like a living, breathing document that should always be updated and refined. Do AB testing and ask candidates directly what they think of any information you share. For our efforts, we received the most positive feedback when we shared internal docs, which gave insight to the values and ethos of 99designs. Particularly their ‘Ways of Working’ doc, an internal guide to how they build and support people-first and remote work environments. People genuinely enjoy that level of detail and transparency.

Co-designing (and regularly picking apart) the interview process

Un-Silicon Valley-ing the process is so important in tech. Not all interview processes are equal – those with greater time investments can present barriers to working parents, those with side businesses or students, and other folks who are time poor. It was important to us to consider each stage of the interview process and understand the value it added – both to 99designs and the candidate. When there was little to no value, we removed steps entirely. And where possible, we combined steps to streamline the process. We review this regularly and have made changes along the way.

Try this: Ask your candidates what works best for them throughout the process. Invite people into your process, and don’t make it so complex or extensive of a process that there are barriers to entry. Do your research and learn what your competitors are doing. affix and 99designs have created a flexible recruitment process for engineering. Each candidate has a say in how the process would work best for them, and we scale up (or down) accordingly for each individual.

61% of women when deciding to accept a position will look at the diversity of leadership. (PwC)

Continually pushing the boundaries

To invite more women into the recruitment process, we had to push the boundaries of what we thought was available to us. We expanded our search beyond Melbourne, looking for women Australia-wide who were open to remote work. A no-brainer, seeing as 99designs is a remote and people-first business. We’ve also expanded our search to folks with any web development background, not just 99designs’ tech stack (Golang, TypeScript, React, Ruby and PHP). Because Golang is pretty new tech (and most folks we hire don’t have that experience and are supported to learn on the job), we wondered why we couldn’t support web developers of any experience to learn on the job too. The feedback has been great, and we’ve had people with very different backgrounds (hello to our .NET-ers) successfully join 99designs.

Try this: After you finish breaking down the ‘must-have’ requirements with hiring managers, discuss how you might take it to the next level. Share data about the number of women software engineers in other states and/or tech stacks. Do you have a remote work policy? Or a Learning & Development budget? Wherever you think there’s an opportunity to push a boundary and invite more women into your process, push it.

A reflection of the real world

Women make up around half of the entire population, yet they only make up 17% of tech roles in Australia. That’s why the way I see it, increasing the number of women in software engineering teams is sure as hell worthy of celebration. Reflecting the diversity of the real world in our teams and creating greater gender balance and diversity is something which we should all strive for, and be truly proud of.

Progress on gender diversity matters to us, and it should matter to you too.

What’s next? The story is far from over for us. There’s so much more to share as we scale our involvement with and investment in the tech space through partners like Code Like a Girl, turn our pipeline into a community through employer branding… and more! But more on that another time 🙂


Who am I? I’m a Talent Advocate in our Embedded Solutions team at affix, working side-by-side internally with our great mates, 99designs. I’m passionate about inclusion + diversity, and I believe recruitment should (and can) be a positive, empowering experience for everyone. I absolutely LOVE tech and the humble humans & the complexity that make up this space.

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