Buzzword Compliance

The rantings of a sysadmin

Why Don’t Women Apply for Tech Jobs?

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This really is a question, so don’t expect any answers from me, though hopefully I can clarify (part) of the problem.

It’s something I’ve been thinking on for some time and a tweet by Beth Cohen (@bfcohen) yesterday really caught my attention, particularly:

Research shows that men apply for jobs for which they have 60% of the stated qualifications while women demur unless they have 100%.

I’ve fixated on that one point (of many) as I think it would have a relatively large impact on getting women on a more even footing with men for a relatively simple change. Like it or not advancement and large salary changes in this industry are usually due to a job change not just asking (much less not asking and relying on karma).

Also confirmation bias. I’ve though as much for years, with a fair level of certainty, but having a study to point to is nice.

Women read job listings differently than men write them.

In the nearly 15 years I’ve been in my current job I can only think of two female applicants who didn’t get the job. One was the front runner until another woman who was even more qualified swooped in and stole the show, the other actually just wasn’t qualified. I can’t even begin to count the number of unqualified male applicants whose resumes have gone straight into the recycling…and yet we have had and continue to have a preponderance of male employees.

The ‘almost hired’ woman was someone I personally badgered into applying because she was convinced after reading the job posting she wasn’t qualified because she didn’t tick all the boxes on the experience and qualification listed. We never expected anyone would (and no one did or really ever has).

Now it would have made a better story if she got the job, but the fact is we don’t hire just to put butts in seats here and if there had been one fewer applicants in the pool she would have been hired. Clearly applying was the right choice and there was a mismatch between her expectations reading the job posing and our (all guy) expectation in writing it.

I’d suspected there was some gender miscommunication going on in the way job posting were written and read prior to this, which is why I even knew to try and talk her into applying. That experience really proved it pretty clearly to me. A highly unscientific sampling of women I knew at the time showed the same much more strict reading of the job listing.

So how do men write them?

I can’t really speak that broadly. Truth be told I’m still in my first technology job, a few promotions along perhaps. I’ve interviewed around enough to know that no one is expecting 100%.

A recruiter called me for one position with a clearly impossible set of requirements and was explicitly told it was one description for two positions and if I could fit ½ the requirements they’d be thrilled. Perhaps being that explicit in the written version would be a start?

But I can only speak to the one hiring process I know from the inside, so let’s look at one job description as written. First though a BIG caveat. While this is a position as it was most recently posted, my comments are my own and are not those of my employer or my coworkers (in case you couldn’t tell by the URL).

JOB TITLE: SRS Technical
POSITION TITLE: System Administrator

OK that far is pretty neutral :) This is our entry level admin position but is probably more mid-level from an industry perspective (I think). Something between SAGE levels 2 & 3.


This System Administrator of the Infrastructure Group (TIG) in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) will be part of a small team responsible for configuring, troubleshooting, maintaining, and supporting systems for over 900 researchers, faculty, students, and staff, including Lab wide servers and services, servers belonging to research groups, and users’ workstations and laptops. This work involves desktop operating systems including GNU/Linux, Mac OS, and Microsoft Windows, and server OSes including Debian, Ubuntu, and Windows, within a Kerberos/AFS environment. Will also mentor peers and interns, and participate in on-call rotation for off-hours and emergency support (requires carrying pager and cell phone).

All of that is true as it describes the environment, but it’s a catch all. Yes the person hired int this position would touch all those things, eventually, but there’s no expectation that the individual would know ‘GNU/Linux, Mac OS, and Microsoft Windows, and server OSes including Debian, Ubuntu, and Windows’ much less Kerberos and AFS.

I look for a focused competence in one operating system and enough knowledge of another to show some flexibility. We have a chaotic environment so people who just memorize the usual problems and their usual solutions aren’t going to work out very well.


  • Work with faculty, students, and staff in a technical support role, providing prompt responses through a web/email-based issue tracking system and in-person support.
  • Track all user support activity via a case-tracking system (RT), and monitor RT traffic for issues that need further follow-up or documentation as well as handling walk-up traffic user support issues.
  • Resolve client issues involving Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Ubuntu and related applications (including but not limited to productivity software, IMAP email, web browsers and certificates, and other MIT accounting/HR software packages).
  • Rapidly diagnose and resolve faults with Lab-wide Debian, Ubuntu, and Windows servers and services (such as, but not limited to. Apache, SVN, Active Directory, mysql, DNS) and consulting with peers and communicating to users as appropriate
  • Take responsibility for maintaining and planning upgrades to various Lab-wide Debian, Ubuntu, and Windows servers, such as the Subversion server and Active Directory domain controllers.
  • Create and maintain installation instructions and other user-facing documentation, including creating customized installer packages
  • Install new and replacement workstations, laptops, and servers, including planning/staging, loading software and migrating data as necessary
  • Provide training in use of CSAIL and MIT computerized systems to new Lab members and experienced Lab members encountering new software and services.
  • Participate in on-call rotations for off-hours and emergency support (requires carrying SMS enabled cell phone)
  • Manage multiple tasks and issues simultaneously and communicate effectively and pleasantly with users and other TIG staff regarding problem resolution and the tracking issues.
  • Perform all related duties as assigned.

This I probably didn’t even read through when it was posted to hire someone. Much of it is true, some seems like purely wishful thinking.

This was actually a mostly user facing position with server operations and long term projects as a secondary function that was expected to be largely learn as you go.

As such planning Active Directory server upgrades and rapidly diagnosing Apache, SVN, MySQL, and DNS server issues is a bit of a pipe dream. In fact if someone were actually competent to do all that I’d probably judge them over qualified. Any one of those skills would get a star next to your name.

SUPERVISION RECEIVED: Reports to the Director of TIG; is responsible for determining work priorities and project follow up through completion.

SUPERVISION EXERCISED: No direct supervisory responsibilities.

QUALIFICATIONS AND TECHNICAL SKILLS: Bachelor’s degree in computer science and 3 or more years of end-user support and system administration, preferably in an academic setting, or equivalent experience and training to include: an excellent working knowledge of GNU/Linux, MacOS, and Microsoft Windows operating systems both as an end-user and as an administrator and or in a Help Desk position. Requires excellent personal interaction skills, self-motivation and the ability to work through difficult problems with a minimal amount of support from senior staff members. Requires a high degree of responsibility and punctuality. Demonstrated willingness and ability to pitch in wherever needed while still accomplishing primary goals. Must have excellent oral and written communication, customer service, problem solving, analytical, and critical thinking skills; technical aptitude; reliability and ability to keep a consistent on-site schedule; ability to work independently to resolve client issues. Self-starter who is able to rapidly navigate a wide variety of technical problems and interpersonal interactions. Requires carrying a cell phone to respond to off-hours emergencies.

This is another wish list. The apparently “softer” requirements like

Requires excellent personal interaction skills, self-motivation and the ability to work through difficult problems with a minimal amount of support from senior staff members

are actually the more important. Any specifics mentioned are an ideal list to provide a measure of candidates and like all rulers it need to be a bit longer than anything we’re likely to measure.

The degree requirement is bull shit, I’d much rather ‘equivalent experience’. They don’t teach systems administration anywhere I’ve seen, when hiring developers a bit of formal CS probably has more meaning. For this position I’d be surprised if you didn’t finish High School but it wouldn’t be an immediate disqualifier to me.

Wow that’s kinda crap isn’t it?

Well yes.

I suspect some of it is sloppy copy-pasta as we recycle these things and tweak them a bit depending on the job focus and level. But a bit of it shows we’re playing to another audience as well.

This job description also goes to HR and we need to convince them to pay something that’s not too insulting. Some of the secret code words are in there for them (like the Bachelor’s degree in CS).

Clearly even gender politics a side there’s quite a bit that could be better here, but that is how things go out. Looking around I don’t think my group are the only sloppy people out there. So what is to be done?

It’s not your job to eliminate yourself.

I think the wisest thing that was ever said to me in relation to job applications is that “it isn’t your job to eliminate yourself”. I’d pass the same advice along to any job seeker.

Present yourself honestly, but apply boldly. If the position seems interesting and you have 50% or better of the qualifications listed go for it! These days you don’t even waste a stamp.

If you’re nervous about doing that, start with positions you don’t care about. Maybe you’ll even get to turn some down, which is great for the ego I hear.

What about better job descriptions?

Well that’s the issue, I don’t know.

I don’t have a list of hard requirement since we have a loose and adaptive “structure” here. We need to cover this broad area and have N positions to do so. When a position is open it’s usually because someone has left.

Obviously they have a specific skill set that the group has adapted to and usually the ideal person to fill it would be a clone of them. This person never exists so we cast a broader net, and plan that where the new hire’s skills don’t match the vacant position we can adjust the focus of other team members so we still have full or near full coverage, then train up any remaining gaps.

This doesn’t lend itself to a truly clear list of ‘these are the essential skills’.

Also to be realistic any job description is going to be used over multiple jobs each with a slightly different focus and laziness will keep us recycling the same description without making fine adjustments to the relative importance of different qualifications.

Perhaps some thing as simple as stating “While an ideal candidate would have these skills, the successful candidate should have at least 75% of them” as mentioned above?

I’ve heard from women in the industry that describing the position rather than a long list of skills would be an improvement. This description actually tried to move in that direction. I don’t think it was very successful in that. There’s no bullet list labeled ‘required skills’ but it still rather reads like it is. Also the Overview and Characteristic Duties section covers about 2/3 of the the ‘small team’ and there’s no indication that the applicant and several other people divide up those responsibilities.

Now if you get in for an interview we do tend to be more explicit with how responsibilities are divided and which of them we’re currently most interested in. To get an interview we first need to get an application though.

While I don’t have any open positions now, and hopefully won’t for some time, it would be awfully nice to be ready with a job description that would reach a larger more diverse audience. As it is we have a hell of a time getting decent candidates s,o justice and equity aside, anything that reaches a larger number of qualified candidates would be a bit win.

This probably isn’t even strictly a gender issue, though that’s the context I’ve heard about it most in. It may well be much more broadly exclusionary. Really when I originally applied to a similar advertisement many years ago (so long ago I think it did cost me a stamp) I only did it because I was desperate and was certain I wouldn’t hear back, yet here I am.

Anyone have a sysadmin job description written to try and address this issue? What would be really great is to hear from some women in the field what advertisement for their job looked like and how they would write an ad for it.

Discuss, please…