Women In Technology Part 1: Solar Analytics CEO, Stefan Jarnason

Solar Analytics is an international software startup at the forefront of the tech industry.  Their policies for attracting, hiring and retaining women are a breath of fresh air, in what is traditionally a male dominated environment.  Not only have these techniques helped to secure a productive team, but they have also contributed to creating an enviable company culture.  In this two part series we chat to CEO, Stefan Jarnason and Senior Project Manager, Cindy Hung about women in technology. You can find Cindy’s interview here.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaagoaaaajdvhztuxzji0lwfiowytndliyi1ingi3lthmm2vknze5odzioqWhat does Solar Analytics do and what does your skilled technology workforce look like?
We’re primarily a software company providing solar energy monitoring for residential homeowners.  We help our customers get better value out of their solar systems.

Our technology workforce is composed of 21 photovoltaic engineers, data scientists, software engineers and PhD students. We also have a service design or customer UI/ UX team who work on our user interface.  We’ve got a head count of 31 and a full time equivalent of 26.

Why do you find it important to hire, not only for skill, but also with an aim to balance demographics within your company?
For the product that we deliver it’s really important to have our customers views represented within the team, and our customers are a diverse representation of the overall population.  So, if you simply hire people with a certain mindset you will only produce products that serve people with that mindset. Secondly, it makes for a more enjoyable workplace.

Have you implemented any attraction or retention strategies to encourage women to seek out Solar Analytics as a desirable place to work?
Many.  The first thing we do when we hire is to specifically state that women will be given preference (positive discrimination).  In writing a job ad we always have it reviewed by one of our senior women to ensure that it isn’t seen as gender biased, and at least one of the members on our interview panel is a woman. We have a specific policy that says that any woman who is qualified gets an interview. Even if she’s not shortlisted she gets an interview, because often they don’t, and this is important both for their experience, and because we may find a candidate who our unconscious bias had ruled out.

Flexible hours and working remotely can also make a difference when attracting and retaining staff. This allows parents/carers to fit work around school hours, holidays, sick children, sports and activities. Under this arrangement, one may choose to work 5 hours one day, and then an extra half day, from home or the office, as suits. Roles that offer this flexibility are highly sought after amongst both women and men who have a parenting/carers role.

We also have specific policies around enabling part time employment.  Five of our senior management staff work part time, most of whom we would not be able to attract if we only offered full time roles.  We find that we get better candidates this way.  As it happens three of these staff members are women, and two of them are men.

Solar Analytics probably has a more even gender balance than other companies within the industry. Have you found that this positively impacts workplace dynamics?
Yes, absolutely.  You’d probably need to get some further opinions, but I think it avoids the ‘blokes’ culture which develops when a workplace is exclusively male, especially in the technology sector.  Overall, it leads to a more well rounded way of thinking and personally, it leads to a much more enjoyable workspace. We have worked very hard to create this balance.

Why do you think that women are sometimes overlooked in the technology workspace?
I think there’s probably three main reasons why they are overlooked.  The first is that women in technology are generally not as bold as men when it comes to talking about how good they are, this is highly stereotypical of course.  Every male software engineer or coder I know thinks they’re the best coder in the world.  I know three female coders, one of whom is outstanding.  She would say that she’s “a good coder”. Even at junior level, we have 6 coders in total, one of whom is a woman hired by you.  I would bet my bottom dollar that if I asked them to rate themselves on a scale of 1-10, she would rate herself the lowest in the team.  But when I was to ask their manager to do the same, they would say that she is an excellent performer.

I’ve also found that women don’t push themselves forward as much.  They’re nearly always being interviewed by men, and men instinctively ask gender bias questions; and instinctively we always hire people like ourselves.  Knowingly or subconsciously, hiring managers are aware that it is easier to employ someone who is similar to themselves, or existing team members.  This makes it difficult for women in technology, as there are simply more men in the industry.  Before we did all of these things to promote women, I would have argued that we were neutral, but we were not.

A recent study* found that it is unrealistic for technology businesses to aim for 50:50 gender balance across all job types, when the pool of female talent averages around 30%. What changes do you think could be made over time to alter this?
I wish the talent pool of women in technology was 30%, but it does vary depending on the specific role.  If you look at UI/ UX individuals, who are definitely part of the technology sphere, the male/ female split is probably 50:50.  However, the proportion of female backend coders can often be less than 10%.

What do I think you can do? Firstly, improving how technology is taught in schools to encourage women to take this career path is crucial. Secondly, I think implementing positive discrimination tactics towards women is of huge benefit. The gender balance may never reach 50%, because, in general women may not like to code as much as men. However, the way that software development is evolving to require a more diverse range of skills and aptitudes, may be a factor towards attracting more women to technology based careers.

* Davidson Technology diversity report on women in technology in Australia, 2016 

For more information about Solar Analytics you can find their website here

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Laurie Green

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