Building a pipeline for gender diversity in travel

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With employees from across the world, executives at TravelPerk long understood the value of encouraging different perspectives on their teams.

But the Barcelona-based company that provides travel expense management services found it difficult to increase diversity in some functions, particularly finding women to fill spots on the software engineering teams. After trying many different tactics, they landed on an approach that seemed almost too audacious to try.

Rather than wait for ideal candidates to turn up in traditional job searches, they would build a talent pipeline: Develop a program to train the type of workers they wanted, while covering tuition costs and paying the students a salary during a 15-week course.

“It’s expensive, and it takes longer. There are downsides to committing to train your own pipeline,” said Ross McNairn, the chief product and technology officer who led the effort at TravelPerk. “I think that the upsides enormously outweigh that, though.”

TravelPerk teamed with allWomen, a Barcelona-based school that offers expert-led courses for women, by women in fields such as web development, data science, data analytics, content design and more. Together the companies designed a curriculum that satisfied TravelPerk’s expectations while furthering allWomen’s mission of creating equal opportunities for women in tech.

“The opportunity came from a specific need that they had,” allWomen CEO Laura Fernández said. “Everything made sense.”

TravelPerk co-founder and CEO Avi Meir was so pleased, he trumpeted the results in a July 7 LinkedIn post.

“There are two ways to increase the number of women in engineering,” he wrote. “You could work with quotas, rejecting the best candidates if they happen to be men. Or you could increase the talent pool of great women engineers and hire the best people regardless of immutable characteristics. We chose the latter, and I’m very proud to see the results.”

Driving better outcomes

It’s difficult to pin down exact gender diversity numbers, especially on a global scale. According to a Society of Women Engineers analysis of United States Census data, 18% of software developers and 32% of computer and information research scientists in the U.S. are women. The Pew Research Center found that women account for 25% of those working in computer occupations.

That’s too few for companies like TravelPerk that want to not only do the right thing socially but also ensure their products meet the needs of a customer base that is half women. In this case, doing the socially-responsible thing was also good for the bottom line, McNairn said.

“I think the most important thing in all of this is that while we think the social change is a fantastic thing, we are ultimately a business,” he said. “We think that this literally drives better outcomes for us.”

Other travel companies share that outlook.

Mews CEO Matthijs Welle recently took to LinkedIn to celebrate news that his company had hired more women than men for the first time in its 10-year history.

Quote

Ultimately, we are just looking for the absolute best talent. … Sometimes it takes a little more effort to uncover this talent.

Matthijs Welle – Mews

“We do not believe in setting hiring quotas to drive more diversity – this will stimulate the wrong behaviors and worse outcomes,” Welle wrote. “Ultimately, we are just looking for the absolute best talent to help elevate Mews. Sometimes it takes a little more effort to uncover this talent.”

Welle credited “a lot of experimentation and effort” to make the hiring at Mews more diverse. 

That included a partnership with Czech Republic-based Czechitas, which provides training for women seeking careers in tech. Mews has provided lecturers, mentors and job-training assistance to the school and has hired several of its graduates, the company said.

Such efforts demonstrate that companies are recognizing what Fernández knew to be true when she started allWomen five years ago.

“When you’re building products and solutions, they need to respond to everyone’s needs, so you need everyone’s perspective [going into the product],” she said. “Otherwise, you’re building solutions that don’t meet the specific needs that a diverse society will have.”

Yet even with the best of intentions, McNairn and TravelPerk felt stymied at first in their efforts to bring more gender diversity to their engineering ranks.

“Until you are a relatively diverse workforce, particularly in engineering, many women don’t want to join the team,” he said. “How do you kick-start that?”

Creating a pipeline proved the answer. TravelPerk wound up hiring four of the five women who participated in the program. McNairn believes the commitment to diversity the company showed with this effort will wind up attracting other highly qualified job candidates in the long run.

“There is a huge amount of talent, particularly female talent, that we clearly were not tapping into,” he said.

One example is Alejandra Lopez Fuentes, who after earning her doctoral degree was working as a professor and conducting academic research in applied linguistics and informatics. She wanted to work in the tech sector but lacked the relevant work experience. The opportunity to get training, mentoring and an inside track to a job offer was too good to pass up.

“It was an easy decision for me,” she said. “The program aligned perfectly with my needs.”

Following the program, which ended about six months ago, she joined TravelPerk as an associate software engineer, writing code and programming. It’s a different world than what she knew in academia, but she said she already feels confident she made the right decision.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the overall environment, which has an easygoing and friendly vibe. The collaboration with my team and their willingness to help have been remarkable.”

Fernández said she couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

“Doing what we do for other women in response to a social justice challenge is very fulfilling when you see this happen,” she said. “That’s the main reason we do this. They [TravelPerk] were visionaries in that sense, and we hope they set an example for other companies to follow.”

McNairn came away convinced the program was something more companies should evaluate. The extensive onboarding process, which had seemed like a costly detriment beforehand, proved to be a benefit as both the company and candidates had more time to feel certain of a mutual fit. Things that are hard to test for through a traditional interview process – like a candidate’s penchant to adapt to change – revealed themselves with more time.

“So upfront, I thought it was a big expense, we took a big bet,” McNairn said. Yet by the end, he felt the return on investment for his efforts with the new hires was reciprocated in equal – or maybe even greater – measure.

“The amount of fire and grit you find in people you’ve helped bring through the ranks like that, they’re really grateful for it,” he said. “They give 10 times back. The ROI has been fantastic. I’m super happy with the outcome of the project.”

Phocuswright’s Diversity in Leadership program

“Cultivating Diverse Cultures” will be the topic of the Diversity in Leadership event at The Phocuswright Conference in Ft. Lauderdale. Join us November 13 to hear from organizations that are driving more inclusive teams and diverse leadership. 

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