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Would asking this get me branded as someone likely to cause trouble (make frivolous complaints about discrimination, etc.)? Is there a better way to go about asking this? All I'd be looking for is that there's at least one other woman.

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Why is it important to you? –  Michael Dec 19 '13 at 16:02
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@Michael I've never been in the situation of being the only woman, but I know others who have and disliked it. Also, I'd probably feel like an outsider. –  AlliterativeAlice Dec 19 '13 at 16:04
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Any reason you couldn't just ask "Would I be the only woman on the team?" You could even add "I've never been in the situation of being the only woman, but I know others who have and disliked it. Also, I'd probably feel like an outsider." –  Tyler James Young Dec 19 '13 at 18:58
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Rather than ask directly, see if you can be introduced to the team members, or at least take a tour of the workplace. Most likely you could figure out right away whether, and which, species of gonads are ruling the roost. –  Meredith Poor Dec 19 '13 at 23:39
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The fact that this question is so well-received shows that we are nowhere near as progressive and socially advanced as we would like to think we are. –  jmorc Dec 26 '13 at 14:52

12 Answers 12

up vote 41 down vote accepted

As a hiring manager, I address diversity head-on both in job postings and in conversations with candidates -- no matter if the candidates are men or women. I strive to build diverse teams in terms of gender, experience level, skills, etc, and point it out when we achieve it, and talk about deficiencies when we don't. That is not the case with every company.

If diversity is important to a candidate, it is completely reasonable for the candidate to ask about the diversity of the team you may be joining, especially if it is not apparent in the interview or your interactions with potential teammates.

If diversity in terms of gender is important to a woman, and all she sees are men in the interview (or vice versa), it is completely reasonable to ask if there are women on the team (or men, on the flip side).

Similarly...

  • If diversity in terms of experience level is important to a candidate, and all the candidate sees are super senior people and no juniors, asking if there are intermediate or junior people is a completely reasonable thing to ask.
  • If diversity in terms of skillsets is important to a candidate, and all the candidate sees are front-end developers in the interview room for a back-end development position, asking if there are other back-end developers is a completely reasonable thing to ask.

I gave those other examples because getting a full picture of the team you're joining is important (obviously!) and if something is important to you and you can't figure out the answer based on what you see or hear in your interview, you have to find out somehow.

Asking clarifying questions, no matter if it's about gender diversity or technical stack or corporate finances, is always appropriate. Now, how you ask about this or any question in the discovery process is important.

For example:

  • "So, what's with all the brogrammers? Don't you have any women?" is probably not the best way to ask this particular question.
  • "Could you talk about your development teams in terms of gender balance?" would give you a way in to a conversation where you could figure out the company's approach toward achieving gender balance, or awareness of issues surrounding lack of gender diversity (or even issues surrounding diversity)
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@JoeStrazzere Yes, I believe it is equally ok for the candidate to ask anything. While some locales prohibit what interviewers can ask, I don't believe the same is true for candidates doing the asking. The more personal the topic, the more likely it is the company won't have an answer, though. For example, if someone asked me the religious makeup of my team, I'd have no idea -- but I'd say that, and let the candidate know that people hold their religion (if any) close to the vest. If the candidate wants an environment where religion is prominent, they'd know it wasn't a good fit. –  jcmeloni Dec 19 '13 at 17:26
    
The last question is almost perfect: a leading question like that should be a conversation starter. If the discussion falters, that's a danger sign. –  Bob Cross Dec 19 '13 at 17:26
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Should diversify be pursued for diversity's sake? –  Jim G. Dec 20 '13 at 1:21
    
@Jim G.: Thanks, just what I thought... - My two cents: I think that making your religion or that of your (potential) co-workers an issue is (very) unprofessional. The same is true for political views and beliefs. - You may live your life - at work, too - but, unless you are working for a political party or a religious institution, that is a private matter between co-workers. I'd never ask the recruiter about private matters of other employees. And I would leave, the moment I was told they were proud of their diversity. Even regarding such things as an issue proves you are race-/gender-/*-ist. –  Alexander Kosubek Dec 20 '13 at 7:30
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Good answer, but I would never phrase it as the (over-politically correct?) "talk [..] in terms of gender balance". What's wrong about just asking something like "How many men and women are on the team?"? –  Jan Doggen Dec 20 '13 at 8:37

It is okay to ask this question.

That doesn't mean it won't get you branded.

Some people are jerks and view feminism as the root of all evil and brand you just for that. Others have (legitimately) had bad experiences with women actually causing trouble that also were vocal about, say, male to female ratio in teams.

It's hard to say what will get you branded in the heads of people but that doesn't mean you should anticipate or work around it.

Be open about your needs and worries. If you get branded or treated negatively for it, that employer or team is not the right one for you.

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@JoeStrazzere Honestly, looking at your answers and comments on hiring questions, I wouldn't ever want to work for you. So asking this question is a great way to not get hired by people you wouldn't be comfortable working for anyway. –  Amy Blankenship Dec 19 '13 at 18:02
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I use questions about diversity in exactly this way during interviews (from both sides). It's a great way to filter out people I'll be deeply uncomfortable with later on. Same as asking out flexitime and working from home - if the response is "What? Who would want such a thing?" it's time to end the interview. –  Mσᶎ Dec 19 '13 at 20:34
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@JoeStrazzere Also, having a manager who doesn't prioritize "not rocking the boat" when making hiring decisions. –  Amy Blankenship Dec 20 '13 at 0:08
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I think context is important for how any questions like this are be perceived: e.g. if she first turns the conversation to get across that she's looking for a positive team dynamic (e.g. asking about office social activities like sports groups or similar), then asks "Would I be the only female?", she's asking in the context of being a sociable team player. Only a crazy grade A jerk would judge someone for wanting a good working relationship with their colleagues –  user568458 Dec 20 '13 at 13:46
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Not really. There's nothing personal in knowing your strengths and weakness and being able to spot someone who would see your strengths as weaknesses and vice versa. I am very definitely a boat-rocker, so it wouldn't benefit me to work for a manager who has little tolerance for that. I'm also in a position where I'm unlikely to have to interview for and take just any job. If more candidates had a firm understanding of themselves and looked proactively for places where their strengths are welcomed, there would probably be fewer questions asked on workplace. –  Amy Blankenship Jan 17 at 15:38

It's a question that may raise eyebrows.

What you can do though, which answers your question, is ask them for a tour of the office, during which you'll get a decent sense of the culture and whether you would be comfortable there. That's always a good idea even if you were happy being the only woman, it answers a load of other questions about the company too.

I've had a tour of an office where a developer had a huge poster of a woman in a bikini on the wall, which was pretty off putting. (I took the job though as this was a small negative in a ton of positives!) I'm the only female, but I'm pretty used to it now, having been the same in previous roles.

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I considered that, but thought it might be seen as presumptuous to ask for a tour of the office when you're just at the interview stage (i.e. you should wait until the offer stage.) –  AlliterativeAlice Dec 19 '13 at 16:28
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@AlliterativeAlice If they've brought you in for a face-to-face interview, it's not unreasonable to ask for a brief look at the general workspace to get a feel for the environment. More common in smaller companies, but there's no harm asking. –  jcmeloni Dec 19 '13 at 16:43
    
Yes, I am assuming that the interview takes place at the office. If not, I'd still recommend getting a tour before accepting an offer, but this applies to any situation. –  Fiona Taylor Gorringe Dec 19 '13 at 16:45
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The tour also reveals a whole lot of other aspects, from the office layout ("open plan, huh. So productivity isn't something you care about") to developer equipment ("two monitors is good. But a desk big enough to fit two monitors would make that work better"). And so on. –  Mσᶎ Dec 19 '13 at 20:35
    
@Ӎσᶎ Exactly, I can't imagine accepting a job offer without having a snoop round first! –  Fiona Taylor Gorringe Dec 19 '13 at 22:35

Certainly you're welcome to make any decision you choose in terms of a workplace - as far as I'm concerned. But I'll offer a thought - that assuming that an all-male team won't be sensitive or communicative or a good fit for you personally is almost as prejudicial as an all male team assuming that a woman wouldn't fit - and I'd fight valiantly either way to have all people give it a shot personally before you say it's an absolute failure. Point of reference, I'm a woman and I have worked on all male teams, and enjoyed it a great deal. I've been the only woman as an individual contributor, I've been the only woman and a boss, I've been the only woman on a team of bosses where I was not the leader of the group. In all cases, I'd offer that the joys and challenges of being on the team came from the open mindedness and professionalism of all involved, and not from gender.

Take it as you will.

With that said - I think you're most positive ways of asking about team composition are to stay away from the specific question "is this team all male?" and focus on the team composition. Here's a few thoughts that might prompt a discussion:

  • Tell me about the team - I'd love some thoughts on what perspectives you are looking for?

  • What's your approach (to the boss) for diversity?

  • How does this company view diversity and seek to develop it?

  • Are there support structures for those who are in a minority group?

This will help form a picture of the company as a whole. I'd offer that even an all woman team probably isn't so great if you don't get promoted, don't get recognition of your work and don't get listened to when you interact with other teams - so the real goal here is to figure out how this company supports diversity, what do they do when there are interaction problems due to diversity, what do they do with the non-dominant demographic to make sure they aren't simply run over by the dominant majority?

Even as a woman, I'm not sure how I'd feel if a candidate asked me in an interview about the gender composition of the team. I always worry with any team that ideas and support are shared across the whole team. Certainly individuals will form closer ties with each other - some people are just easier to collaborate with, and sometimes like attracts like - but I want to know that the team is more likely to work as a single unit than for some subset of the team to split into a "them" vs. "us" dynamic. Granted, I don't think that every time someone asks a gender balance question that this is really what they are thinking, but in an interview, where everyone is fairly nervous and remote, it's very hard to get a read on what they do mean.

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This is the answer. People should see people, not genders, or races, etc. –  MrFox Dec 20 '13 at 16:10
    
It's a funny call - part of who people are is their gender. Do I see the world a certain way because I'm a woman? Yes. I see the world the way I do because of all the things I am - including some of the protected characteristics, but also because of my personal experiences. I want any team I'm on or that I run to be willing and able to respect any and all of my opinions and choices regardless of what part of me they emanate from and regardless of the differences between us. Peace on Earth. Peace out. :) –  bethlakshmi Dec 20 '13 at 23:05

I don't think there is anything wrong with asking the question, but I would point out the following...

  • The fact that you are being interviewed for the job suggests that the hiring manager has no issue with the gender of his/her candidates.
  • Even if you were the first woman to (potentially) be hired to this particular department, that doesn't necessarily imply any gender bias. If it is a small department it could simply be luck of the draw that for past openings the best candidate available at the time happened to be male. If it is a large department, I would be somewhat more skeptical.
  • Somebody has to be the first... if diversity is lacking maybe you can be part of breaking the cycle. Perhaps once you've established yourself you will be in a position to raise awareness.

As for how to bring it up, if you're concerned that a direct question might sound accusatory or otherwise negative you could break the ice with a more indirect question. Something like "So I'm trying to envision the team I'd be working on, what can you tell me about it... is it a large team, small team, etc." Sometimes just starting down this road will naturally lead the conversation where you want it to go.

Also, I don't know about the company you're dealing with but at my place of employment it seems like every manager has an org chart within reach. If you express an interest in how the department is organized you might actually get a look at one which would allow you to infer the number of women by the names.

I have no problem with direct questions but if you are looking for a tactful way to broach the subject this is how I would open.

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Thanks. My concern would be about whether I'd enjoy working there, rather than fear of discrimination, though. –  AlliterativeAlice Dec 19 '13 at 19:58
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I actually disagree with the first bullet - companies interview for all sorts of reasons and sometimes being able to say you interviewed a certain demographic is desirable, whether or not you hire any of them. In other words - your hiring selection criteria can be discriminatory even if your interview selection criteria are not. –  bethlakshmi Dec 19 '13 at 22:37
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Hey dazed, any advice on how she might bring this up as a question in the interview? This is good stuff, but please don't forget to answer all parts of the question. –  jmort253 Dec 20 '13 at 4:45

I don't think you need to "mark yourself out" in asking this. At the point of your questions just ask for a simple breakdown of the team/roles, you will likely get some specifics (even if just he/she when discussing members), if necessary you can drop in a quick question about male/female ratio.

The main thing is to casually drop it into the questions, people are likely to over-react if you make it a big point, just be subtle.

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First, clarifying the problem. After reading the many comments, discussion and answers it all seems to boil to the fact that this question could be taken one of two ways:

  • The real intent of the question: the asker wants a good working relationship with her colleagues and is concerned because this job might lack something she hasn't been without before.
    • So long as she doesn't come across as inflexible, it's a positive thing to be a sociable team player who cares about the quality of their working relationships.
  • The worry: it could imply that the asker is unable to adapt, can only work in certain conditions, or, is difficult to work with and only able to work with certain types of people.
    • This is negative.

So it is definitely an acceptable question to ask, and potentially a positive question, but there's a risk it might give a negative impression.


So the problem becomes: how to avoid that negative impression. I'm surprised that no-one has yet mentioned context and framing.

If she asks a simple "Would I be the only female?" in a discussion where the context is that she is a team player who is used to having strong working relationships and wants to be sure that she's moving to somewhere with a positive atmosphere where she will fit in and thrive, then that question is simply another example of her taking the move seriously and finding out what working here will be like. It fits in the context of the conversation, and that context is positive.

The risk comes in if she asks the same question out of the blue. The lack of context makes it sound like a rigid arbitrary demand.


So the problem becomes: how to turn an interview around to that sort of context?

It depends on the person and the interview, but it could go something like:

  • Interviewer asks: any other questions?
  • Interviewee asks about the roles of the people she'd be working with directly and how her role fits with theirs.
    • Discussion of the team. Interviewee gets to show that she understands team dynamics
    • This might answer the question itself ("...and you'd also be working with Helen, who...")
  • Interviewee then mentions (for example) things like social activities they were involved in at their previous job, and how great they were for team building, networking and strengthening relationships with colleagues. Is there anything like that here?
    • Conversation where interview is taking an active interest in what it's like to be part of this team
    • As part of this conversation: "So would I be the only female?".

It fits the context of the conversation and doesn't jut out. It's clear from context that this isn't some arbitrary condition or demand, but is one part of her (positive) interest in working somewhere with a great dynamic.


Context is a massive influence on how things are perceived. Use it!

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Yes.

My sense is that if the interviewer is consciously seeking to address a gender imbalance, then he or she will bring the issue up first anyway. ("By the way, we have 10 developers, only two of which of are women: how would you feel about working in that type of environment?").

If the interviewer doesn't bring it up first, there's frequently a point towards the end where the good interviewer asks, "Do you have any questions or concerns about us?" That may be the time to address the topic, almost as if it were an afterthought, even though it may not be.

Job interviews have so much sensory overload and so many agendas--you are constantly sizing up each other, looking for the slightest clues to justify a large, important decision -- my advice is to keep things as light as possible, while being as up front as the situation allows with respect to your needs and expectations.

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If this is critical to you in making the decsion, then yes ask the question. However, be aware that in doing so, you may be severely limiting your employment options. You are in an industry that is very lopsided in terms of gender. By asking that question you frankly come across as less confident that someone who doesn't ask such questions. You also tend to weed yourself out of the running if there are currenlty no women even if they are fine working with women.

I think perhaps you are mistaking the reason for other women's bad experiences and thus are considering asking the wrong question. I have been the only woman many, many times and occasionally it has been bad and mostly it has been fine. And I've worked one place where the only person who was a problem to work with was the only other woman. It has come down to corporate culture in the end, not male/female ratio. So what you are interested in might really be how the people in the office treat each other.

It is hard to ask good culture questions. However, you can deduce alot from how you are treated in the interview and from a good walk around of the office spaces. Watch to see how people relate to each other as you walk through. Is there eveidence of a lot of inappropriate humor or sexual type pictures? Do all the men seem to be young and single? Do they play alot of games? Do they work 90 hours a week? Those tend to be the places where I found women are less comfortable. You may be looking for other things. But think about the kind of culture you want more than the male/female ratio.

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@JoeStrazzere She probably read it from my profile. –  AlliterativeAlice Dec 20 '13 at 17:42
    
PLus it is the kind of question you only ask if you are in a lopsided industry. You don't think about asking this if there are normally others of your gender in any job you would apply for. –  HLGEM Dec 20 '13 at 18:31

Just ask to meet/see the team you'll be working with. The entire team.

Say you're interviewing with 3 people and the time for "questions" comes. At that time say "I'd like to meet the team." What will probably happen is they'll take you over to the area where your to-be-teammates are. If you don't see any other women on the team, then simply don't join.

You, as the job hunter, are responsible for investigating the environment you are placing yourself in.

Sometimes, it is better to ask a question, or request to see something, which will indirectly get the response to a question in your mind, without asking that question explicitly, or having the recruiters ever even know that (working with a woman) was a concern of yours.

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Well, no. I was recently in an interview and simply asked for a "tour". The lead took me to the main area where the workers are, and I saw their working conditions, the basics of how they interact/the culture there. –  bobobobo Dec 20 '13 at 18:33
    
Could also ask for names; histories & backgrounds.. "who are the main people I would be working with?". Listen for female names. –  bobobobo Dec 20 '13 at 21:41

I think you're entitled to asking about this and it's perfectly reasonable to do so, as it's not just them looking for a candidate, but also you looking for a job that attracts you.

However, please consider the actual relevance of this.

Consider for example a male looking for a job as a secretary or nurse, where according to this study most workers are female. Should he ask "How many males will I be working with"? It's the same situation.

Since matters of race and gender are frequently put together, this is similar to a white person going to Africa or a black person going to Russia and asking "How many white/black people will I be working with?". I don't see a problem with it, others might. If they do, that's not the company for you, simple :)

Edit: I believe one good way to ask this, instead, is to ask if the company embraces diversity of viewpoints as a core value. Chances are, an aversity to work with men would come to bite you sooner or later, so just expecting and providing respectfulness will make work better, no matter the genders.

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Hi Camilo, are you suggesting the asker just plain come out and ask "How many women work here?" or should she try to bring this up in a more tactful way? The reason I ask is because the question asks how she should ask in the interview, among other things, and on our site we try to make sure answers fully address the questions. Hope this helps. –  jmort253 Dec 20 '13 at 4:44
    
@jmort253 Well, of course like everything you say in a job interview it has to be phrased politely, but what I'm saying is that the question in itself is valid. If that matters to OP, she should ask about it, since in the event that the answer given is "no, you're our first female candidate", it seems to me that it would mean OP wouldn't want that job. –  Camilo Martin Dec 20 '13 at 21:48
    
In the question body she does ask is there a better way to go about asking this. In general, on this site we look for complete answers to the full question. If you feel you have also addressed that part of the question, I'll leave this for the community to decide. Hope this helps clarify what I think might be missing from your post. –  jmort253 Dec 20 '13 at 22:02
    
@jmort253 Good point, I'll edit it. –  Camilo Martin Dec 20 '13 at 22:30

Yes, but not directly...

The 1st thing to consider is your intention which you have already informed about knowing whether there are other women in the team, its natural !

You can ask this sort of sensitive question through policy details. You can ask, "Hey, I would like to know if you have specific policies designed for women to empower, support, and encourage them to be a multi-tasker for a work-life balance."

Wait for an answer, smile to any reply they give and then display a thinking face asking "Will there be supporting opportunities like IJPs (Internal Job Postings); etc., for women to swap teams who have been long staying in the same team and look for a change ? For eg., in the team I am about to join which has a strength of 8 people, will that include any women too....?"

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