Crafting an Empowering Environment

When I went to Dublin this month, I gave two talks at the career fair CareerZoo. The “big” talk I gave on the main stage was about Etsy’s engineering culture, but I also had the opportunity to host a more intimate “women in technology” workshop. I decided to talk about the aspects of Etsy’s work culture that make the environment empowering for women in technical roles, in order to give the attendees a sense of what it looks like when things go right. Because it was a workshop, we ended with a discussion about what we all need to feel empowered.

Etsy certainly isn’t perfect—there’s so much that we’re still working on—and my experiences aren’t shared by every technical woman at Etsy. But many of us have found more safety and support at Etsy than we have at previous workplaces, and this talk reflects my understanding of why that is.

Huge thanks to Katherine Daniels and Jeremy Pharo for their feedback on early drafts of this workshop, to Katherine Daniels (again!) and Lara Hogan for writing blog posts that inspired it, and—as with the other talk—to Jennifer Butler, Tara Hayes, Lara Hogan (again again!), and Michael Rembetsy for providing the opportunities and support I needed to travel to Dublin to give it.

Thanks also to the people who have made the environment I describe a reality: Sunah Suh and Ian Malpass for generously and non-judgmentally teaching others about feminism, and all the brilliant, sensitive, self-aware people whom I’m so lucky to be surrounded by daily.

I illustrated my slides with photos from the shops of Irish Etsy sellers, whose work you’ll see in the transcript below with links to their shops.



The opinions expressed are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of Etsy. All stats referenced are valid as of September 30, 2015.

Hi everyone! My name is Lauren Sperber and I’m a senior software engineer at Etsy. If you’re not familiar with Etsy, we’re an online marketplace where people connect to buy and sell unique handmade and vintage goods. We help 1.5 million active sellers make a living by providing a platform that helps them run creative small businesses, 86% of whom are women. We also help 22.6 million active buyers, 87% of whom are women, purchase unique items they can’t find elsewhere.

'good vibes' banner

I count myself incredibly lucky to work at a place where I feel that my work is valued, where I feel supported and empowered to pursue greater challenges, and where I feel safe to speak my mind when I have a dissenting opinion.

Facets of an Empowering Workplace

I haven’t always been this lucky, so I want to tell you about the key aspects of Etsy’s culture that make our environment so comfortable for me—things that I wish I’d found in previous workplaces.

painting of an angel

Supporting Women is a Core Value

Helping our sellers find meaningful work is part of our company mandate. Since the vast majority of our sellers are women, this means that empowering women to be creative entrepreneurs and increasing the number and success of women-owned business is a huge part of our mission.

Because Etsy is a genuinely values-driven company, our employees take company mission very seriously, which means they take supporting women entrepreneurs seriously. This baseline focus on empowering women alone helps me connect strongly to the company and feel confident that Etsy, as a company, supports a future in which women are powerful drivers of the economy.

We Talk About Unconscious Bias

I’m fairly certain these cats are talking about unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias refers to the default assumptions we make based on our environments and experiences without being aware of them. The Official Google Blog posted some research about unconscious bias and described it like this:

These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people.

Etsians of all genders and levels of power are aware of and frequently talk about unconscious bias. We recognize that unconscious biases, based on gender, race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation, set an undertone for all of our interactions, and that we must constantly evaluate our judgements of other people in this light.

I’ve heard people call into question their own unconscious bias in interview wraps, one-on-one meetings, and casual conversation. By speaking about unconscious bias openly, we can help each other counteract it. Furthermore, the normalization of this idea within Etsy means that we can more easily identify situations in which someone has hurt us due to unconscious bias, which helps us to process our emotions and recover.

Most importantly, acknowledging unconscious bias makes it ok to talk about the fact that we’re not perfect, and that we’re all still working on creating an equitable working environment.

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Male Allies

In addition to questioning their unconscious biases, many of the men I work with at Etsy actively identify as feminists. I know senior engineering managers and staff engineers at Etsy who include “feminist” in their twitter bios. Our CEO Chad Dickerson has quoted feminist scholar bell hooks at a company all-hands meeting.

Even more importantly, the men I work with act on their feminist principles. I’ll tell a few stories that illustrate examples of helpful allyship I’ve experienced from the men I work with at Etsy.

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Male Allies Training

Senior Engineer Ian Malpass offered an internal training on Being an Effective Male Ally in which he provided an overview of the principles of feminism and offered practical steps that men could take to counteract unconscious biases and be effective allies for the women they work with. Because this was led by a well-respected engineer instead of being mandated by HR, other engineers were able to make a genuine connection to the content.

Creating Opportunities

A few months after the allyship class, Ian was asked by the National Center for Women in Technology to speak about his work at their annual conference. Ian asked me to come with him to co-present, which made our presentation more balanced and effective, as it combined perspectives from male allies at Etsy and the women who they work with. More importantly, however, Ian was offering me an opportunity to practice public speaking and raise my profile within the company. Many other men I’ve worked with at Etsy—including my two managers, who have both been men—have consciously given me opportunities to show my leadership on technical projects and to have my knowledge recognized. In our preparations for CareerZoo, Michael Rembetsy, who is speaking later today in the Tech Box, encouraged me to take the keynote slot alone instead of joining me on stage.

Reducing Gendered Language

Our staging environment is caused “Princess.” We have an automated deploy system with a button that used to say “Save the Princess with tests,” which Staff Engineer Daniel Schauenberg updated to read “Get saved by the Princess.” This may seem trivial, but that button is seen by hundreds of engineers, product managers, and designers on a daily basis, and the reversed fairy tale script provides a good reminder to be thoughtful about our use of gendered language.

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Calling out Bad Behavior

I’ve done a lot of technical interviews in my time at Etsy. One day I had an interview that I left feeling stressed out and insecure. Later my colleague Wayne Gerard, who had been shadowing me for the interview, pointed out that the candidate had been talking down to me, which helped me to realize why I felt so frazzled and to process and move past the feeling.

Women Support Each Other

I recently read bell hooks’s critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and was especially struck by this quote: “Given all the forces that separate women and pit us against one another, solidarity is not an inevitable outcome.”

Her point here is that the presence of a woman in an executive position at a company doesn’t ensure that other women will experience trickle-down benefits. Unfortunately this observation does ring quite true. Women in technical positions often feel as though they have to compete with each other. I have been so lucky to not experience this feeling at Etsy, for a variety of reasons.

One is that there is a full career track at Etsy for promotion as individual contributors, and it’s helpful for relationships amongst all engineers that we don’t have to compete against each other for promotions to a limited set of management positions, but instead can have our accomplishments and leadership recognized with progressively senior titles.

More importantly, women in technical roles at Etsy have worked together to create strong relationships amongst ourselves. We are fortunate to have the support of women in senior technical leadership roles, but individual engineers have also fostered these supportive relationships amongst technical women, by setting up group lunches and rotating one-on-ones. Having open discussions about our experience helps us to form a sense of solidarity. We cheer each other on when one of us gets a promotion or does a talk, and we offer emotional support and insight when one of us needs guidance.

Recently, this amazing community of women made a breakthrough. We started discussing why so few of us regularly attended a monthly Engineering meeting hosted by staff engineers at Etsy—a meeting open to all engineers but with low attendance from female engineers. The staff engineers are currently all male and, although some of them had reached out to female engineers to see how they could make the meeting more inclusive and happily taken our advice, many women still felt leery of being the only woman at the meeting.

So, we decided to all show up for the January meeting as a group to make it less intimidating. It was an incredibly positive experience, which my colleague Katherine Daniels wrote up in a recent blog post: “the simple act of showing up to this meeting turned out out to be a radical act of self-empowerment.”


Those are, in my opinion, the key aspects of Etsy’s culture that make our environment so positive and empowering for me and many of the women I work with. Let’s talk about what would make us feel empowered at work.

What do you need to feel empowered at work?

What aspects of workplaces you’ve been at have you found empowering?

What can you look for while interviewing to make sure you’ll be working in a supportive environment?

These were some ideas that were contributed:

  • diverse interview panel
  • women in roles like yours
  • women in managerial and executive positions
  • awareness of unconscious biases
  • positive feedback from interviewers

How can you support the women you work with?

What resources can you share with colleagues who want to learn about feminism?

This is a link I shared with the workshop attendees, which includes links from my colleagues Ian and Katherine:

My work:

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