Retaining women in tech: How to build an inclusive onboarding experience

If your organization is struggling to retain women developers, take a look at your onboarding process. These inclusive strategies will set women up to thrive from day 1.

Jossie Haines has spent 22+ years as a software engineering leader and is an inclusive engineering leadership and executive coach. She was most recently the VP of Software Engineering and Head of DEI at Tile, and has held management roles at Apple, Tile, Zynga, and American Express. As a coach, Jossie empowers technology leaders to build diverse, inclusive teams that drive innovation by leveraging empathy and compassion. She has given over 100 talks, workshops, and podcasts on topics such as retaining women in tech and engineering leadership.


In my previous article, Why women leave tech – and what we can do to fix it, we broke down strategies for building inclusion in all areas of your organization. Today we will dig into a foundational component of any inclusive workplace: the onboarding process.

To develop an inclusive onboarding experience, start by considering the difference between diversity and inclusion.

  • Diversity is about recognizing and appreciating differences.
  • Inclusion is about how each person thrives as part of your team.

You can hire diversely, but if your workplace isn’t inclusive, you won’t be able to retain employees from underrepresented backgrounds. Even after they're hired, women leave their tech roles at a 45% higher rate than men, largely due to unfair treatment. This is where onboarding becomes a high-value investment.

If your organization is struggling with turnover of women employees, a strong onboarding process can improve new hire retention by 82%. Today I’ll share strategies to help you build an onboarding experience that sets women up to thrive from day 1.

Build a bridge between hiring and onboarding

A study published by Harvard Business Review found that women tend to receive less actionable and concrete feedback than men. This disparity is the result of implicit bias, and it can have a lasting impact on women’s career trajectories. If employees don’t know how to improve their work, they will have a harder time moving up the career ladder.

As a manager, you can get ahead of this implicit bias by building an interconnected hiring and onboarding process. Before creating the job description for a role, think ahead to what the onboarding process will look like. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the 30-60-90-day goals for this position?
  • What core competencies does someone need to reach these goals?

By basing the job description on your answers to these questions, you create what I call an impact-based job description. Unlike a standard list of job requirements, an impact-based job description provides a clear picture of how to succeed in the role. 

At first, this might feel like more work than you want to invest in a job description. However, the managers I know who use impact-based job descriptions find them valuable for 2 main reasons:

  1. They enable you to more meaningfully assess a candidate’s relevant qualifications during the interview.
  2. You can leverage them as your onboarding roadmap.

When you create an impact-based job description, you provide a concrete path to success that managers can use to align expectations with new hires. This bridge between hiring and onboarding helps employees to stay on track, and helps managers to deliver more actionable feedback. 



Overcommunicating is not about bombarding new hires with information. It’s about clearly communicating necessary information in multiple formats and connecting employees with multiple sources of support – all in service of a clear set of onboarding goals.

As you guide new hires through their onboarding roadmap, document the following:

  • Week 1 expectations 
  • Hardware and software setup
  • Important meetings to attend
  • Employee Resource Groups that may be helpful
  • Company values

Especially in a remote or hybrid workplace, it is crucial to document these details in an accessible format as well as discuss them face-to-face. Over the pandemic, I have onboarded a ton of engineers remotely. This experience taught me that you need to provide a lot more structure than you are used to providing in person. Without the context of being in the office, employees can quickly feel lost and confused. 

Starting on day 1, establish regular meetings with employees to check in about expectations, questions, and personal goals. To guide these meetings, ask yourself: How can I encourage my employee to grow and learn with values that are supportive and inclusive?

Even if your organization has implemented robust inclusive practices, women joining your team may carry imposter syndrome from previous experiences. As a result, women may hesitate to voice their needs for fear of being seen as incompetent. While you work on building trust as a manager, consider assigning new hires an onboarding buddy or peer mentor. It can feel less intimidating to ask questions of someone who is closer to your level on the career ladder.


Measure success

Reevaluating your onboarding process isn’t a one-off project; it continually evolves based on company needs and employee feedback. Measuring success will inform how you evaluate and improve onboarding.

Before revamping your onboarding process, gather baseline data about the current state of turnover. What are your retention rates for underrepresented employees over time? Analyze voluntary turnover and look for patterns based on categories like gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. In the future, you can use this data to track shifts in retention that may correlate with changes to your onboarding process.

To create a fuller picture of your workplace culture, leverage employee engagement surveys to ask how employees are feeling. In a 2020 report by Cognizant and Microsoft, “What It Means to Belong at Work,” researchers found that employees’ sense of belonging is closely tied to their performance. It is also an indicator of their likelihood to stay at your company. Asking questions about inclusion and belonging can help you to assess the risk of turnover and the impact of inclusion strategies.

In addition to gathering anonymous feedback from engagement surveys, managers should also connect with their teams and Employee Resource Groups. A key characteristic of inclusive organizations is psychological safety: a climate in which employees feel free to speak their minds to management. In a workplace that is psychologically safe, employees know that they can share constructive feedback without experiencing negative professional consequences.

Creating psychological safety requires trust – you can’t gather authentic feedback without it. As I explored in my previous article, building trust can happen in structured offsites as well as daily practice. Be vulnerable with your team: model what it looks like to acknowledge mistakes and act upon feedback. As you build trust over time, you will be able to have more candid conversations with employees about their experiences.


3 Strategies to build an inclusive developer onboarding experience


Take action on your onboarding plan

The onboarding strategies we’ve covered today – building a bridge between hiring and onboarding, overcommunicating, and measuring success – are meaningful steps towards retaining women in tech. As you determine what onboarding looks like at your organization, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Inclusive onboarding draws on best practices and is firmly rooted in your organizational context. Use these questions to guide your planning:

  • What do employees need to thrive in this specific environment?
  • How does our onboarding process align with our company values?

Finally, you can unlock the full potential of your onboarding plan by reevaluating management practices in other areas of your organization. Building inclusion is an ongoing project that considers every aspect of the employee experience, from hiring and onboarding to promotion. When you approach onboarding as part of a broader inclusion strategy, you give women the tools to succeed at your company long-term.


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