Women in Tech: We Need a Better Plan (Opinion)

Winston Thomas is the editor-in-chief of CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends. He’s a singularity believer, a blockchain enthusiast, and believes we already live in a metaverse. 

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on today, we face a sobering conclusion in technology: we’re not doing enough. And there are lots of studies to show how badly we’re doing.

Take this observation from a Forrester report, “Advance Your Organization By Improving The Workplace Experience For Women,” by analysts Fiona Mark with Katy Tynan, Nick Monroe, Matthew Guarini, Gordon Barnett, and Kerstin Wehmeyer.

The analysts note that women’s representation in the tech workforce in the last 15 years has been stagnant even though they control 80% of all purchasing decisions. And while women make up nearly 48% of all workers since 1990, the report continues, only 25% of them end up as technology workers. We’ve not just stagnated when it comes to IT; we’ve regressed since 1990.

In reality, this percentage will be smaller if you consider that many STEM-educated women end up teaching or joining healthcare and shy away from tech or engineering fields. And even those who are in tech positions drop out of the workforce midway in their careers for various reasons.

We can’t keep finding excuses for these issues. Blaming it on a small pool talent is short-sighted. If we’re to improve women’s representation in technology (and plenty of research says we should for success), we need to think broader.

Trouble at the top

Gender imbalance in tech begins at the top. We unknowingly create toxic cultures and non-conducive environments for women because they’re underrepresented in leadership. The team at the top is often seen as a “bro culture,” and only 18% of women are CIOs and CTOs.

According to Pew Research, 80% of women in tech say they’re discriminated against because of the bro culture; 66% of men agree. Meanwhile, 30% of women say that they experience sexual harassment because of it.

This non-representation at the top isolates women, hence the urge to leave or underperform. But recruiting a women tech leader is not going to solve anything magically.

Research shows that women tech leaders are getting tired of representing themselves, with 42% of women saying that they have to outperform their male peers to get attention constantly. In short, when it comes to women, tech companies set the bar a lot higher.

In an interview, Christie Struckman, Gartner’s vice president analyst, says that many women face marginalizing behaviors like ageism and the “my idea syndrome,” where a male colleague parrots an idea from a woman without acknowledging it was hers.

To plug the leadership gap and improve representation at the top, the Forrester report advises companies to start looking for their women leaders when hiring junior staff — not after it becomes a glaring problem.

“Build your female talent pipeline now, and do not limit it just to one or two levels below executive. Look at your talent who are early in their career as well as mid-career,” the authors write.

The authors also suggest tech companies actively look for women leaders in other fields and not use a small talent pool as a reason. There’re many highly-capable women leaders, but they may not be in your specific field. But just as how companies in outside leadership to steer companies in new directions, they can also do the same to bolster women’s representation at the top.

Plug the pay and workplace gaps

You can’t resolve gender diversity without addressing pay discrepancies. Perks and benefits only go so far, but ultimately pay represents your worth in a company. It links to self-esteem, and women are at the losing end in tech companies.

“Turnover is only exacerbated when you bring pay equity into the conversation. Women are paid less than their male counterparts, on average,” says Struckman.

“When organizations do not deal with these issues, it is difficult to retain women. Women in technical roles, who tend to leave at the mid-manager level and more often overall, quit their jobs at more than twice the rate of their male peers,” she adds.

Besides normalizing pay (or, even better, pay based on meritocracy and worth to an organization), companies must make the extra effort to remove workplace toxicity. To do that, Struckman advises companies to create the following roles to improve women’s representation in technology:

  • Coach: To help group members develop specific skills or competencies, such as reading data or presenting the information.
  • Mentor: To help navigate career options and decisions. Consider tapping mentors from outside the organization.
  • Ally: To provide support in challenging situations. For example, in a hiring situation, it might be someone who says, “I’ve noticed we don’t have any female candidates. Is that something we can look into?”
  • Sponsor: To advocate for others — expending their political capital to further the careers of others.

We’re recruiting all wrong

The way we recruit is another reason that can be putting women off. The Forrester analysts cite evidence of unconscious bias when it comes to recruiting. It seems women will only apply when they meet 100% of the requirements, while men will apply if they fit 60% of the bill. This is called the confidence gap.

Gartner’s Struckman feels that antiquated hiring requirements for IT roles make it difficult for women. She explains that many tech leaders do not necessarily come from technical backgrounds, yet there is a perception that women tech leaders should. 

“This, combined with research that shows women tend to shy away from jobs they don’t believe they are 100% qualified for, suggests IT teams are artificially limiting their talent pool by recruiting against those outdated job descriptions,” she adds.

The truth is that women approach open roles differently from men. It may be time to reevaluate your job descriptions. That’s what Slack did when they worked with Textio. The latter analyzed job descriptions to appeal to the broadest audience and included language like “last relationships.” It worked.

Gender balancing is a group effort

Too often, addressing gender diversity or the imbalance in women’s representation falls on the shoulders of women. It shouldn’t. This is an organizational problem, and women and men should lead it.

“Gartner has seen an uptick of women in tech employee resource groups (ERGs), which serve as a forum for women to focus and share their experiences and ideas, learn from mentors, hear from guest speakers and develop strategies to navigate their careers. Smart organizations also bring in senior male co-sponsors to reinforce support for such programs,” says Gartner’s Struckman.

The Forrester analysts also point out that managing diverse teams means having different training and development programs. This means tech leaders need to work closely with their CHROs and COOs to ensure the proper support and that the work environment does not isolate women.

“Evaluating candidates and adjusting developing programs in line with their needs is beneficial to all new hires, not just those of a diverse background, and investing in your employees’ development often reduces attrition,” they write.

Tech companies need to actively promote and use those added policies to help women feel included. Often companies will enact new policies in the name of balancing work-life. But when the same leaders who talk about them are not seen as using them, many will feel a stigma of using them, say Forrester analysts.  

More importantly, gender diversity should become part of the technology company’s corporate report card and not a CSR activity. Currently, if we evaluate our performance, we would be getting an “F.” That should be troubling us as diverse teams create more innovative ideas.

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