The statistics speak for themselves; women account for just under half of the entire workforce, but hold only 26 percent of all tech jobs. Sadly, this number has been declining over the past decade and has only accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse, the turnover rate for women in tech is more than double (41 percent to 17 percent) that of their male counterparts. And nearly 1 in 4 women who leave their tech job take a non-technical job at another company.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a female leader tell me about her experience attending a technical conference. She said she could literally count on both hands the number of women in attendance compared to the hundreds of men. For many women in the tech field, this has become “normal.”
Even if you are not convinced that we have a strong moral imperative to address this disparity, there is a business argument to be made for creating more opportunities for women in tech. In North America, for the first time beginning in 2019, women use the internet more than their male counterparts. They’re the quickest adopters and largest users of social media platforms. They are also the largest group of online shoppers (goods, services, healthcare, etc.) and interact more with online businesses than men. In addition, they own more tech devices than men do.
While there are a variety of reasons why tech is struggling to attract and retain female talent, there are several things we can all do to help be part of the solution.
It Starts in Schools
My son was recently pursuing a computer science degree in college. When I asked how many women were in his coding and computer network class, he said none. Not one single woman. Clearly, this highlights the broader issue where women are not choosing to pursue a technology degree.
Oftentimes, when I tell people I work in the technology field, they think of someone sitting in a dimly lit room (by choice), eating pizza, drinking caffeinated beverages and writing software code, or working on various infrastructure components. While that can be an accurate description of some, there is a lot more to the tech field. As business is transforming, IT needs to continue to evolve to meet those changing needs.
Tech jobs that did not exist in the 1990s, or even a decade ago, are now just a critical as those focused on application coding or infrastructure support. Some of these roles include project management, cybersecurity, IT governance, business analyst, IT finance, mobile platform development, etc.
As IT roles evolve, we need to promote the traditional tech roles, as well as new opportunities, to school-aged girls to help them understand how broad the tech field is. We also need to continue to find ways to promote STEM program opportunities in schools and allow girls to explore their interests in the tech field.
Revisit Hiring Practices
Hiring is a lot like fishing. If you choose a spot that only has freshwater fish, you will only catch freshwater fish. If you want saltwater fish, you need to go where those fish are. One of the biggest complaints I hear is that women do not apply for tech job postings. This could be a result of how we write job descriptions and where jobs are posted.
In our organization, we’ve instructor all recruiters that if they find qualified female candidates, they must be included in the hiring pool. Additionally, we continually work with our local community colleges and universities, asking them to recommend any female students who might be interested.
Another idea is to work with organizations like CHIME that promote women in technology, or reach out to local or national organizations to find qualified candidates.
In the discussions I’ve had with female leaders, and in books I’ve read about how we’re failing to attract and retain women in tech, the theme that continues to surface is lack of mentoring. Nancy Wang, CEO and Co-founder of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), said “the lack of women in technical roles stems from the lack of mentors and skills-based training.”
Knowing that mentoring is a critical success factor, organizations should provide active opportunities for women and men to be both mentors and mentees. This can be done by introducing a formal mentoring program for current employees, or by pairing new hires with a mentor who can help them navigate tech’s nuances and provide a support system.
As with any diversity initiative, if the desire to hire is to simply “check a box,” then the organization’s culture will never be inclusive and equitable to all. It is important for all involved that women be treated with equity on every level.
This means they have equal access to advancement opportunities, an equal voice with everyone else in the room and on the team, and equal pay for their work.
I encourage every leader to partner with their HR department and go through the exercise of ensuring women are paid equally with their male counterparts. This allows any income disparity (whether unintentional or otherwise) to be addressed fairly.
The #metoo movement has brought to light many of the inequities and the downright disturbing mistreatment of women in the workforce. Thankfully, by sharing their stories, women have helped shine a light on these issues, which has led to some much-needed reform. It has also led to a change in workforce training and, in many ways, corporate culture.
As with any movement throughout history, there are unintended consequences; one is the reluctance by some men to mentor female colleagues. This came to light during a leadership session I attended that was given by a national law firm. When a female attorney opened up the floor to questions after her presentation, a male attendee asked, “What would you say to a male manager who is reluctant to now mentor female employees for fear of an accusation — now or in the future?” Several men in the room verbally supported that question, and the attorney went on to say that this is the top question she is asked. We need to be careful that this is not used as an excuse to avoid mentoring and supporting women in technology or leadership roles.
It is not enough for us to sit back and think someone else will address this issue. As tech leaders, we all have a responsibility to attract the best talent to our teams, including women. Part of our legacy will be judged on how well we paved the way for future generations to enter and succeed in the technology field.
Women have, and continue to make, outstanding contributions in tech. Their input, advice, and expertise have made a positive impact on my own career. I am thankful to work with so many talented and strong women today. As an industry, now is the time to encourage, promote, and support women entering the field, as well as those who work alongside us every day.