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Disrupting the Tech Profession's Gender Gap

Companies struggle to remedy the lack of women in IT, but a few employers are getting it right.

​Women make up over half the U.S. workforce, but in the male-dominated tech industry they hold a disproportionate 26 percent of computing roles—a number that has been steadily declining for years, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Myriad factors are holding women back from participating fully in this industry. Some tech companies have strategies to attract female employees and encourage them to stay, but most employers are still struggling to find the best approach.

The consequences are significant. When you look purely at the numbers, women are leaving IT midcareer in droves and a crater separates them from their male counterparts in terms of being offered leadership opportunities. In the language of Silicon Valley, this industry is in need of some serious disruption.

Women in Tech: The Numbers

Women represent a minority of the workforces at the top 11 U.S. tech giants, according to diversity reports published by those companies. Atlassian, Uber, Twitter and Microsoft are at the lower end of the scale, with women making up an average of roughly 16 percent of the technical roles at those companies. Although women in tech have a narrower gap in wages than in other industries, there is still a gap between what they make versus what men make.

According to several in-depth reports by and, women earn 8 percent less in technical roles and 4 percent less in product management positions. Another alarming stat for women in tech is the rate of turnover, which is double that of men. Furthermore, only 11 percent of women in Silicon Valley hold leadership positions, according to the law firm Fenwick & West. So it's little wonder that 56 percent of women in tech leave their employers midcareer, according to the NCWIT. And according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, fewer than 8 percent of women own tech-related patents, which dramatically affects the number of female-led innovations that will be taken to market.

Yet when women develop products and lead their companies, those organizations not only hire more women and increase diversity but also perform three times better than those with male CEOs, according to Quantopian, an investment platform. More-diverse companies also have 22 percent lower turnover.

Starting with the process of ideation, women experience barriers to success. The lack of female-led patents has long-term bearings on how women are served in the marketplace. "The tech world in particular is ironically reluctant to look at data when it comes to their own makeup as an industry," says Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed by Men (Abrams Press, 2019). "When women are left out of the research, tech entrepreneurs and product developers can't get enough good data to determine what products women need and what will work optimally for men and women alike."

The lack of women involved in product design shows up constantly. The list of examples in Criado-Perez's book is vast, and some of the tech-centered misses include mobile phones that are too big for the average woman's hands; voice recognition software that struggles to understand women (Google's version is 70 percent more likely to understand men); fitness monitors that underestimate steps during housework by up to 74 percent and don't count steps while pushing a stroller (because of the lack of arm movement); and even emojis that default to male images.

Criado-Perez encourages tech companies to pay attention because there are massive financial implications to ignoring the role of women in product design. "When a product only appeals to one-half of the population," she says, "it leaves room for a better option to come in and fill the gap."

Removing the Bias

To get more women on design teams and into tech roles in general, the solution to bias has to occur at the recruiting and hiring stage. In 2016, technology industry recruiter Speak With a Geek sent out 5,000 resumes with identical information to companies. One set of resumes included gendered names and biographical information, and the other set omitted those details. When those identifying aspects were removed from the resumes, 54 percent of the women received interview offers; when gendered names and other biographical information were provided, only 5 percent of them did. 

The results don't get much better when companies use "unbiased" artificial intelligence to recruit candidates. Amazon recently had to scrap its new recruiting engine because its algorithm wasn't gender-neutral. A decade's worth of the company's resumes had taught the system that male candidates were preferable.

Company leaders at LinkedIn suggest that consideration for gender in the recruiting process is paramount. Maria Zhang, vice president of engineering at LinkedIn, notes that in general there are more male candidates than female candidates for open software engineering roles. However, she says the company's research found that outreach from recruiters matters: "When women appear in recruiter search results, they're 13 percent less likely to be viewed by recruiters than men. While bias―intentional or unintentional―can creep into the hiring process, there are ways recruiters and hiring managers can be informed and conscious about increasing the number of women in their talent pipeline."

The Need to Be Seen and Heard

Despite the challenges, there is positive movement. Government and industry efforts to engage young girls in tech and encourage them to pursue roles in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have increased over the last decade. Popping up everywhere are programs such as Million Women Mentors that connect mentors (both male and female) with young women to help them enter and succeed in STEM-related fields. 

The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a global nonprofit working with women in more than 50 countries, partners with leading academic institutions for networking purposes. Women Who Code operates in 20 countries with a goal of global gender parity in tech roles. And Girls Who Code, with a network of 185,000 active users, is on a mission to close the gender gap in technology by changing the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

Which begs the question: What is the image of a programmer today? And the bigger question: Is it impacting career choices for women? Researchers believe recruiters and influencers need to get better at sharing success stories of women in tech. A paper co-authored by Amanda B. Diekman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, stated that just because a woman is good at IT doesn't mean she'll pursue it or stick with it. 

Generally speaking, young women are heavily interested in subjects that have communal qualities. Therefore, they need to be reassured that IT careers are not isolating. If women perceive a career in tech as antithetical to their highly valued goals―like community and collaboration―they may choose alternative career paths. Or subsequently, in midcareer, after the possibility of advancement wanes, they may leave tech altogether to put their communal motivations and skills to better use.

To attract more women to tech jobs, role models are essential, says Dorothy Hisgrove, partner and chief people officer at consultancy PwC in Australia. "You can't be what you can't see," she explains.

When women leave tech, they often are not opting out for family reasons, Hisgrove adds. That's striking because it highlights that this outdated assumption could be masking the real reasons they are leaving. Data show that many of those women go on to start their own businesses. That's why PwC is focusing on the bigger issue of retention by "ensuring equity in access to leadership development opportunities, transparency in performance outcomes and particularly promotion opportunities," Hisgrove says.

Isaura Gaeta, vice president of security research at Intel, echoes the importance of role modeling and mentorship. She credits informal and formal networking with keeping her in tech after a lonely and challenging first decade of her career. It wasn't until she found female allies in her field that she finally felt like she belonged and that her voice was being heard.

As for retaining women in tech, Gaeta asserts that the industry suffers from an "institutional bias" because engineering systems have been set up in a very gendered way: "At Intel, there are two career ladders. One is the managerial ladder that leads all the way up to vice president, and the other is the technical ladder. The most senior role on the technical ladder is called the Intel Fellow―you can tell just by the name that it's gendered. So we have to address the issue of how to start removing the assignment of what a technical leader looks like to be more inclusive of all behaviors."

Maintaining the Learning Curve

Jill Larsen, executive vice president and chief people officer at Medidata Solutions, believes that the key to retention lies in a strong culture of learning and pursuing stretch goals. Larsen says the company provides support and guidance as needed to those in the stretch assignments "and we make their successes in these roles visible to highlight their achievements." 

On top of its efforts to remove bias from hiring and recruitment, LinkedIn is also tackling the retention challenge affecting most tech firms today. Erica Lockheimer, vice president of engineering for LinkedIn Learning, kicked off the annual Women Connect conference three years ago. The most recent gathering to support women in business included an open dialogue between CEO Jeff Weiner and Lockheimer about empathy, compassion and women's empowerment. 

"As a leader, first you need to figure out what each person on your team is motivated by and drive that back to the mission," Lockheimer claims. "It's essential to remind your team that every job function and role has meaning and value."

Women may represent a smaller portion of the tech industry than men, but their impact is mighty. When they're heard, the world reaps the benefits. Their brilliant, although often overlooked, inventions have shaped the modern world. 

Grace Hopper's "compiler" revolutionized computer programming and defined the term "debugging." The work of Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist, enabled others to invent fiber optic cables and solar cells. Ada Lovelace was the first person to write a computer program, while the principles of Hedy Lamar and George Antheil's radio guidance systems laid the track for modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. Add to the list the invention of nine coding languages, and one is left with an inarguable rationale for why the world needs more women in tech.

Jennifer Moss is author of Unlocking Happiness at Work (Kogan Page, 2016) and co-founder of Plasticity Labs, a research and consulting company in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Explore Further

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