Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, women are only in 28 percent of tech leadership positions. It’s clear tech has a gender issue – especially at the managerial level or higher. Nearly 40 percent of women in tech feel that their gender is a barrier to promotion, and 41 percent of women pointed to a lack of female mentors as an obstacle to promotion. Yet female employment is statistically better for business. These findings, while not surprising, stress a clear need to take active steps that will result in more women in tech leadership.
On September 16, I had the pleasure to speak at Colorado Technology Association’s Women in Technology Conference about how women leaders are the future of technology, and what actions must be taken to create equity in the industry. I was joined by Sharan Hildebrand, VP of strategic alliances, North America of Hitachi Solutions and Chaitra Vedullapalli, co-founder and CMO of Meylah. We’re all also founding members of a new social impact organization, the Women Executives Channel Advisory Board (WECAB), where I currently serve as president and chair. WECAB’s mission is to influence the advancement of female leadership by sharing our experience as tech executives.
Below are a few takeaways from Sharan, Chaitra, and my discussion of the gender gap in tech, what challenges women face in tech, and what you (and I) can do to create the needed change to see equity in our board rooms, c-suites, management teams, and beyond.
Why the Gender Gap in Tech Leadership is Worth Solving
Taking action to address the gender gap in tech leadership is not just altruistic or “the right thing to do.” It’s simply the best business choice.
The way businesses are currently run isn’t working for humanity or our planet as a whole. We’re depleting resources and exhausting swaths of the workforce. While not exclusive to women, and certainly not in all women, women’s leadership styles do tend to demonstrate lower self-interest and greed, more benevolence, more resiliency to constant change, not to mention a more holistic lens of all the stakeholders, arguably making them steadier captains and better for all of us in the long term.
As a result, businesses thrive with women in leadership. Corinne Post, Boris Lokshin, and Christophe Boone of Harvard Business Review found that, “Firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences – among many other benefits.” Further, employing more women across all levels, not just as managers or within the c-suite, coincides with stronger financial performance and a higher annualized total return (Goldman Sachs, 2020).
Tech is a trillion dollar industry. If women exert such an economic benefit, imagine what this already lucrative industry could be if it even slightly increased the power of women. I see a more abundant future if we solve the gender gap.
Challenges to Change
If we’re to make significant gains in closing the gender gap, we also have to know precisely what we’re up against.
COVID-19 is only exacerbating problems in the workplace for women. Women in the Cloud’s 2021 COVID-19 Impact Survey shares insight into the financial, operational and emotional effects female tech entrepreneurs and their businesses faced as a result of the pandemic. The majority of 2021 survey respondents indicated revenue loss between $50,000 and $100,000, with nearly half of respondents reporting opportunity loss of over $50,000, and some indicating losses in the millions. This is compounded when considering that only 3% of corporate procurement dollars and 5% of federal contracts are going to women-owned firms, and investors reduced support of women-led tech companies to below 2%.
Lack of visibility also prevents meaningful improvement in equity. It’s difficult to be what you don’t see, and young women in technology severely lack industry role models. My early career advances are due in part to having several incredible female role models. I could envision myself in their shoes, and was able to use them as mentors to excel in very practical ways. Likewise, I’ve felt my career slow at points when I didn’t have those mentors.
I’ve heard from many women that being an “only” is exhausting. It often makes women feel like they don’t belong, causes them to navigate organizations with less information than their male peers, and requires addressing bias. This bias can result in stereotypes against women’s merit in tech, and it can also literally be coded into products, like unintentionally training AI to have inherent bias. For example, women still make up a measly 20% of engineers at supergiants Google and Facebook.
How We Can Create Change – Personally and Organizationally
While there is much work to be done when it comes to female leadership in tech, I am more hopeful for meaningful change in the industry than ever. Change must happen at both a personal and organizational level.
Mentorship can have an incredible impact in empowering fellow female peers and mentees. I encourage you to examine your network and recognize who may learn or want to learn from the experiences you’ve had. Mentorship can feel daunting, but it’s as simple as getting together for a cup of coffee (or even a Zoom coffee during this time). Making yourself available to other female colleagues and industry peers is important, and sharing your willingness to do so is critical. This will allow women to carve out more space within a field that, historically, is challenging to do.
Then, I recommend you cultivate and leverage your powerful network of women. Who you know is as important as what you know. Looking at my own career, it’s why WECAB was started. It’s why I started the McGraw-Hill Women in Management group in the early 90s. I showed up to our inaugural luncheon at the McGraw-Hill building, saw over 100 women, and thought we’d solve the gender gap in 10 years. Not one of my better predictions! It’s also why I encouraged the creation of Accela’s Employee Resource group for DEI, and serve as its executive sponsor. Power to change only amplifies in the collective.
It’s important to acknowledge that the continuation of gender inequality does not rest simply on the choices of individuals – male or female. Companies, company cultures, and societal schemas all have a hand, and often businesses say they’re addressing these challenges with DE&I training. But shifting all responsibility to outside factors – the standard “this is an industry and societal problem” – even if there is a kernel of truth there, evades any sense of company ownership in the solution. And unconscious bias training and mentorship programs that often boil down to men acknowledging unconscious bias and women behaving more assertively are subpar at best.
Businesses making progress are focusing on representation and proactively working to build a pipeline of effective women leaders, ensuring these emerging leaders gain the experience they need to take on more responsibility, and serving as mentors to others. Women have to be included at each level of the company to shift the status quo. Businesses cannot shy from discussions around development and career trajectory, but rather have a standard set of expectations – universal to all, – for promotion and job descriptions. This preempts basing career growth on subjectivity.
As “next normal” and “unprecedented” become our day-to-day realities, now’s the moment for tech companies to use this natural inflection point to prioritize gender equity as they pivot, scale and evolve. Let’s make equity the new normal, and support more women into technology leadership roles.
Accela is a proud supporter of the Colorado Technology Association. To learn more about CTA’s Women in Technology Conference, go to https://coloradotechnology.org/wit-conference/. To learn more about Women Executives Channel Advisory Board (WECAB) and its mission to empower women leadership in technology organizations, please visit https://wecabtech.org/.