Tech Companies Seek Cultural Change to Drive Women’s Leadership

Encouraging women to develop as leaders in tech companies isn’t just a politically correct fad; it’s good for the bottom line. And as more companies realise this, they’re deploying strategies including transparency and mentorship networks as part of a long-term commitment to transform their cultures.

In the 21st century, large corporations and the media are increasingly celebrating talent and encouraging diversity among their employees. But the tech industry is a notable exception to the overall trend; on the contrary, it seems progress has stalled. According to research by Entelo, a recruiting automation platform, women hold only 18% of jobs in the technology industry in the US, and 56% leave their jobs in mid-career. Women report increasing dissatisfaction with the industry, caused by workplace conditions and lack of access to key creative roles. As a result, only 10% of leadership positions are held by women.

Executives are starting to realise that there are sound business reasons to address this situation; numerous studies suggest employing women drives better results. PwC research from 2017 demonstrated that female leaders have a unique approach to innovation and are more likely to see the potential of new technologies. At the same time, women retain a more rational approach than men and are less likely to get involved in risky projects. According to a Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies, having women in leadership positions increased total return to shareholders by about 34%, and raised return on equity by 35%. This correlation is not surprising when we remember that diversity drives innovation, and women possess unique perspectives and qualities that won’t be found in homogenous male-dominated executive teams.

Still, the difficulty with encouraging more women to enter the tech industry doesn’t always lie in a lack of practical ideas, but sometimes in a weak commitment to the cause. Diversity shouldn’t be limited to a one-off initiative that’s expected to fix the problem overnight. Instead, companies must embed diversity in their culture, both as an ethos and as a set of consistent practices aimed at increasing the numbers of women advancing in their organisations.

The first step is to recognise the importance of the issue and to apply the same focus to diversity as to product development. Diverse leadership has to be consistently supported by CEOs and their boards. Executives can take an example from Ben Silbermann, the CEO of Pinterest, who publicly announced the company’s diversity goals for 2015. Instead of hiring a couple of token women, he actively attempted to increase female representation within the company and followed up with reports on successes and failures. His coherent approach set the right tone for the whole company, driving tangible results. According to Reveal’s report on diversity in the tech industry, of all the companies examined, Pinterest had the highest share of women of colour in managerial positions.

Transparency also lays the foundation for addressing subconscious and cultural biases against women in technology. The default way of doing business is the “male” way, and women continue to be stereotyped as “too sensitive” and prone to “overreacting”. In one survey, the vast majority of women who have left jobs in the industry cited culture as a major reason for resigning. The right attitude from people at the top of the company can ensure that women don’t feel undervalued, and helps build a working environment where gender issues can be openly communicated and tackled before they become a problem.

The next step is to overcome institutional bias and ensure that women have enough support to advance within the organisation. Executives have to realise that the response to a systematic disadvantage requires the establishment of a systematic advantage. Companies should use tools such as learning communities and female-only groups where women will be able to share their experiences, giving them access to support networks that will allow them to overcome gender-specific issues and keep them from leaving the company.

According to an ISACA survey from 2017, a lack of mentors and a shortage of female role models in the field were the top two barriers that women had to face in the tech industry. Establishing women-only networking platforms can provide female employees with training and access to the skill sets necessary to advance in the company. Cydni Tetro, a technology entrepreneur, argues that when done right, such support groups can “build ecosystems and platforms for really smart solutions at all fundamental levels of the company.”

Ultimately, the more women join the tech industry and progress to leadership roles, the more will be encouraged to enter the field in the future: Studies suggest that 85 per cent of jobs are filled via networking and referrals. This virtuous cycle is good news. If business leaders do their part and commit to increasing the number of female leaders today, their efforts will be multiplied for years to come.