5 Ways to Make the Modern Tech Workplace More Welcoming to Women
Madeleine Albright famously said that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. I would add to that: There’s a special corner table in hell for women in tech who don’t help other women.
There’s no shortage of awareness in Silicon Valley about the need for diversity and inclusion (a phrase that has unsurprisingly turned into an acronym -- D&I). Speaking as a woman who has succeeded in the Valley through the support of mentors like Marc Benioff, I would say that we need to do better. Others have opened doors for us to grow and pivot within our careers. Now, it’s our turn to open those doors even wider and help more women through, until there is no door at all.
Let’s take a look at some undeniable truths, then talk about what we do next.
There aren’t enough women in STEM jobs or corporate leadership positions
According to a 2016 PWC diversity study, 85 percent of cross-sector CEOs with a D&I strategy say it affects their bottom line.
While it’s great to see so many companies supporting D&I, the business community has not fixed the systemic problem of exclusivity. The U.S. Commerce Department's 2017 STEM Update, for instance, reported that only 24 percent of STEM jobs in particular were held by women.
This challenge becomes especially apparent with executive roles. Today, there only 33 female CEOs in the Fortune 500, which can certainly be seen as an exclusive club where leaders get top experience and influence. In short, the club is a men’s club.
Put these factors together and you'll gain an idea of what's happening here in Silicon Valley. While there are prominent women in leadership positions throughout the Valley’s tech companies, we truly haven’t fixed the systemic problem here. Why? Tech companies tend to shuffle around the same pool of female leaders to different positions and companies.
Diversity/inclusion isn't expanding fast enough.
Many Silicon Valley companies now have some kind of D&I program, but we aren’t fixing the exclusivity problem fast enough. This is a speed issue. No matter how impactful these programs might be and how committed senior leadership is, there is only so much that can happen without a bigger pool of female candidates to choose from.
So, while we may celebrate the incremental improvements within our corporate D&I numbers, we have a long way to go.
Female leaders don’t get the support they should.
Women who do make it to the upper reaches of the org charts often find staying there more challenging than getting there. According to a study by Catalyst, the global non-profit focused on making workplaces better places for women, 53 percent of women surveyed who began their careers in business roles within tech-intensive industries left for other industries. The primary reasons they left? Isolation; hostile, male-dominated work environments; ineffective executive feedback; and a lack of effective sponsors and mentors.
What can we do to address these fundamental issues?
1. Invest in stronger education programs for grade school-age children.
Break away from outdated assumptions about what girls “naturally” like to learn. Accept that girls are just as likely to be interested in math and science as boys and make sure they have truly equal support in those disciplines.
That encouragement needs to start in grade school. In 2017, Quicken Loans pledged to provide the financial resources to fund computer science training for more than 15,000 students in the Detroit public school system. Delivering equal access to these resources early on can even out the playing field for girls interested in STEM and provide a lasting impact.
I recently spoke with MBA candidates at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. In my talk I described my parents’ influence on me to be a student of life and a student for life. From a young age, I was motivated to learn both math (which I loved) and history (less loved), because I was taught that the act of learning was important.
2. Prioritize mentorship and sponsorship.
As leaders, especially female leaders, we have a duty to empower, inspire, mentor, sponsor and support women. That means we need to encourage them to pursue lifelong learning. This can be advanced education across law, business and STEM-related degrees, or continuous learning through new challenges at work.
I took the latter path, earning the chance to be chief of staff to Ed Zander, president and COO of Sun Microsystems, and to Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems. Because those leaders sponsored me to pivot and learn new aspects of those businesses, I built my qualifications for future leadership roles at Salesforce and now Splunk.
Some companies are implementing more formal mentorship programs. Example? PayPal has its Unity Mentorship Program, an employee-led community aimed at helping women thrive in their careers. The program matches nearly 100 mentor-mentee pairs and is receiving more demand than spots available. These duos can work in the same or different departments and can be of mixed gender, too.
3. Hire and recognize high-potential female leaders
Companies must ensure women see a clear and attainable career path, and here the hiring process itself is a critical component.
When Redfin began diversifying its recruiting efforts, that company sought female candidates with nontraditional backgrounds for engineering roles. Supporting the idea of career pivots, Redfin created its own pipeline of talent by pulling candidates from its marketing team and teaching them the technical skills for the job.
At Splunk, we use special software to check gender bias within our job requirements language. If the wording slants toward male or female-biased language, the software sends it back to us for a re-write.
Next is the interview process itself: Once we get high-potential people in, we need to look for chances to expose them to career opportunities -- so they can potentially pivot in the same way I did. Within my senior leadership meetings, we rotate invitations to high-potential teammates to expose them to more critical decision-making.
4. Make diversity and inclusion a business priority, and explain the “why."
The notion of D&I in the workplace has been heavily socialized, but there are still people who question the benefits. According to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY, companies studied that had at least 30 percent female leadership had higher net profit margins (6 percent) than those with no women in senior ranks. Similarly, Catalyst recently reported that companies with higher levels of gender diversity were linked to lower levels of employee turnover.
We need to be talking about points like these as we discuss the “why.”
With support from chief diversity officers, we can make the tough process and behavioral changes that need to happen. We can also facilitate open discussions for our teams, to ensure they too understand the need for change.
5. Build your diversity and inclusion program into a competitive advantage.
At our company, we consider it important to empower employees at all levels to make decisions that put the customer first. That commitment results in measurable business gains.
We need to start thinking of D&I in the same way. There are actual, measurable, bottom-line benefits to a more diverse and inclusive workspace. Being able to show a genuine commitment to D&I is also becoming a critical factor for attracting and retaining top talent. According to research from Glassdoor, 67 percent of job-seekers studied said a diverse workforce was an important factor to them when considering companies and job offers.
When organizations hire people who think differently or come from various backgrounds, ethnicities or educations, teams approach problem-solving and innovation with different lenses and think beyond boundaries. The end result is success in new markets, improved market share, new streams of revenue and increased profitability.
Making our leaders accountable to D&I
D&I shouldn’t just be an acronym, nor should it be an HR "check the box" metric. We need to make it a leadership issue, with business-specific goals that ensure every team in the organization makes it a priority and a reality. Every leader within the organization needs to be held accountable. That’s when those open conversations happen across departments, giving leadership a chance to describe -- and sometimes defend -- the “why” at scale.
With this kind of accountability comes empowerment. That’s where real change happens.