4 Things Tech Execs Can Do Right Now to Shrink the Industry’s Gender Gap

By: Fullstack Staff

It’s no secret there is appalling gender inequality within the tech industry. A 2018 report by Entelo found that a mere 18 percent of tech roles are filled by women—and the gap gets even wider the higher up the ladder you go. At senior levels, the figure drops to 16 percent. At executive levels, it’s an abysmal 10 percent.

And those figures hold steady despite the fact that it’s also no secret that gender diversity is a huge business advantage. One of our recent articles highlighted the economic benefits a more equitable workplace brings, with the bottom line being that gender diversity is good for an organization’s—you guessed it—bottom line.

It’s clear that awareness of the issue and why it should be remedied isn’t enough. More needs to be done to combat sexism if the gender gap is to shrink—and it needs to be done by those at the top, those who have the most power. It is the responsibility of tech executives to take the necessary steps to actively hire more women, remove unconscious bias from their organizations, and create a workplace culture that fosters and rewards gender inclusion. 

Here are four ways they can do just that.

1. Start By Listening

Firms need to hire more women in order to decrease the gender gap—but that may not be as straightforward as it seems. After all, actively trying to recruit more women is no guarantee that women will actually want to work for your organization.

At Techworld, Emer Coleman and Charlotte Jee challenge tech organizations to make sure that what they are offering women actually matches up to what women are looking for. And what are they looking for? Coleman and Jee surveyed more than 50 women to find out firsthand:

  • A diverse senior leadership team. Women want to see that a company’s leaders aren’t all white men.
  • Data and processes concerning diversity, fairness, salary, promotions, and appraisals. Businesses need to prove that staff are treated equally.
  • In particular, women want proof there is no gender pay gap at a given company.
  • Clarity around flexible work arrangements, maternity leave, and company culture. Be upfront and forthcoming. In traditional (read: male-dominated) work culture, women are largely made to feel that their biology (i.e. the specter of pregnancy, then ultimately maternity leave and ongoing family responsibilities) is a liability. They are therefore discouraged from bringing up these considerations so as not to remind others of their “weakness.” Even if your workplace does not subscribe to this way of thinking, women will undoubtedly have been subjected to it elsewhere. So instead of making anyone, man or woman, ask for the specifics of their own benefits, take steps to eliminate confusion, anxiety, and emotional labor by providing documentation and a thorough onboarding for everyone.

Recruitment consultant Navreet Singh also recommends organizations spend time understanding how aspirations and work styles differ between men and women. While they may be the same, that won’t always be the case and companies shouldn’t assume it is. “In my experience in the tech sector, I’ve found that many women find travel time, location, work flexibility, and an inclusive work environment to be essential factors when selecting a job that is the right fit for them,” Singh says.

Female-identifying tech workers change jobs less frequently than men because the risks are higher, Coleman and Jee write. Women have to be certain it’s the right step for their career before making a move, and it’s the job of hiring managers to prove their companies are worth the leap by highlighting how the company lines up with what matters to them.

Women tech execs closing the gender gap

2. Uncover and Eliminate Unconscious Biases

Even in companies that do consciously try to hire more women, unconscious biases can still influence their outcomes.

Gianna Scorsone, senior VP of marketing and sales at Mondo, says identifying, addressing, and mitigating these biases can have a huge impact on the retention rates for women in tech. Scorsone suggests one way to uncover hidden biases is to involve more women in the hiring process. Diversifying perspectives at the hiring table can uncover previously hidden biases, particularly those in the job description itself that may turn women off at the very top of the hiring funnel. 

Male-orientated job descriptions are certainly a deterrent, says Debbie Forster, chief executive of Tech Talent Charter. Case in point: Tech job ads have a tendency to ask for “ninjas” and “techies.” “Not a lot of women I know would describe themselves as a ‘ninja,’” Forster says. “They get the impression that they would just be walking into a boys’ club.”

Case Study: How Etsy Identified and Tackled Its Unconscious Hiring Biases

Unconscious biases can bleed into interviews, too, something Marc Hedlund, head engineer at Etsy, found out the hard way. When Hedlund arrived at the company, he found only three women on his team of more than 100 developers—despite the fact that the vast majority of Etsy’s users are women.

Hedlund wanted to fix this. His first step was to observe that “retrofitting a woman or minority population is like trying to retrofit unit testing.” In other words, it is almost impossible to identify where an issue originates. Almost impossible, but not quite. Hedlund began poring over Etsy’s recruitment process step by step. Initially, his strategy was to make huge individual efforts to identify great female coders and invite them to interview. This worked, but it was far from efficient and only connected with coders who self-identified as women on social networking sites.

So Hedlund turned his attention to the interview process, where he scrutinized the tendency for tech firms, including Etsy, to conduct whiteboard interviews, in which candidates have to program by hand on a whiteboard in front of interviewers. “The fact is, we don’t hire people to code on whiteboards,” Hedlund said. “That’s more about performance art—and it’s confrontational. Conceivably, then, it’s also gender-biased.”

He scrapped the whiteboarding practice and replaced it with a pair programming exercise in which candidates work with current Etsy engineers on actual problems. The change drew immediate results: Etsy hired one engineer a week for around a year after the change, half of which were female.

Case Study: How Atlassian Increased Hiring of Women for Technical Roles

Etsy isn’t the only tech company taking steps to remove unconscious biases. Atlassian’s Aubrey Blanche managed to increase female hires by 80 percent in her first year as Global Head of Diversity Inclusion. She started by dropping the pretense that Atlassian was a meritocracy.

While much of male-centric Silicon Valley prides itself on being a meritocracy in which only the most competent workers rise to the top, Blanche says, the data just doesn’t support that notion. Blanche points to findings by MIT which show that while 20 percent of technical degrees are awarded to women, women make up fewer than 20 percent of engineering jobs.

In buying into the myth that their companies are meritocracies, managers are less aware of their own biases and therefore less likely to root them out. So these managers—overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, raised in a system of white patriarchy and implicitly biased—continue hiring people like themselves. They reason that if they themselves got hired in a merit-based system, it must have been because they were the best for the job, fallaciously concluding that hiring someone else just like themselves is therefore the best way to ensure competence in a new hire, when in fact they are actually just perpetuating bias. Blanche confirms that these managers tend to hire more white men.

Rather than saying Atlassian already was a meritocracy, Blanche encouraged staff to say they were trying to create a meritocracy. This shifted the mentality and forced managers to scrutinize their unconscious biases at every single candidate touchpoint. The number of female hires at Atlassian increased significantly as a result, to the point where one entry-level engineering cohort was 57 percent female.

Women on laptop, reading about the tech exec gender gap

3. Create the Right Work Environment

Both toxic masculinity in the workplace and societal pressures inhibit women’s careers. According to political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, women are opting out of senior positions because they feel pressured to choose between their families and work. Executives need to create an equitable workplace where everyone, regardless of gender, has support and access to opportunities.

Research by AnitaB.org, a leading nonprofit for the advancement of women in tech, bolsters Slaughter’s view. The organization found flexible working arrangements to be one of the most important policies when it came to both retention and advancement of female employees.

That’s why Manon DeFelice calls a flexible work environment the “one surefire way that tech companies can attract more women right now.” The founder and CEO of Inkwell, a startup that places accomplished professionals in high-level positions, DeFelice believes flexible policies such as remote work hours are key to increasing the number of senior women in tech.

The True Value of Flexibility

Flexible work doesn’t just draw more women into an industry; it also retains the women already employed there.

Laszlo Bock, formerly the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, points to the impact on retention that increasing maternity leave from three months to five months has had. Under the old allowance, women who came back to work after maternity leave quit at twice the rate of male colleagues. With five months leave, however, the rate is now even.

While offering an additional two months of leave costs the company more money in the short term, the long-term results the additional leave achieves, Bock says, more than pay for the time off. After all, two extra months of parental leave still costs less than recruiting and onboarding a brand new hire.

That’s exactly why Katharine Zaleski, president and co-founder of PowerToFly.com, urges executives to explicitly discuss during interviews policies a company has specifically implemented to make the workplace as fair as possible. “My colleagues and I often see companies work to make themselves appealing to candidates by emphasizing perks like Ping-Pong tables, retreats and policies that let employees bring their dogs to work,” she notes.

“Those things can be appealing to candidates of any gender. But one size doesn’t fit all: We have to tell these companies to talk just as proudly about their parental-leave policies, child-care programs and breast-pumping rooms. At the very least, they need to communicate that their workplaces have cultures where women are valued.”

Better Methods of Gauging Performance

Executives must also consider that everyone has different approaches when it comes to work and leadership, and those executives must adapt company policies and processes, such as performance metrics and managerial reviews, to reflect this.  

Anu Mandapati, founder of IMPACT Leadership for Women, says some companies need to re-evaluate how they measure performance. A good starting point? Rewarding outcomes rather than hours worked. Shifting the focus to what an employee achieves, rather than how long they spend at the office, allows employees to accomplish tasks in the way that works best for them and often enables them to be more productive than they would be otherwise.

Consultant Julie P. Kantor believes that women have different leadership styles than men, and companies should account for different modes of leadership during their managerial reviews. She points out that while men are comfortable with hierarchy, women lead in democratic ways, advocating for their team rather than standing out as leaders. This should be recognized by incorporating team productivity and performance metrics into women’s managerial reviews—and rewarding that kind of management style the same way we reward individual leadership. 

That’s a great first step, but those kinds of reviews shouldn’t apply only to women. Executives should incorporate those team-oriented metrics into all managers’ reviews. Historically, in the absence of aligned reward structures and consensus-building mechanisms, patriarchal norms have flourished, and holding all managers accountable to more diverse kinds of review may help to disrupt the pattern.

4. Build in Systematic Advantages

Be prepared to handle objections when you propose cultural changes in the workplace. There will always be those who say programs and incentives that exclusively benefit women are sexist.

But “women do need at least one helping hand in light of the many hands that have held them down for so long,” say Fullstack Academy’s David Yang and Nimit Maru. In other words, women and people of color do in fact still need systematic advantages to combat the systematic disadvantages that have held them back for centuries.

And the idea that a program intended specifically to empower women will ultimately benefit only those women is flawed. A white patriarchal system is unhealthy for men, too, and certainly unhealthy for people of color. Investing in equity for one group of people should set the precedent to do the same for others, and making the system more equitable for one makes it more equitable for all.

Protiviti’s Susan Haseley and Gordon Tucker affirm that it will take “bold” female-focused initiatives to increase the number of women in tech. In particular, they advocate special training specifically for female tech professionals to decrease attrition rates. They also highlight the importance of mapping out a clear path to progression and actively encouraging women to pursue leadership roles.

These programs are important in the workplace, but they also need to be implemented outside of the office and in schools. Dell’s Anne Shaw notes that many companies will partner with organizations that support women who code, such as Girls Who Code and Fullstack Academy’s Grace Hopper Program, in order to address the gender gap. Doing so, Shaw says, helps to support and inspire women to enter the world of technology in the first place.

The World Economic Forum estimates that tech’s gender gap won’t disappear for another 170 years or so—but that demoralizing prediction doesn’t necessarily have to become reality. Tech executives have a responsibility to demonstrate actual leadership by taking action to make sure the gender gap closes much, much faster than that.

Fullstack Academy’s Grace Hopper Program is one way we are working to address gender inequality within tech. We offer women and non-binary programmers the opportunity to train now at our top-ranked coding bootcamp, and pay tuition only once they’ve found full-time work in software engineering. Apply today and help us change the face of the industry.

Images by: rawpixel, Brooke Cagle

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