When will Silicon Valley #makeithappen for women in IT?

SUMMARY:

On the back of this weekend’s International Women’s Day, Jessica Twentyman speaks to MetricStream CEO Shellye Archambeau about tackling the tech industry’s diversity gap

womens dayThis year, the theme of International Women’s Day was ‘Make it Happen’. I love this theme, and its accompanying Twitter hashtag #makeithappen, with their focus on female ambition, action and achievement. I’m a big fan.

At the same time, I’m frustrated. What’s it going to take to ‘make it happen’ for women in the IT industry? This year, it’s been 20 years since I started covering the sector. At times, the pace of change feels painfully slow. At others, it feel positively glacial.

If you doubt the extent of the tech industry’s diversity gap, just check out this visualisation, based on data recently released to the public by leading Silicon Valley companies and put together by data journalist David McCandless of Information is Beautiful.

So yes, we’ve got women at the top of Silicon Valley companies like IBM, HP and Oracle. And yes, Intel recently announced a $300 million ‘diversity pledge’ to boost the number of female and minority employees in its workforce by 2020.

But the experience of working in an industry isn’t defined solely by its high-profile appointments and its flagship initiatives. The speech and behaviour of the rank-and-file count for a lot, too.

Think, for example, about ’brogrammer’ humor and GamerGate’s rape threats.

Think about the grubbier details of alleged harassment emerging from Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

And don’t forget about ‘booth babes’, a seemingly immutable aspect of the IT conference scene. Even now, in 2015, for goodness’ sake.

Make IT happen

So how do we ‘make it happen’ for women in IT? Are quotas the way forward? More mentoring opportunities?

In search of answers, I spoke with Shellye Archambeau, CEO at governance, risk and compliance software company, MetricStream. As a female, African-American CEO working in Silicon Valley, Archambeau has done more than most to ‘make it happen’ in her own career. She also sits on the boards of directors at retailer Nordstrom and communications company Verizon, as well as Watermark,  a non-profit organisation that advocates for the advancement of women in the workforce.

What does Archambeau think of the idea of quotas? Frankly, she’s not keen:

The problem with quotas is, where do you stop? OK, so you say we want to get the ratio right, make them more representative of society: women make up x percent of the population so they should have x percent of the roles. African Americans make up x percent, so we’ll give x percent of roles to them. Then there’s Hispanics, and Asians, and Indian-born engineers.

You can keep going forever with this, but what will you actually accomplish? I’m just not sure how you can set quotas in any kind of meaningful way. And once you set them, does that mean you never go over those numbers? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

So no, establishing quotas is not the best way to resolve this issue; a quota can be misinterpreted as a ‘check list’, versus embracing a true strategic approach to improving diversity. Instead, I believe in setting hiring goals and then tracking and reporting on those goals, and bringing focus and transparency to the process.

Shellye Archambeau
Shellye Archambeau

This isn’t just a matter of doing the right thing for society, according to Archambeau. It’s a question of good business sense, too – and company leaders that don’t tackle their organisations’ lack of diversity are cheating themselves, their investors, their employees and their customers, she says.

There’s no question in my mind that diversity is important to business outcome. There are hundreds of studies that show that it is. It’s been proven. At MetricStream, diversity has been a big part of how we’ve built the company, because I’m a big believer that it’s important to get the best thoughts and the best ideas, and the way you do that, quite frankly, is by bringing together people with different experiences and perspectives. If everyone takes a slightly different view of a business issue, what you end up is a stronger approach to tackling it.

But we all have a responsibility for making this happen, for holding companies to account. Many of us are investors. All of us are customers. We all need to be asking questions of companies and help raise their awareness, so that they start doing what you’d expect them to do.

Mentors

When it comes to mentoring, the challenge is how to find a mentor when there’s a real lack of senior women to model yourself on? Archambeau says it’s a question of thinking more broadly than that:

People tend to feel more comfortable with people they feel they share experiences with – I get that. But what I would say is that anyone can be a mentor. Don’t limit yourself to people you feel are very similar to you. I’ve had lots of mentors myself who were males as well as females. Look beyond that. Look instead for people with experiences and perspectives that you can learn from, that you would find valuable.

International Womens Day, according to its organisers, is about “celebrating women’s achievements, while calling for greater equality.” That’s a message Archambeau can get behind:

Looking back on my own career, I’ve seen all too often minority and women executives who become discouraged by what might seems as a difficult and largely unchartered career path.

But broadly speaking, she’s optimistic about Silicon Valley diversity, even at a time when there’s much hand-wringing and soul-searching going on.

I’m encouraged. There’s more discussion going on around this topic and it’s bringing these issues to front of people’s minds. If Silicon Valley wasn’t thinking about this before, it’s certainly thinking about it now.

The good news is that there are people out there and companies out there who are setting good examples. So we need to keep highlighting them and showing the difference they make and I think there can be changes. Like I said, awareness is really important here.