Holding on to the best women in tech - some top tips from tech women

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 16, 2017
It may be difficult enough as it is to recruit women into a tech role, but for many employers, it is just as tricky to keep hold of them once they are there. Here are some possible solutions to this persistent problem.

While it is all very well introducing initiatives to attract and recruit women into the tech workforce, cultural change is required at a deep level within many IT companies if they are to succeed in retaining their female talent over time.

According to an updated report from the US National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) entitled ‘Women in Tech: The facts’, females accounted for a quarter of all computing-related occupations in 2015. This figure has been in steady decline since hitting a 36% high in 1991, although interestingly women’s participation in other sciences has increased significantly over the same period.

To make matters worse for the tech industry though, while four out of five females in science, engineering and technology (SET) report “loving their work”, by the mid-point in their career (after 10 to 20 years), more than half have decided to leave their employer.

But attrition rates are higher in the tech sector than elsewhere, with more than twice as many women (41%) than men (17%) choosing to go elsewhere. Females in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas are also more likely to quit in the first few years of their career than women in non-STEM professions.

Interestingly, nearly half of all females who left SET private sector employers went on to take up technical roles in other areas such as non-profit, government or start-up organisations. Just under a third moved on to non-SET jobs, sometimes at the same company, but more often at a different one. Only 20% left to take time out of the workforce, which would appear to fly in the face of accepted wisdom that women leave these kinds of jobs for family reasons.

Instead the NCWIT report cited a number of areas for apparent concern, the most significant of which was ‘workplace experiences’. Gripes here included not enough opportunities for training and development, lack of managerial support, particularly when trying to balance work and other competing responsibilities, and undermining behaviour from managers.

Another common issue was the fact that women frequently found it difficult to get into innovative technical roles. This meant they often felt unable to make a meaningful contribution, which led to a drop in job satisfaction levels.

Gender imbalance

A study by Microsoft entitled ‘Why don’t European girls like science or technology?’ also found that 60% of the 11,500 women and girls aged 11 to 30 in 12 countries that it questioned were put off due to the marked gender imbalance in STEM professions – a situation that inevitably causes a rather unfortunate Catch-22.

But the lack of female role models, whether in relation to senior managers or peer groups is a recurring problem. As Sarah Drinkwater, Google’s head of campus in London, says:

A lot of women don’t want to work all hours so as a company founder, you have to think about how you work. It’s harder to build diverse teams if everyone uses geeky language and wears hoodies.

Put another way, the secret to retaining female staff is to create an inclusive culture where women do not feel like square pegs in round holes or that they come from another planet. Debbie Forster, director of specialist consultancy Novel Design, explains:

It’s not just about changing recruitment practices and what’s happening in the early stages. It also has to be about the five year, 10 year and 15 year stages too. They’re all part of the same system and you can’t just cut it up and hope it works. You have to look at the entire pipeline.

But to get it right requires both a top down and bottoms up approach, according to Priya Lakhani, founder and chief executive of Century Tech, which sells artificial intelligence (AI)-based education software. She continues:

It’s about strong leadership and a few pioneers who will spread your ethos and build a community. It can be challenging to stick to your values further down the line, if for example, someone is doing great work, but they don’t really embody your values. But it can’t be just one [that is top down or bottoms up] – you need both or you won’t get the follow through.

Women’s groups

What Zara Farrar, senior creative producer at the Government Digital Service, which is leading the UK government’s digital transformation, did to make the culture she worked in more inclusive, however, was to set up a women’s support group. It started with “small things”, but focused on a number of key elements:

  • Being a voice for women in the organisation
  • Providing networking opportunities to help with relationship-building and career development
  • Holding six-monthly workshops to discuss what kind of experiences were good or bad and which activities were working or not.

These discussions led to the creation of a document recounting some “pretty negative stuff”, which was presented to senior management The management team said it had been unaware of the issues and gave its support –both financially and emotionally

Key requests included having a champion on the management team to back the group and “create a space to get things done”; ensuring all job interview panels were mixed in both gender and ethnicity terms, and committing to send equal numbers of males and females to speak at conferences. While 75% of presenters were initially male, this figure has now dropped to 58%. The organisation now employs 250 women out of a total 800 tech staff, or 31.25% compared with a UK national average of 17%.

Meanwhile, in order to ensure these kind of groups work effectively, Google’s Drinkwater, who is a member of the [email protected] initiative, recommended several approaches:

  • Working out and being clear what your goals are.
  • Gaining sponsorship from a senior-level advocate.
  • Involving men rather than just organising single gender events.
  • Providing education via fireside chats, external speakers and internal advocates.

Sheridan Ash, director of technology and investments at management consultancy PwC, believes, on the other hand, that while setting up such groups and “getting the basics right” is positive – she started a ‘women in technology’ programme about three years ago as she was “fed up being the only woman in meetings” – a two-pronged approach to increasing female representation is ultimately more effective. This involves working with partners such as Microsoft and Google, the government and education sector in a bid to shift attitudes at all levels too. She concludes:

This is a societal problem, which means individual companies can’t solve it on their own. So it’s about getting together with government and policy makers to try and effect wider change.

My take

Culture is a notoriously difficult thing to change, but the overriding impression is that unless such change is made, tech companies are going to continue to struggle in diversity terms, putting them at a disadvantage in the current fierce war for talent.

One research initiative that could well prove interesting in this context has been initiated by Hilary Simpson, who heads up solutions delivery for the government innovation team at Nesta, which was set up to promote innovation in the UK. She is trying to find out more about how women are treated in the tech industry, not least because “a substantial minority are affected by behaviour, which affects retention”. To take part in the ‘Gender Equality in the Workplace’ survey, go here.

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