There hasn’t been much progress around gender equality in tech, with the number of women working the technology sector hovering around 17% for the last 10 years. And now it looks like the numbers could actually drop, according to new research looking into the impact on gender from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fifty-seven percent of women tech leaders feel the pandemic has set gender roles back, while more than a third believe women’s roles have regressed 10-20 years as they shoulder the burden of home-schooling, work and household chores.
Fifty-four percent of respondents to the accelerateHER survey said COVID has made it more difficult for women to break into the tech industry, compared to only 32% who believe the same is true for men. Furthermore, half of women tech leaders said it is now more challenging than ever to secure a promotion, achieve a senior leadership position or get onto the board.
It's a UK study, but it can be reasonably assumed that the data will be reflected elsewhere. That being so, what can women in tech do to ensure they don’t get miss out on career progression in the post-COVID workplace? And what should businesses be doing to ensure there isn’t a decrease in the number of women working in technology?
It can be daunting to be in the room with people that don't look like you. Someone who has had plenty of experience in this respect is Peggy Alford, EVP, Global Sales at PayPal, who previously worked at eBay and was the first African-American woman to serve on Facebook’s board. She notes that it's really important to bring confidence to the game, even when you’re round a table with people who you feel have a lot more experience. She shared a piece of advice from her mentor, Nike CEO and PayPal chairman John Donahoe, who was the CEO of eBay when she worked with him and who mentored a number of women at the auction site. Alford explained:
He used to tell us about how, when he goes into a new room, he doesn't have a lot of confidence and he has to think about what value he’s bringing to the table. For me, that was tremendously helpful because when I look at him, I think, ‘How could he possibly not be confident?’. To hear that there are very successful people that maybe don't feel like they have a lot to offer, to keep that in mind has been tremendously helpful.
For Women of Color especially, seeking out a great mentor or sponsor can be vital, as the traditional pathways to success are not always open.Joanne Stephane, Principal, HR Strategy & Solutions US Leader and Chief DEI Officer, Human Capital at Deloitte Consulting, said between her training, learning and her drive, she found herself in consulting and has progressed up the career ladder because she is good at what she does:
But the thing that's made the difference honestly, is sponsorship. We know that sponsorship makes a difference for women and People of Color, in the absence of everything else that drives advancement, more than anything else. I've been fortunate enough to have sponsors who saw something in me, believed in me, put me in front of opportunities, advocated on my behalf, cleared paths for me.
This is something that the majority of white men get all the time and it's not maybe even noticed or thought about, but it's something that is more rare for women and People of Color. I've been very fortunate to have really powerful, strong sponsors. One man, one woman, who were leaders who were able to provide me with the sort of leadership or clarity I needed in order to step into what I needed to do. Every leader, regardless of their background, will tell you that the way they got to where they are is through strong sponsorship. I don't know one leader who would say that that's not true.
For her part, when Alford joined the board of Facebook, she came to realise the importance of giving yourself the time to learn in new situations. Asking for help and asking questions are the things that will add to your knowledge. There is no need to be the loudest voice in the room on day one, it’s better to have that time to just learn and absorb to find where you can add value:
I give that advice to people who are in new situations - allow yourself that learning time, don't be afraid to ask questions. I find a lot of times when you ask a question, four other people had the same question, even though you were thinking it was probably a dumb question to ask.
But it can’t just be left to individual women to support themselves and do all the hard work to foster a technology career. What should existing leaders and the wider business be doing to support female employees? This is where organizations need to start incorporating equity into their Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) strategies, approaching people differently depending on their needs rather than dealing with everyone the same way. It’s about treating every employee in the manner they want to be treated and addressing what they specifically need as individuals and a collective, rather than just providing everyone with the same things. Stephane explains:
It's so important to understand your colleagues and to be able to provide them with the platform or the support or the help that they actually need. Not everybody needs the same thing. Part of that is what we bring to the table just based on our experiences and where we come from. The absolute worst mistake is to make assumptions about people without really knowing their whole story.
As a leader, it is my job to make sure that I'm creating an environment where everyone can thrive, where they can bring what they're good at, what they're passionate about, what they need to do and I can provide them with the tools that they need to do it. And everybody needs different tools. So those that have historically not been able to advance or move around as much, we need to look at why that is and take steps to address that.
Firms also need to revisit their mentorship programs to ensure they are targeted at all staff, not just the senior levels, to ensure women are getting opportunities in the workplace. Alford noted that when people are asked who their sponsors or mentors were along the way, the expectation is of a long list of C-suite execs. Stephane learns from watching her CEO and peers on the leadership team, but there are also learnings and things that help build out her skillset from the people she sees and works with every day:
I have always found that the new roles that I'm taking or the next set of opportunity where I don't have experience, the expertise comes from your team and it comes from each of the members that enable you to learn in that new role and be successful. And that means that you have to empower the people on your team to be able to bring that expertise and teach the rest of the team.
I have just found that in each of the roles that I've taken along the way, my ability to ramp and grow and learn fast has come from empowering the people on my team, learning from them, letting their expertise shine, which then makes it so that I can bring what I bring to the table and what I bring to the team in order for all of us to be successful.
It’s a pretty depressing scenario that the proportion of women working in technology hasn’t really advanced over the past decade. And this is despite the last 10 years being some of the most exciting in the tech sector and the thriving digital career market meaning there are now such a wide range of jobs available across all vocations, not just those more technical ones of the past.
The pandemic has certainly led to more women being at home full-time, often with children around and home-schooling to manage, but it’s disappointing to find out how quickly this has affected women’s career options in the tech sector. It looks as if things may be going back to some kind of normal soon, so now is the time for firms to revisit their D&I strategies to make sure gender targets are not allowed to slip.