Better flexible working practises could solve many of the challenges around recruiting and retaining women in technology, according to an expert panel speaking at a recent Levelling Up Women event hosted by Supermums.
There is also a disconnect between what attracts women to technology careers initially, and their subsequent experiences working in the sector that needs to be overcome. This became clear to Alana Karen, Director of Search Platforms at Google, during the process of researching her book ‘Adventures of Women in Tech’.
One of the questions Karen asked the 80 women she interviewed was what they liked about working in tech. Their answers were broadly similar and fit into four themes:
- The opportunity to change the world and make a difference.
- The opportunity to grow, thrive and progress in their career.
- A culture that matched their values and how they wanted to experience the world.
- Financial circumstances, with jobs in tech tending to be more lucrative.
However, as the women progressed through their career, typically where they struggled was the jobs or organizations weren't supporting those things that drew them to tech in the first place. This was for various reasons - the jobs started to stagnate and the growth opportunities weren't there; managers didn’t foster a great culture leading to a bad experience; over time, the work didn’t give them a feeling they were making a difference; or some of the pay raises had stopped. Karen added:
The people just felt stuck, especially when they had competing demands at home, and thought is this worth it? Those were the things that I saw were real levers. Sometimes people like the easy culprits - and I don't mean any of this is easy - but they'll just go straight to - they became mothers and left, or they were in a toxic environment so they left, but we're fine.
When asked if they could change one thing in tech, what would it be, the most frequent comment was around flexible working. Karen noted that she interviewed the women pre-Covid in 2019, hence the flexible working arrangements firms are offering now were less available.
When Karen first started to write the book, she was apprehensive about the prospect of women being convinced to stay in tech jobs:
There's a common stat quoted that 56% of women leave tech mid-career. It's actually from a pretty old study, originally in 2008, and it focused specifically on science, engineering and technical roles. So it doesn't necessarily fully embrace the broader set of women working in technology if you think about finance, legal or sales roles, all of these less technical roles. But it is one that gets quoted very often and there's some corroborating data.
Certainly I've seen over time women leave the company that I'm in, so I was a bit worried that if I interview a set of women, I would find out we're all going to leave soon.
However, those fears turned out to be unfounded. While Karen uncovered risks around the likelihood of women leaving their tech jobs, in terms of over half being guaranteed to leave, her research revealed that is a high stat against the reality now:
I specifically talked with some women who had left tech. Maybe the one surprise is none of them were just saying - today I'm leaving tech. It wasn't exactly that women can't thrive in tech, it was more that they made a decision at some point in their career, and it was either for family means or a different passion they were pursuing, and it drew them away from tech.
One woman left Google, but worked for a while at a retailer on the tech side and then had to leave because there wasn't flexible working. Given some of what's emerging now with both flexible time and flexible locations, maybe she'll return. It was reassuring to see that we weren't building an environment where you could predictively say you will lose half of these women.
At Salesforce, flexible working means more than just having a couple of days working from home each week. Staff are able to work from anywhere and have flexibility over their working hours, whether that’s doing the school run, having a hard stop at 4.45, or having the freedom to be away from their desk at another time of day. Rebecca Komodikis, Senior Customer Success Manager in Marketing Cloud and Co-Chair of Salesforce Women’s Network, explained:
We're empowered to be the leaders of our own calendar.
Komodikis, who came back from maternity leave just under a year ago, has taken advantage of a Salesforce scheme aimed at women returners herself. On her return, she was able to work four days a week for the first month, while still receiving full pay during this period. Komodikis said:
Anyone working in the Salesforce ecosystem can tell you that change is the only constant. Being out of the business for a year, I found it difficult coming back, but having that mentorship coming back and that license to do four days in five for the first month, until I get my feet under the table, my head above the water, was really critical.
Ensuring that women who take time out of work aren’t overlooked for promotions is another way companies can retain female employees. When Komodikis came back from her maternity leave, it was under a new manager:
I was hoping that I was due for promotion coming back from maternity leave, and found it a little bit daunting that my manager didn't know me. But we're given the license to go and gain feedback from our sponsors around the organization, rather than just honing in on one person's view of your progress over time, which, in my scenario, my manager wasn't aware of because I didn't work for him before I left. It's something very transparent at Salesforce and allows us to retain talent because we're constantly promoting that transparency within the process.
Flexible working is also treated as a vital aspect of the retention challenge at consulting firm Slalom, which employs over 11,000 people across 41 locations. Anisha Kaur, Senior Delivery Principle and co-lead of Slalom’s Aspire Asian network, says employers need to embrace the fact this means different things to different people: it may be a reduced working week, a reduced working day or the flexibility to switch off in the middle and come back to something later. And where staff do four-day weeks, this shouldn’t be treated as a compressed five-day week. Kaur said:
I want to emphasize on that point - it is just a four-day week, and the fifth day, the person's off. Where somebody comes back from maternity leave and they've decided to start off with a four-day return, if there's a meeting that accidentally comes in on their day off, it's a no. Management support that, your people leader supports that. We can reshuffle the meeting or a colleague can attend to make sure that person doesn't feel the pressure that they have to be available on that day.
This focus on truly flexible working is helping Slalom see an increase in women joining the business. In 2021, 38% of new UK hires were females, up from 31% in 2019; from a global perspective, it’s 40%, up from 36% in 2019.
Within the Salesforce team that Kaur works in, there are currently 23 women and 38 men; later in March, this will increase to 25 women and 39 men. The leadership team for Slalom’s Salesforce practise is headed by a woman, and comprises five women and four men.
However, it isn’t the numbers that are driving Slalom. Kaur added:
It's not the target stats that we're chasing. We're chasing changing mindsets, changing behaviors, because anybody can do the tick box and say, I want to recruit x number or I want to get my percentage up to x. These numbers are reflective of the changes we are making at the foundation by doing the right training, having the right conversations, having the right group set-up to raise questions, to challenge things that ultimately drive these numbers.
Rather than looking too much at the end result and the number they want to hit, Kaur added, firms should instead focus on what steps they need to take, and start changing what needs changing.