The role of men in the workplace should be much higher up the consideration process when it comes to shifting the gender imbalance in the technology industry, according to a group of influential women working in the sector.
At the Women in Tech World Series IWD roundtable, held in London last week, the overriding message was that it’s equally important to concentrate on how men are viewed in the workplace and making it possible for them to contribute in different ways, as it is to focus on attracting and retaining women.
Nasreen AbdulJaleel, technology director for platform at Expedia, said:
Getting much more flexible on gender roles, both in and outside the workplace, is key to seeing more women enter leadership, more men leave leadership and having both genders contribute in the home.
AbdulJaleel highlighted the 70 percent of women with a STEM background who leave the industry, attributing this partly to challenges with home structures rather than a lack of interest in the sector. She added:
How will I convince only a few thousand of those 70 percent to come and work at Expedia? Part of it is understanding what’s competing with it, what’s competing with this opportunity to work in the industry that’s going to change our world over the next few decades. Sometimes it is gender roles, the expectation that a woman’s work is at home and a rigid gender role for the men in that picture.
This is a major challenge, and requires a huge shift in societal structures. Even for women working full-time, it’s generally accepted and expected that their role at home is the one planning, organizing and bringing up the children.
Kate Miller, chief commercial officer at office catering startup City Pantry, would like to see a change here, with women instead expecting their partners to carry half the load. Paternity leave also needs to become an acceptable thing to do, rather than the assumption being that women will automatically be the ones to step away from their careers. She explained:
It’s also about asking men to ask for paternity leave. The amount of men that I know that say, well I’m given two weeks and that’s it. They don’t push it, they don’t even have the conversation with their boss. If they don’t step up to also try to equalize it, things won’t change.
I was asked time and time again who’s going to look after my kid. The attention went too far. This was at Google. All my managers were saying we want to welcome her back to the workforce, we want to make it work for her. But instead of asking me what was going to make it work, they had assumptions on how to make it work for me. It was a good intention but it was so misplaced.
AbdulJaleel also pointed to the ridicule and ego issues associated with ‘house husbands’, which need to be dispelled. Technology is an extremely flexible sector with much of the work suited to remote working, so there’s no reason both genders can’t benefit from taking advantage of home working while advancing their careers.
It’s an interesting notion, that to improve the position of women in tech the focus should shift to men. But this is exactly the message organizations like Avenir Consulting are promoting - that achieving gender balance is about men, not women.
Sereena Abbassi, head of Culture & Inclusion at M&C Saatchi, highlighted the importance of this approach, which is striving to create an environment where men are supported to better balance their careers with their home lives. Avenir uses statistics around male suicide rates, the likelihood of a man to stay in their job if they are given flexible working and the amount companies spend on recruitment as crucial data to empower men to be fathers.
This is what makes the movement for equal pay and pay equity so important, Abbassi said:
Until women are getting paid the same amount as men, it’s always going to be women who have to step down from careers. That has to be right up there on the agenda to address this.
Feeling the squeeze
Taking a more gender inclusive approach could also help overcome what Abbassi refers to as the middle squeeze in the workplace. If you’re of any type of minority, there might be opportunities at the junior to mid-tier levels but as soon as you try to get to a senior role, the ladder disappears. She added:
How do we create and cultivate an environment where difference stays? I don’t think enough work’s being done there. It still feels very much like a tick box exercise. It’s not easy, it’s much bigger than industry. It’s a societal change, a cultural change that has to happen.
The tech industry might find all these recommendations harder to put into practice than other sectors, however, as a feeling (mistakenly) prevails that there are already equal opportunities for all. Miller explained:
Take Google – their mission is to make the world’s information available to everyone. Meritocracy is in line with that, it’s opportunity for everyone. It’s very easy to put them together and want to believe in that.
But it makes it much harder for employees to know what they have to do to develop and move up. Not only does it create the myth of everyone has the same opportunity, it doesn’t help someone think through what are the steps I need to do to continue to move because actually there is a ladder but maybe it’s hidden. That’s one of the big challenges.
This makes it vital that organizations create transparent pathways up to leadership level. Alicia Skubik, marketing leader at Intuit, said:
There’s a need for creating frameworks and making it very clear on the paths to promotion, having clear levels, the steps you require. At every level, these are specific behaviours that get you there, which starts to open up what it takes.
I’ve been covering women in technology for over 15 years, and it’s rare to hear the debate include the role of men from this aspect; generally it’s more about encouraging them to support diversity programs.
Perhaps this change in tack might finally lead to a meaningful shift in the number of women working in the technology sector and taking leadership roles. I’m particularly interested in, and in support of, AbdulJaleel’s comment around seeing more men leaving leadership roles as a way of tackling the gender imbalance.
I can certainly see how this type of gender inclusive approach would be useful for women already in the sector looking to progress to senior roles, or those considering technology as a career change; but efforts are still needed to get young women and female students interested in tech careers at school and university level, to ensure a healthy pipeline.