BusinessWeek: Practical Ways to Get More Women to Lead Businesses

whitney_wadhwaStart by interviewing at least one woman for every open position. Anita Borg Institute head Telle Whitney and contributor Vivek Wadhwa offer suggestions

By Telle Whitney and Vivek Wadhwa

Last month\’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, with 2,150 mostly young women, was the largest gathering ever of women in computing in industry, academia, and government. The techies discussed the advantages of open-source development, the intricacies of computer language design and data visualization, as well as why investing in women entrepreneurs makes business sense. They left really excited about the potential to become software engineers, scientists, or entrepreneurs. Some received job offers from leading tech companies; all made valuable contacts.

The technology industry suffers from a dearth of women: Only 1 percent of high-tech startups have a woman CEO; there are almost no women in the ranks of chief technology officers; and to make matters worse, the proportion of women studying computer science has been steadily declining, from 37 percent in 1985 to 19 percent today, according to the National Science Foundation. The problem stems from the lack of encouragement that girls receive from their parents to study math and science, and gets worse when they join the workforce and get discouraged.

The Anita Borg Institute for Women & Technology has been working to remedy this situation. By providing aspiring women engineers and computer scientists with role models, helping them to network with each other, and showing them that they can succeed, the institute motivates women to enter computing and become technical leaders. It also works with organizations to change their culture to be more inclusive and diverse.

Widespread Problem

There is little doubt that the conference will inspire and motivate conference attendees to enter and stay in technology. But how do you fix the even more widespread problem that extends beyond technology: the dearth of women in all business sectors?

To start, companies need to build a culture of inclusion and diversity from the time they are small through their growth stages. In fact, small businesses that make diversity part of their hiring practices are the most likely to succeed and grow. This is what was discussed at the Anita Borg Technical Executive Forum held at the Grace Hopper Celebration—which had more than 65 executives from companies like Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), and Symantec (SYMC), as well as small businesses, in attendance. The group discussed the challenges their companies face in the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women technologists and the solutions to these challenges.

In the technology industry, in particular, success depends on hiring the best talent. Large businesses usually have a huge financial advantage over small businesses in that they can afford expensive headhunters, offer bonuses, and match above-market salaries to help them recruit top talent. But small businesses can level the playing field by hiring women—they represent an untapped source of talent. Consider the following practical strategies:

• Interview at least one woman for every open position. Simply making sure recruiting efforts include a diverse slate of candidates can substantially impact team composition. The focus should always be to hire the best person for the job regardless of gender. However, including qualified female candidates in the talent pool will make a difference. Executives the Anita Borg Institute works with have found this to be an effective lever to increase the representation of technical women in their organizations.

• Have at least one woman on the hiring team. Academic research has shown that people tend to hire those who are similar to them—therefore, the current demographics of the hiring team and company can influence the outcome of hiring.A female candidate will recognize that business values diversity if interviewers include men and women on the hiring team.More important, women on the hiring team should be part of the R&D department and in influential positions—a Stanford study of startup companies shows that having women in senior-level technical roles positively influences the hiring of more technical women.

• Focus on opportunities for growth. Small businesses are uniquely positioned to recruit women. One report by the Center for Work-Life Policy has shown that women at the mid-career stage are leaving large high-tech companies at twice the rate of their male colleagues. The report finds one of the reasons for this flight is a lack of opportunities for advancement and non-inclusive cultures. There are immense challenges to tackle when trying to win markets, sustain sales, and expand teams. Small businesses are uniquely suited to deal with these challenges by offering women more responsibility than they may have gotten in a large company.

• Emphasize flexibility. The Anita Borg Institute\’s research on seven large high-tech companies completed in collaboration with the Clayman Institute at Stanford University has shown that technical women are more likely to look for flexible work environments—most women in technology are in dual-career families and juggle the demands of work and family. While working in a small company typically includes long hours, recruit and retain top female talent by offering the opportunity to perform work on a flexible schedule and through virtual office arrangements.

• Understand numbers and unique needs. Studies show that innovation accelerates when there are diverse voices at the table—including diversity of gender, age, ethnic background, and expertise. For example, a study by the London Business School of more than 100 teams in companies found that teams with a gender balance had more creativity, efficiency, and employee satisfaction.Research by Scott Page of the University of Michigan shows that diverse teams are more creative and innovative than more homogenous teams.

At a time when technical talent in the U.S. is declining, particularly among women, last month\’s record conference brings hope for the long term. For those who are building businesses, there are specific steps that can bring more women to the table now.