Wall Street Journal: Keeping Women in the Tech Workforce

Anita Borg conference1Once women are hired, the challenge for businesses becomes retaining them.

A problem women commonly face when they join an industry is feeling marginalized and discriminated against. They leave the workforce midcareer. A report by the Anita Borg Institute noted that women leave technology companies at twice the rate at which men do. The key reasons are poor working conditions for women, lack of work–life balance, uninteresting work and bad organizational climate.

Here is what needs to be done:

Managers need to be trained and held responsible. As the Anita Borg Institute report notes, for women in technical roles, managerial support is especially important as women often experience unconscious bias and additional barriers to advancement. Since managers have such a strong influence on the retention of women in technical roles, it is essential that management training and development incorporate tools to actively encourage collaboration, inclusiveness and diversity. Achievement of retention goals should be part of a manager’s performance evaluation, and managers should be given incentives to take an interest in the professional development of the women technologists.

Corporate culture needs to be open and collaborative. Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute says women often suffer negative consequences when they express a new or different view. She says that by developing a culture that encourages diverse ideas and perspectives, companies will not only improve job satisfaction for women in technical roles, but will also benefit from fresh ideas and approaches to solving important problems.

Institute flexible work policies. Companies need to provide both women and men with the ability to take time off for parenting and family, to work from home, and to have flexible work schedules. Parents should not have to apologize or feel guilty if a child is sick and they need to rush to school.

Create effective complaint channels.  For issues of harassment and discrimination, employers need to eliminate formal mechanisms that require investigations, in favor of informal ombudsmen, mentors and trusted individuals who can offer practical, problem-solving advice.  According to Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, these need to be side by side with formal mechanisms that document how investigations are conducted and resolutions achieved. It is also important to designate who is responsible for handling complaints.

Sensing, monitoring, and feedback mechanisms. Klein says companies need to frequently run customized and anonymous surveys on quality of work life, conduct exit interviews and periodic pulse surveys on topics and maintain anonymous feedback channels. Well-designed surveys are early-warning signals, and good data mining lets the company identify systemic biases, she says. In addition, assignments, promotions, performance evaluations all need to systematically monitored. Is there subtle bias in the process?  Who are the decision-makers?

All of this needs to come from the top down. Corporate executives must take ownership for increasing technical women’s participation. If they don’t, it won’t happen.  Managers must review data at every level of the pipeline with the executive management.  What you measure you will change.

One final note.  It is important to recognize the changing demographics in the U.S. Too often a focus on “women” has meant affluent, white women—who will not be the majority of the female candidate pool.  We need to make sure that company culture and practices are welcoming to African American women, Latinas  and Asian American women.  They are an important part of the future of innovation and of the future of this country.

Link to article on Wall Street Journal’s website