by Sharon Florentine

What women want in the IT workplace: 6 key factors for hiring and retention

Nov 01, 201911 mins
Diversity and InclusionIT LeadershipStaff Management

Women are exiting IT in droves, as companies struggle to hire and engage these valuable employees. The first step to change? Listening to what women want.

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Credit: thomasandreas / Getty Images

What do women want at work? The same things every worker wants: fair pay, flexibility and the ability to work on projects that fuel their passion and make a difference — not just in the workplace, but in the world at large. And if your organization also offers growth potential and boasts successful female role models on your leadership teams, then you’ve got a formula for attracting, hiring and retaining the best women technologists available today.

“Women aren’t looking for different things than men; that’s a stereotype,” says Michelle Bailey, global vice president, general manager, and research fellow at IDC. “Men are actually looking for more paternity leave, flex time, work-life balance. Everyone wants to be paid fairly, they want flexibility, they want meaningful work. Tech is quite mature now, so everyone understands that if you’re working eighty hours a week, something’s wrong.”

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While that is true in the main, a closer look at what women want from tech employment highlights significant differences in what women face in the workplace and how employers can evolve their practices to foster an environment where women will want to work and will thrive.

Compensation (and equal pay)

According to the recent IDC research study Women in Technology: Diversity, Inclusion and the Future of Work, when asked what factors are most important as a measure of a successful job or career, compensation topped the list for women and men. But whereas only 39 percent of men surveyed said it was their top concern, 52 percent of women did — a likely result of the persistence of the gender pay gap in tech.

More than 40 years after Equal Pay act of 1963, white women still make 0.79 to a man’s dollar, on average. Black women, Hispanic/Latinas and Native American women make even less compared to a white male’s salary; 0.62 cents, 0.58 cents and 0.58 cents, respectively, to a white man’s dollar. Often, women don’t negotiate as often or as successfully as men do, even when negotiating pay for the same job. Women are disproportionately dropping out of the workforce to raise children, and are facing obstacles to reentry. Women are consciously or unconsciously discriminated against. Women also tend to leave the IT industry when faced with misogyny and harassment. Regardless of why, a gender pay gap does exist.

Work/life balance and flexibility

Millennials seek flexibility in the workplace, and more men are demanding flexible work schedules, paternity leave and perks that help balance work and family life, but the truth is that women are still responsible for the lion’s share of “second shift” responsibilities: child care, housework and the like, and are more likely to drop out of the workforce to care for children.

The IDC research shows that while work/life balance is a top concern for both women and men, women focus on flexibility in their schedules more than men do, with 24 percent of women saying this is a top concern compared to 16 percent of men.

A recent study shows that even when women return to work after having children, they often feel pushed out and unsupported; in fact, in the U.S., the lack of paid family leave and child care assistance is not only forcing women out of the workforce, it’s detrimental to their wages and potential earnings growth, too. Flexibility — including remote work options, flex-time, paid leave and child care support — is key to retaining women in the workplace.

Meaningful work

One of the top motivating factors for women in technology is the opportunity to do meaningful work, Bailey says. That means having an impact not just on the company, but on end users and the local communities of which the company is a part.

“The job has to have a mission,” Bailey says. “These are incredibly smart, intelligent people who understand that their work and technology as a whole has big consequences for the local communities; it absolutely shouldn’t create more issues of inequality. They have to give back or ‘change the world’ in some way.”

Giving employees the chance to work on “passion projects” is one way to keep them engaged and excited about the work they’re doing, says Elizabeth Ames, formerly senior vice president of programs, marketing and alliances at the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), a nonprofit that seeks to advance women in technology, and currently CEO at Women in Product. “One of ABI’s partner companies did a test recently where they let internal employees ‘freelance’ within the company; to choose which projects they wanted to work on. They were skeptical at first,” thinking surely employees would work fewer hours and be less productive when given more freedom, Ames says. The results were the opposite.

“The employees worked longer hours and were much more engaged and passionate about their work, and the work was done quickly and with an efficient use of resources,” says Ames. That approach can maximize all your available talent, not just women.

Opportunities for advancement

For working women, juggling career and home responsibilities — not to mention fighting against bias and discrimination — can make advancement a secondary priority. Making sure women and all workers, for that matter, have a clear path for career advancement as well as regular performance reviews and feedback can increase both retention and engagement, says Ames.

“One of the main reasons women don’t return to work after having children or after another major life event is the feeling that they’re not accomplishing goals, or that their contributions aren’t recognized or appreciated,” Ames says. “One of the questions so many women ask themselves is, ‘Am I truly engaged at my job? Am I making a difference? Where am I going in this job, or in this career?’ And if they don’t have a concrete answer, it sometimes makes more sense for them to drop out.”

Add in the high cost of childcare and lack of family support and paid leave, and it’s a recipe for low engagement, poor retention rates and high turnover. Ensuring career-path transparency, necessary steps for promotion and advancement as well as continuous feedback can help address these issues, she says.

Role models and mentors

Women want to look at a company’s leadership and see other women represented. They want to see that other women have succeeded, and that they can, too, within that organization, says Megan Cohill, director of strategic accounts at TEKsystems.

“But it’s not just white cisgender women, either — that needs to apply also to race, ethnicity, disability, LGBTQIA+; if you don’t see that representation, it really impacts your thinking as to whether you’re going to get there at all,” Cohill says.

According to She Belongs in Tech, a 2019 research study on women in IT from TEKsystems, 55 percent of women respondents said they aren’t satisfied with women’s representation at senior and executive leadership levels, and 76 percent said they are unsatisfied with the availability of mentors to help them progress. This is causing 35 percent of respondents to consider changing careers within the next one to three years, according to the survey.

The IDC research shows that, as women’s representation in senior leadership increases, so do women’s perceptions of the organization, from the lowest levels up, Bailey says. “We see that in all factors, from job satisfaction, to the likelihood to believe they’re paid fairly to their perception that the company is innovative — all of these measures improve when women are in senior leadership,” she says. Not only that, but engagement and morale levels also improve with greater representation in senior leadership, she says.

“If you’re looking for a job and you go to a company’s website, what do you see? Is it photo after photo of older white men in leadership roles? Or are there other sexes, races, ethnicities represented?” says Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software.

“One of the things we’ve found is that like attracts like. If we’re trying to get more women onto our teams, we have to have women in leadership roles — I can tell you once we hired a female product architect, we saw increased interest from other great female talent because they felt it was a place they’d be welcomed,” Parsons says.

Recognition and representation

It’s laudable that so many companies, organizations and institutions are working toward increasing the number of women in STEM fields, but don’t ignore female workers in these fields currently. And don’t ignore the abysmal attrition rates that are causing women to leave these fields, says Cohill.

“Most of the data about women in technology doesn’t answer what happens when women get into a company, because organizations focus so much on getting women into the pipeline and then they drop the ball,” she says. “Attrition rates are outpacing retention rates — tech companies cannot get women in the door fast enough; they can’t promote them fast enough. Because they’re not understanding the reasons why they’re miserable. Why they’re changing careers after a couple years. It’s the sexism and the insidious behavior that’s driving them out, and that’s what’s harder to address and harder to challenge,” she says.

Bailey points to an interesting data point from the IDC research: Whereas men are slightly more focused on skills development and ongoing learning (23 percent of men versus 21 percent of women respondents), women emphasize opportunities for advancement and supportive management. What does that mean?

“When it comes to retaining women, you have to look at not only how many women expect to be in senior leadership roles, but how they’ll navigate the path to getting there,” Bailey says. “For men, reaching that level is all about skills: technical, financial, management skills. But for women, it’s more complicated. Not only do they have to have the skills, but they need sponsors and mentors and have to understand the ins and outs of the ‘political’ atmosphere in their company. It’s everything other than skills. That in turn means they’ll actually have less time to focus on their skills, which means they could be considered less-qualified, and it’s a vicious cycle.”

Organizations serious about supporting, training and promoting women to senior leadership should make sure that the relevant support structures are in place, Bailey says, with different levels of training and support, including mentoring and sponsorship programs, which HR and management should collaborate on.

As much as there’s a focus on the lack of women in computing, Ames says, women still make up 23 percent of the field already, and it’s important to acknowledge what they have accomplished.

“There’s so many of them who are doing incredible work, but they don’t get a ton of visibility, and sometimes that can be discouraging to other women trying to make it,” Ames says. “We need more visible role models and more attention to the companies and women who are working to change this — to close this gap.”

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