by Shubhra Rishi

Gender Diversity in IT Makes Business Sense: Telly Whitney

Mar 06, 20146 mins
BusinessCareersCollaboration Software

On International Women’s Day, Telly Whitney, President and CEO of Anita Borg Institute of Women and Technology tells us about the importance of gender diversity in IT.

It’s not just Indian men taking over as CEOs of international corporations.  There are Indian women giving them a tough competition.

So what is common to Indira Nooyi, Chanda Kochha, Shikha Sharma, Naina Lal Kidwai?  The fact that they all are women is obvious, but the fact that they are Indian women occupying top positions in the some of the largest companies of the world is a tremendous achievement. According to a Grant Thornton International Business Report, the proportion of businesses employing women as CEOs has risen from 19 percent to 24 percent since 2004.

Now, if we narrow it to women in IT. Vanitha Narayanan, Neelam Dhavan, Aruna Jayanthi, Kirthiga Reddy, and Kumud Srinivasan, are women heralding top positions of IT companies such as IBM, HP, Capgemini, Facebook and Intel respectively. These are women achievers who possess more than two decades of experiences in the industry.

How much do women CIOs make?

In India, only 19 percent of women today hold important positions as compared to China’s impressive 50 percent. Even CIO research in the past has indicated that there are only 3-5 percent of women CIOs in India.

InfoGraphic on Important Women in Computing

There’s an organization which has been working to up the number in this domain. For the past 15 years, Anita Borg Institute has worked towards refining and advancing women in computing. The founder of the institute was herself an American computer scientist who realized the importance of retaining women in the technical pipeline and promoting them towards the upper echelons of business and IT management. We spoke to Telle Whitney, who has held several senior technical management positions at Actel and Malleable Technologies, as well as senior roles at a number of startup technology companies. She took over as President and CEO of the institute in 2002 and has been an active force behind improving the count of women technologists in organizations around the world.  

How do we retain women technologists at work? What are some of the best practices?

Diversity of perspectives can drive innovation at work. Sadly, in technology companies, turnover precedes everything – be it innovation, productivity or even competition. We have seen that women technologies leave their companies at twice the rate of men.

As the demand for top technical talent continues to outpace the number of graduates each year, leaders and managers need to foster a culture in their respective organizations that enables them to develop and retain women in technical roles. This involves formally training managers to encourage women to participate and grow in their roles, provide development and visibility opportunities to women that increase technical credibility, and hold them accountable in case they leave. Organizations also need to build and offer training programs that embrace inclusion, leverage diversity and raise awareness of and counteract micro-inequalities and unconscious biases in the work environments. Companies can also look at encouraging women to collaborate and support each other by conducting workshops, conferences and other group events that focus on the specific career path experiences and challenges faced by women technologists.

Talking about collaboration in IT, what can you tell us about bringing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Program to India?

Though the Lean In program, we intend to build courses and provide networking opportunities for women engineers in India. It enables women in IT to become a part of community of people who can share their personal stories about careers through our website and Facebook page. It intends to Educate via a series of online video tutorials on leadership, technology-related topics. It also encourages women to form peer groups via Circles where they can find answers to their career-related issues. Circles also enables them to connect with women CEOs over career and business opportunities.

Indian Women CIOs Speak on Work, Family, and Stereotypes

So does networking help women in their career path? Do you think women can network better than men?

Women in mid-level to senior roles typically are also homemakers and they don’t network as easily as men and are sometimes left out of key discussions. I think successful women judiciously network in professional circles when they think it is important. They chose the event, the colleagues they spend time with – it’s all a part of moving up. But there are definitely a few strategic steps that women in IT can initiate in order to network better.

They can influence extra-curricular activities which are not inclusive. They can also create their own network. For instance, the Lean In Circles allow you to develop your own group which can contain a mixed bag of influential and talented people who can become mentors.  Personally, I think we need to make time for creating such relationships. As a veteran from the semiconductor industry which is dominated by men, I didn’t have any women mentors. So when you’re looking for mentorship, it doesn’t have to be a woman always. On another note, our institute gives mid-career women in technical roles to find other women who have had successful technical careers and can become role models. We believe that role models are important and they can encourage women to move in and hold a technical position.

Do you think India is in a better position when it comes to women in IT?

In the early 80s, only 3 to 5 percent of women engineering graduates in India worked in the technology sector. Today, the number has gone up to 25-30 percent. India is going through a lot of cultural changes and despite the pressure from family and peers, women are still pursuing their careers and reaching great heights. If you look at a company like Intel worldwide and in India, it is remarkable to see that they have undergone a major overhaul in terms of their employees’ tech career paths where they are finding new ways to help both men and women workers move up their technical careers.

So what does gender diversity bring to the table ? Are there global companies enforcing it?

Gender diversity in IT makes business sense. I think a mix of perspectives is what diversity bring to the table. For instance, if an organization hires 10 males from Harvard, even though they will be smart – it’s possible that they may not find interesting ways of solving a business problem. We have known senior leader of an organization tell us that they learned to introduce gender diversity into their design team which they kept closer to their customers. The results were very useful since 50 percent of their customers were women and it wouldn’t have been the same if there weren’t enough women within the company. Google, Facebook, Intel, IBM, ThoughtWorks among others are a few companies who are actively recognizing the importance of fostering community and increasing networks among its technical women.