How long would you stay at a job, or in a career field, in which –regardless of your passion for the work and your talent, skills and achievements — you were consistently bombarded with both overt and subliminal messages that you just did not belong?
That’s the harsh reality faced by many women in the IT industry, and it’s a problem that’s difficult for individual workers and lone businesses to address. While there are numerous efforts underway to increase the pipeline of women in technology careers, to attract women via remote work and flexible work opportunities, to encourage more family-friendly workplaces, to use software-based solutions for diversity recruiting, these initiatives can go only so far.
“It’s the culture, stupid,” says Phyllis Kolmus, immediate past president of Women in Technology (WIT) and deputy group director, Government Solutions at AT&T. Kolmus saw the effects first-hand when her own daughter matriculated at Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a career in neurobiology after graduating from a well-respected all-girls high school.
“My daughter’s all-girls school taught her to be brave, bold, curious and outspoken. But when she got to college, in a co-ed environment, it was a culture shock. When the time came for her class to split up into study groups, all the males grouped together and the females weren’t invited. That’s just one of a million small ways she was told she didn’t belong,” Kolmus says.
That culture of exclusion is familiar to many women in STEM fields, whether it’s done deliberately or is a result of unconscious bias, and it permeates every aspect of STEM — from education to sourcing, recruiting, hiring and career advancement.
As Sue Gardner writes in an op-ed for the LA Times, “Why would a woman want to work for Uber, whose chief executive told GQ he calls his company ‘Boob-er’ because his wealth makes him attractive to women?”
Why would women consider software development, game development and other coding jobs, when well-known female coders like Brianna Wu receive death threats and are forced to flee their home? Why would women want to enter an industry in which even a public-speaking event could put their lives in danger?
And it’s not limited just to the professional sphere, as democratic Massachusetts representative Katherine Clark explained in an op-ed for The Hill, “Young women are deciding not to pursue jobs in technology to avoid the crosshairs of men who don’t think they belong. Women who are being asked to run for public office are choosing to stay on the sidelines once they see the online abuse suffered by their peers…. online abuse is not only emotionally devastating, but it also curtails their professional choices and their full participation in the economy.”
It’s an assertion that seems simplistic, but is borne out by data. According to a recent study by Bain & Company, which asked more than 1,000 men and women about their aspirations to leadership roles in their company. Women with two years or less of work experience slightly led men in ambition. But for women who had more than two years on the job, aspiration and confidence plummeted 60 percent and nearly 50 percent, respectively. These declines came independent of marriage and motherhood status, and compared with much smaller changes for men, who experienced only a 10 percent dip in confidence, according to the survey.
The study points to three factors that influence these severe changes in women’s outlook: a clash with the “ideal worker” stereotype; lack of supervisory support and a lack of role models in the workplace.
Clash with the ideal
What does success look like in your company? If it means 16-hour days, late nights and weekend work and availability 24/7/365, that could be a huge turn-off to your best talent, male and female. According to one female survey respondent, “Watching middle-aged white male after middle-aged white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing. I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took,” the woman recounts.
The study revealed that the more experienced women workers were, the lower their aspiration. Women’s level of aspiration remained 60 percent lower than men, whose rates shot up, according to the survey. Most jarringly, the Bain survey showed, that the percentage of male more-senior managers who have confidence that they will reach the top jobs is almost twice the percentage of female managers.
Lack of supervisory support
Another contributing factor is a real or perceived lack of support from supervisors or managers. A 2011 Harvard Business Review research report titled, The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling showed that nearly two-thirds of male executives were hesitant to have one-on-one meetings with a more junior woman.
And even when dialogue occurs, gender differences may affect the nature and success of the conversations, according to The Sponsor Effect study. For example, women are often seen as more relational while men are often seen as more transactional. Survey respondents are more than twice as likely to believe men are worse at building relationships with colleagues than women, and respondents are five times more likely to believe women are better at working with colleagues of the opposite sex. The upshot is that female employees may need a different type of dialogue than male supervisors are accustomed to having, according to The Sponsor Effect study.
This disconnect in communication could lead to many experienced women in IT fields feeling frustrated that their supervisors are “not encouraging or recognizing a desire to stay and passion for the work,” simply because they relate in different ways, as one survey respondent says.
Other women responding to the Bain study report receiving poorly delivered and often negative feedback from supervisors. For example, they were told that they “lacked talent,” that they’re “not cut out for” a role in top management (based on the stereotypical white, male, always-on persona previously described), or simply that they “didn’t really want it.”
Lack of role models
Finally, women are suffering from a lack of positive role models and effective mentors in STEM fields, especially in IT, according to the Bain survey. While most entry-level workers say they have positive examples of other employees who are like them, that parity fades the higher up an employee moves within most companies, according to the survey.
Women struggling against a male-dominated, brogrammer culture want to look at a company’s leadership, or even at a company’s public initiatives and see other women represented. They want to see that other women have succeeded, and that they can, too, within that organization, says Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, “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?”
And if you have female workers in leadership roles, or who act as role models and mentors to other women in the organization, make sure you’re giving them the visibility and recognition they deserve, says Elizabeth Ames, vice president at the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), a nonprofit that seeks to advance women in technology.
“As much as there’s a focus on lack of women in computing, there are around 23 percent of women who are in the field already. 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. We need more visible role models and more attention to the companies and women who are working to change this — to close this gap,” Ames says.
Ames’s assertion is borne out by the Bain & Company study, which revealed that many companies fail to use the legitimate examples their current leaders — both male and female — could provide to up-and-comers who crave a broader set of stories.
“Our research shows that 64 percent of female executives and 47 percent of male executives at large companies have used flexible work arrangements. Unfortunately, stories of how leaders made tradeoffs between work and personal life on their way to the top are often not shared broadly. This muting effect is consistent with the ideal worker characteristics described earlier: The characteristic that ranks lowest is being open about family and non-work commitments,” the Bain survey says.
It’s not enough to simply focus on the classroom or the boardroom, though those are areas where significant progress is being made to increase women’s representation in IT fields. “Along with organizations like WIT, along with classroom and boardroom initiatives, what has to happen is a much greater societal shift toward inclusion and parity. And it’s not going to happen overnight, but we are definitely seeing improvement and we’ll keep fighting for that,” Kolmus says.