Is your company culture driving away women tech workers?

Women enter the IT workforce at about the same rate as men. But somewhere around the mid-career point, the number of women in IT plummets. Why? It's the culture, stupid.

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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.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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