Countering “macho” tech culture and bolstering women’s confidence can slow rush of mid-career women heading for the door.
By Tamika Cody and Eve Tahmincioglu
The tech industry continues to hold the reputation of being dominated by men. One of the main reasons for the disparity is that mid-career women aren’t getting promoted into management positions. Many are overlooked, and still others head for the door before they even make it on to the leadership track.
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, more than half of women in technology, 56 percent, leave their employers after working in the industry for 10 to 20 years. And among U.S. women in STEM careers overall, 32 percent say they plan on quitting their jobs within a year, found the Center for Talent Innovation.
Why the exodus? There are a host of reasons, including
• “macho” work environments;
• work-life issues; bias;
• and a lack of sponsors, just to name a few.
Companies can, however, keep their pipeline flowing if they implement a few initiatives to help women develop into management positions. That could mean everything from formalized coaching programs, to fireside chats that build camaraderie, to reaching way back in the pipeline to encourage girls in high school to get on a tech career path.
IBM, which is No. 22 on the DiversityInc Top 50 list, follows a disciplined approach when grooming female talent for management.
In order for women to move into management positions within the tech space, companies need formal programs that create ecosystems that allow women to compete and succeed, said IBM’s vice president of diversity, Lindsay-Rae McIntyre.
“From a best practices standpoint I would say that it has to come with a holistic approach,” said McIntyre. “We know that expediting women into management requires us to build confidence and competence around all of the dimensions required for successful management and career preparation.”
McIntyre highlighted two of IBM’s primary programs: Building Relationships and Influence (BRI) and Pathways.
BRI prepares women into management by providing them with an all-inclusive development experience. The program provides women with personal awareness acumens through face-to-face learning and development classes, followed by an e-learning curriculum with support from coaches and mentors.
BRI launched in 2007, and since then nearly 4,000 female employees have gone through the program and 40 percent of them were promoted into management.
The second program, Pathways, is specifically for women who are on the career track toward the highest technical ranks at IBM. “We put them through a series of experiences to really coach and develop them on their technical expertise, as well as their management skills and readiness,” said McIntyre. The women are assigned technical coaches and executive sponsors.
IBM launched Pathways in 2012, and to date about 4,500 women have gone through the program and approximately 50 percent were promoted into management.
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The Hunt for Women in Tech
Although IBM has the right tools to keep its management talent pipeline flowing, the company still has to find a way to recruit fresh talent. “There just aren’t as many women in high school who wake up and say, ‘I want to go into tech,’” said IBM Fellow and Director of IBM Research’s Accelerated Discovery Lab, Dr. Laura Hass.
Hass cited a 2014 Taulbee Survey, which showed enrollment figures for women pursuing computer science degrees in graduate programs range between 10 percent and 12 percent. “That peak went up about 25 percent in the 1980s and it took a dip recently,” Hass said, but noted things are now starting to turn around. “We have a supply problem, but there’s been a lot of encouraging news lately, but it will take quite a few years to have the [volume] to choose from,” said Hass.
The news Hass is referring to took place last year, when Congress approved a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. For the first time ever, computer science is listed as one of the core competencies that students should be exposed to in high school and secondary schools. “That’s very exciting because before that,” Hass explained, “schools weren’t even motivated to teach computer science. Now it will become ok to teach computer science in high school and that will help a lot.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is also taking part in getting women front and center into tech careers. NSF works with inner city and rural school systems where they train computer science teachers. “They are actually changing the way computer science has been taught,” said Hass. “It’s been taught almost the way we used to teach shop years ago — very technical and very tool focused.”
The tech industry, she continued, is taking steps in the right direction but she doesn’t expect to see a real shift for another five years. The first thing that needs to happen is to get more women interested in technology, she said, adding, “if you can’t do that then you don’t have a balanced workplace, and that’s a necessary first step.”
Companies are starting to reach a little further back into the pipeline and participating more with high schools and organizations. For example, KeyBank, a subsidiary of KeyCorp (No. 49 on DiversityInc Top 50), builds its recruiting pipeline by inviting a group of high school students to take part in a summer internship program. Most of those high school students usually circle back to Key for an internship once they are in college.
“Our internship program really provides us an incredible opportunity to bring a very diverse group of young men and women and we expose them to all aspects of technology,” said Amy Brady, who leads the technology and operations team at Key.
“Starting that pipeline early is starting to be a best practice for us,” said Brady. “We are reaching out to middle and high schools around the country earlier, so that we can change the perception for young women who may understand that the technology acumen can open doors for incredible career opportunities in so many different directions.”
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Recruiting Experienced Women Who Left Tech
Like KeyBank, IBM also taps into high schools to identify potential recruits, as well as organizations like Girls Who Code. But for women who left the tech space, IBM initiated a new recruiting concept through a program it calls Reconnections. The company rehires women who have separated from IBM in the past or have taken some form of leave and are ready to return to the workplace. Some are even rehired into management positions.
Another non-traditional recruiting program IBM created is set in Silicon Valley and goes by the name Reboot. The program engages women who want to return to the workforce by upgrading their technical skills and making them aware of the latest technology, said McIntyre, “with the hope that they would want to return to the workforce and ideally work for IBM.”
Why Women Leave Their Tech Careers Behind
The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) published a study in 2014, updating its The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology report, and found 32 percent of women in the United States said they were likely to quit their science, engineering and technology (SET) jobs within a year. And the reasons include:
• Hostile macho cultures. Women in SET are marginalized by lab-coat, hard-hat, and geek workplace cultures that are often exclusionary and promulgate bias.
• Isolation. SET women no longer find themselves the sole female on a team or at a site. Yet they still feel excluded from “buddy networks” among their peers and lack female role models.
• Scarcity of effective sponsors. Although SET women have sponsors, they don’t reap the benefits to the degree that their male colleagues do. The “sponsor effect” (the differential in satisfaction with career progression for individuals with sponsors vs. those without) is 22 percent for U.S. SET women versus 32 percent
The CTI study found, however, that the demand for women in STEM continues to grow, however, the supply continues to shrink. CIT listed a couple of reasons, including:
• Post-9/11 security concerns have reduced the number of H-1B visas (which allow foreign nationals to work in the U.S.),
• Rapid growth in Asia has created a reverse brain drain of highly qualified Indian and Chinese scientists and engineers who are returning home after completing their education in the U.S.
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Although the two points may work in favor for American women in STEM, studies still found that women are opting out of their tech careers for the reasons previously mentioned.
In McIntyre’s experience, she’s seen a number of reasons why women leave their tech jobs. Most of them just want to take a break to either go back to school to study something new, pursue entrepreneurial ventures, or they may have dependent care needs of any form, whether its childcare or taking care of an ailing family member. Some have global opportunities, which a spousal move is usually a part of that.
“At IBM we are really proud of the fact that we offer all of our employees, particularly our women, a lot of options to engage with IBM,” said McIntyre. “We have a long standing commitment to a flexible environment that gives our employees lots of choices to manage the demands of their personal life and their work life.”
Focus on Retention
Tech companies, or any company for that matter, McIntyre stressed, need to find a way to commit to flexibility and create a variety of programs and initiatives that will support employees, particularly technical women, through the lifecycle of their careers. “It’s an important and valuable commitment,” she said.
Brady added that it’s important for companies to keep women engaged the moment they start the onboard process. For women working on the technology side, KeyBank has a networking group that allows women to connect with other women to talk about opportunities and how to prepare for the next role.
Women are introduced to potential mentors and future sponsors. “All of that networking really helps us build on all of those things. We are really focused on taking those women who want a highly technical career and helping them learn how to prepare for that next step, that next role,” said Brady. “That is really important because studies have shown that women may not be as assertive in taking that next step as their male counterparts.”
KeyBank also holds fireside chats, which are opened to diverse groups throughout the organization.
“I bring a group of women in technology together to talk about what is working well, and what’s not working so well,” said Brady. “These fireside chats, I think have proven to be, incredible learning opportunities for me and our organization but also a fabulous way to get the women across my organization to build stronger connections among themselves that will help when they need that support to take on the next role.”