By Christine Schoeff, SVP Talent & Development, Vibes
Advisory Board Member, Women Influence Chicago
Women Influence Chicago, the ITA’s board focused on increasing the pipeline of future female technologists, enhancing the experience of women in tech today, and elevating more women to positions of influence in the technology industry is starting 2018 with ambitious goals and programming. We have a long way to go to achieve optimal representation of women on technology teams and women in technology companies, and Women Influence Chicago is not wasting time getting started.
As our board of women and men across over a dozen tech companies in Chicago worked to solidify our three areas of focus, our conversation has been refreshing, poignant, honest and challenging. I’m honored to be a part of this passionate, smart, visionary and diverse group of leaders. One topic that we continue to discuss is the always important question “who exactly is our target audience?” Do we serve women technologists or women in tech overall? How narrow or broad should our reach be? Do we need to segment our strategies and programs to help more than one customer persona? All common questions to leaders building transformational tech products and companies. Our answer: we need to serve both and, yes, we need to recognize there are similarities and inherent differences between the experiences of women technologists and women in tech.
Two key factors influenced our decision to serve both. One, company values and culture, which stem from leadership, impact the experience of women technologists. Getting more women into leadership roles of any kind in tech companies is essential to achieve overall gender parity. Two, women need to ensure they work on the types of challenges that are innate to tech companies such as when to innovate, scale, pivot, transform and when to focus on execution. These types of opportunities are on the job training for future leaders, and we need to make sure women are experiencing them today, ensuring representation in leadership roles of the future.
However, there are crucial differences between the experiences of women technologists and “women in tech” that should be recognized and addressed.
Being the only one vs. being one of a few
In both cases, women are in the minority, but there is a significant difference between being the only female engineer in your department and being one of a few female managers at your company. As a woman leader at a tech company, I am in the minority, but I am not the only one. As a talent executive at a tech company, my experience is drastically different than that of my friends and colleagues who are women technologists. I do know first-hand how it feels to be “the only one,” to not be recognized, to be misunderstood, to have others get something before me for no good reason. It feels confusing, frustrating and at times scary.
At the same time, these negative feelings can bring clarity and conviction, which are qualities I admire and value in women technologists. And, by the way, these are qualities all successful companies value in every hire and down-right require in their leadership to compete and win. The statistics, however, do not lie. Women face an uphill battle finding headway in the technology field from the very start. A recent study of women college graduates found that 15% of all female engineering graduates did not enter the field upon graduation and another 20% began their career in engineering and later moved out of the profession.1
We have a pipeline problem — we know we need more women technologists and more women in tech. This is why Women Influence Chicago’s Pre-Workforce team has already begun our programming to encourage and support young women interested in careers in technology. Recently, WIC collaborated with Backstop Solutions, Hireology, Transunion and Vibes to produce the Lumity One Day Challenge. This program immersed undeserved teens and young-adults in life-changing experiences to prepare them for life-long STEM careers. This is only the beginning. In mid-April we are launching the City-Wide Tech Shadow Day for Girls on April 13. With 20 schools and 15 companies participating, we are expanding our scope and impact across the city.
Women technologists and women in tech took separate paths to arrive in the tech industry — and our routes to get to the top vary, too.
Addressing the pipeline from the start is an effective method to right the ship but we also must address the diverse paths that women take to achieve leadership roles. Most female engineers I know have been involved in STEM studies and STEM careers practically their whole life while today’s women in tech arrived here through paths from marketing, finance, healthcare, supply-chain, retail, cpg and much more.
Our industry experience is varied, and we have more industries to choose from as we plot our futures. I hope we all choose to stay in tech, but the truth is we do have more options when it comes to industries. This is why Women Influence Chicago’s Positions of Influence team has such important work to do — applying strategy, intentionality and dedication to help elevate more women to CTO, CEO and Board positions at tech companies.
Women in tech don’t have enough role models, and women technologists have even fewer
At the other end of the spectrum, there are even less women in C-level roles to serve as stewards to women in tech and only a handful for technologists. To tackle this absence at the top, we need effective strategies to address women leaving the tech industry. But why do women leave technical jobs? In my experience there are three main reasons. One, lack of opportunity for recognition and advancement. Two, challenges of integrating work and life demands. And three, isolation and unconscious biases women often experience in a male dominated workplace.
Many of these challenges remain below the surface but the statistics speak for themselves. A 2013 Anita Borg Institute2 study of 1000+ women who began in engineering and then left the field drilled down into the root causes:
- 30% cited working conditions, i.e. no advancement, too many hours or low salary.
- 27% cited work-life integration, wanted more time with family, conflict with family or too much travel.
- 17% cited organizational climate, they didn’t like the culture, boss or co-workers.
- Only 22% cited that they didn’t like the work.
It’s clear we have a retention problem and leadership must take an active role in correcting this imbalance. Some actionable takeaways include:
- Establishing networks of mentoring and support
- Creating a culture of learning and professional development
- Valuing work-life balance
- Retaining female role models
- Embracing inclusion and diversity
These are just the start. The work of Women Influence Chicago’s In-Workforce team is focused on enhancing the experience of women in technology by developing and implementing new strategies to address this opportunity.
While there are key differences in the experiences of women technologists and women in tech, we are all working to build transformational tech products and companies and we should be working to stack the deck on both sides. After all, the best products are created and launched by diverse teams of women and men, enabled by cultures and organizational systems led by both men and women. Diversity fosters innovation. Innovation builds careers, industries, legacies and wealth. We have a responsibility to our future women technologists and “women in tech” to improve the current technology gender paradigm, and when we do, we all win.
1. Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering,” — University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2011)
2. Source: “Women Technologists Count. Recommendations and Best Practices to Retain Women in Computing.” Anita Borg Institute