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Why So Few Women Work in IT and What We Can Do About It

Karolina Gawron

May 11, 2017 | business it women technology recruitment

As I was contemplating the problem of few women in IT, I approached my friend Mateusz Sławiński, a Talent Manager here at Monterail. We had a long conversation that yielded some eye-opening (at least for me) conclusions. This blog is more or less a distilled essence of our conversation augmented with research that I had a lot of help with from my female colleagues. Thank you!

When I was a sophomore at college studying communication, I was hired as a public relations intern in a public relations agency—the choice seemed the most obvious path I could have taken at that point. As is often the case with first jobs straight out of college, I felt it underutilized my skills and didn’t reflect my true potential. That’s a feeling you often get as a rookie.

To put things briefly, my first year working in PR mostly involved a schedule filled to the brim with tasks that weren’t in any way relevant to my interests. Luckily for me, I’ve been tech-savvy and a bit of a nerd (yeah, right, a bit) ever since I can remember. Therefore, soon after quitting my nightmare job I managed to land a dream job in marketing in IT.

Only when I finally said goodbye to my first job, I noticed that businesses such as PR agencies are often dominated by women. By the time I quit, the company I left had a single man and seven women on staff. I worked in one of the most feminized industries in the world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71% of the Public Relations workforce in the USA are women.

As I shifted from PR to IT, I found myself in a completely new situation. According to BLS research data quoted above, women currently make up only 25% of the computing workforce in the US even though they account for 57% of the total workforce in America.

Women Workforce in IT and in general

Source: Ann Friedmann’s post on medium

Don’t get me wrong: both industries I mentioned are dominated by one gender and both are uniquely biased because of it.

It’s not OK that there are so few men in industries like public relations.

It’s not OK that there are so few women in IT.

From what I saw over the years, I can state with certainty there are no consistent efforts aimed at getting more men into the PR industry (besides, Google Trends doesn’t lie) and I assume the reason for that is mostly money, lack thereof to be precise—the majority of positions in communications and PR don’t pay very much, so if you land a well-paid job in the industry, you hang onto it. It’s a unicorn! As a result, it’s pretty hard to convince men to shift their careers in a direction that offers poor salaries. And since the PR industry is failing, industry executives have much more pressing issues to deal with in the first place.

Men in PR and women in IT trends

On the other hand, there are many reasons why tech companies should fight gender inequality in the workplace and encourage more women to join the computing workforce. And it’s not just because it’s a hot topic and inequality in all its forms should be eliminated. Let’s be honest—many companies talk about gender diversity only because they know they have to, not because their boards or executives really care about it. They know it’s good PR (here we are again!) and that every other company on the market is involved with similar efforts. Their HR departments nag them to do something about it, and so they do—they establish diversity and inclusion programs, design Intranet pages, put some beautifully designed posters on the walls, and… nothing really changes.

Why Do Tech Companies Need More Women?

Reducing female underrepresentation in tech is not just about justice or equality--it also has concrete business and financial consequences. Recently, I’ve stumbled across an amazing landing page called “Hire More Women in Tech” (which I heartily recommend you explore in depth) which will provide you with a host of neatly laid out arguments in case you ever try to convince your boss that your company needs more women. Here is a handful of the most important ones, just to illustrate why we all should treat gender inequality as the problem it is:

  • Solid business reputation. Yes, it is good PR and therefore an opportunity to attract better sales leads, as well as a chance to attract a more diverse talent pool for recruitment. Both your clients and potential employees will appreciate your company’s efforts to enshrine integrity and equality among its values.
  • Diversity makes us smarter. According to a number of studies conducted by different scientists, sociologists, economists, and demographers over the past couple of decades, socially diverse groups perform better than homogeneous teams. This great article provides a host of scientific evidence confirming this particular hypothesis. To quote the article’s author, Katherine W. Phillips: “If you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity.”
  • Gender diversity means more money. According to a McKinsey analysis, “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
  • Homogeneous teams have lower collective IQ. A study from Professor Anita Woolley, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, revealed that teams with at least one female member have a higher collective IQ than all-male teams.

“If people think alike, then no matter how smart they are they most likely will get stuck at the same locally optimal solutions. Finding new and better solutions, innovating, requires thinking differently. That’s why diversity powers innovation.” – Scott Page, The Difference

The Lack of Women in Tech From an HR perspective

The majority of companies usually go with one of two approaches. Some think about women emancipation as good PR and just something one should do. Others decide to take genuine action--they find and hire skilled program owners, give them a serious budget, authorize them to challenge business leaders, and even allow them a say in hiring decisions. Given the right level of support from their sponsors and the company’s top executives, they usually manage to make a real impact and change the company mindset to an acceptable level at the very least. If you’re looking for some good examples of such companies, read this article about 2016’s top companies for women. The ranking was created by Fairygodboss.

Unfortunately, quite often it’s more about hitting some target percentage of women in the workplace rather than making fundamental changes the company culture. Hence, recruitment teams are ordered to hire a certain percentage of women each year. They get special budgets, run recruitment campaigns designed specifically for women. All of these efforts, however, still fail to produce the desired results in terms of hires, simply because the pool of female engineers in the labor market is very limited.

Naturally, most big tech companies brag about the high percentage of women they employ, but the sad truth is that majority of these women work in support positions: administration, HR, marketing, PR or sometimes finance (if they are lucky since gender discrimination is still very pervasive in finance departments across the industry).

When you look at numbers published by companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, you’ll learn that over 30% of their employees are women. That’s great, right? Well… If you take a closer look at the breakdown of their responsibilities, only 15.6% of women have technical roles and 22.5% serve in leadership positions.

I mean, it’s great that at least some doors that have been closed to women for decades have now become open and we have more and more women working in IT. The problem is that often enough it looks good only in statistics but when you go beyond the surface and see the real data underneath, it’s still the same story of bias, double standards, and discrimination.

What Could Your Business Do For Women’s Well-Being Inside the Company?

If you want to push real change, it’s not enough to rewrite your job offers and write a blog post or two. You need to make fundamental changes to your company culture, because what we speak about here, my friend, are values. And in order to do that, you need support and set examples from the very top of the company. As a matter of course, at Monterail we always lend our support to everyone willing to contribute to our culture and company life, but the definition, communication, and enforcement of the company’s core values is the job of the CEO.

If you’re not a CEO, however, then step one for you is to convince your boss that it’s in their best interest to treat gender inequality seriously. Only then will you be able to take any real action.

Remember, however, that you shouldn’t be striving to create merely a women-friendly environment, but rather work towards transforming it so it’s friendly to everybody. With that in mind, there are a couple of things you can or should do, and below you will find the most important of those according to Mateusz:

  • Create an environment where people know that they can report any case of discrimination to their superiors and it will be taken seriously. Unless your management team doesn’t show that they understand and are sensitive to any case of discrimination, their subordinates won’t feel comfortable enough to report such issues to them. Educating your management team about gender issues is crucial.

  • Ensure that your HR chief reports directly to the company CEO and their voice is taken seriously. Otherwise, if an employee files a complaint on their boss, then there probably will be someone strong enough in the mid-level chain of command to sweep it under the rug. You have probably read about the recent scandal in Uber, so you probably know what sort of situation I’m referring to.

  • Create an impartial performance review process. One that really allows the whole organization to evaluate people based on the results of their work, their skills, knowledge, and ability to work in a team instead of how often they join everyone else for a beer or play soccer with their bosses. Only then you can mitigate the risk of gender influencing promotions, raises or who gets assigned to the most challenging projects. At Monterail, we deal with it by using the same role models for every position for every employee. This means that recruitment and promotions are based on clear, universal criteria. Additionally, employees receive regular 360-degree feedback which helps them realize their strengths and weaknesses and gives them information about what they should improve in order to secure a raise.

  • Make your workplace family-friendly. All your employees need to know that they can feel comfortable starting a family. It’s not just about paid parental leave. That means, for example, that mothers and fathers can arrange their work hours to be in the office from 7am to 3pm rather than always clocking in at 9pm. At Monterail, we’ve got a rule that working hours run from 10am to 3pm. It’s up to our teammates how they want to organize the rest of their day.

What Could Your Business Do to Attract More Professional Women?

If you have the right culture, you should be able to attract and add more professional women to your staff and have them feel comfortable in your company. Now it’s up to you to communicate your employer brand the right way. Here are some must-haves for your employer branding communication rulebook:

  • Don’t alienate prospective employees with your job offers. Make sure you use the same language as the employees you’re trying to reach. Remember not to omit soft skills in your job description and make sure your wording sounds inviting. It’s said that using words like “rock star,” “hacker,” or “ninja” can scare some women away (as well as anyone insecure about their skills).
  • Track the CVs in your pipeline. Reaching a 50/50 women-to-men ratio from the get-go is not a realistic goal, but it’s a good idea to set some sort of initial goal. You need to know whether you’re doing good or bad, right?

  • Communicate your company’s life on your website and other media. Show your future employees that you’re a fun group that values their work. Show your office off, show your team hanging out. Make your female employees visible, so your prospective ones can see that they would not be alone. Such a realistic approach will help you attract more people for whom work is an important part of their life (including more professional women), rather than a sad obligation they’re saddled with.

However, the only way to actually change the status quo is to commit ourselves to long-term action and do whatever we can to encourage women to enter the IT field. The core problem is that few young women want to enter the IT sector in the first place. Only 9% of girls claim that a career associated with computers would be a very good choice for them. The same study also reveals that 47% of them agree that this would be a bad choice. To counter this harmful perception, women in Monterail (along with their male colleagues) launched their own initiative to help young women realize that IT is not just a male profession.

Girls in IT

You can encourage your company to find its own ways of addressing the problem. Start by giving back to your local community (or go global if you can!) by organizing workshops, partnering with local universities or high schools, meeting with teenagers to show them how they can jumpstart a career in IT and how an IT company could also be an ideal work environment for women. I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of coming up with your own solutions that would be a perfect reflection of your company and its core values.

Do Women See IT as Cool?

Many people will tell you that computer science is simply not for women. That programming, development, and engineering is just something men do better. Well… I am lucky to work with women with an incredible range of different skills who feel confident that they are the right people for the job they have. I asked them to explain, in their own words, what they like about their job in IT and how it’s different from any other industry. Here’s what they said—

“I really like being a part of the creative process. The feeling you get when people use something you’ve built is empowering. A career in IT gives you a chance to create products that help people in a variety of ways, from simply making people laugh to helping them diagnose health issues. The sky is literally the limit here. What is also über-important in my opinion is the fact that the tech sector gives you the opportunity to meet many great, open-minded, and interesting people. Being able to discuss ideas with them is something worth waking up in the morning for.” Ania Konopka, Front-End Developer

“Working in IT, I am able to both develop my professional programmer skills and at the same time work towards earning a master’s degree from a university. IT employers are very understanding when it comes to working students--they appreciate the fact that we’re willing to broaden our horizons with practical on-the-job experience and are very understanding when it comes to flexible work schedules. And as far as flexible work schedules are concerned, a surprising portion of the work in IT companies can be handled remotely, and the communication mostly takes place online, so you can easily keep up with the project even working from the other side of the world. How cool is that?” Zuzanna Kusznir, Backend Developer

“Working in IT gives you the opportunity to work remotely if something unexpected comes up or simply when you don’t feel like going out that day. Such an approach gives you a great degree of comfort. Regardless of whether your apartment is renovated and you have to stay home to oversee the work or just you decided that you’ll be working from a sunny beach a couple of continents away, you can always stay up-to-date with the company’s life and project status.” Alina Melnyk, Front-end Developer

Women in Monterail

Part of female representation at Monterail.

“Working in companies like Monterail lets you build something completely new and innovative from the ground up and feel your own impact on the project. We work in diverse teams, where we support each other when we fail, celebrate when we succeed, and share knowledge in order to become better specialists and human beings.” Paulina Łusiak, Quality Assurance Specialist

“Working in the IT industry gives one a pretty unique opportunity to work incredibly close to cutting-edge technologies. For me, a person with a background in the humanities, working in IT is also an opportunity to work with people capable of discussing the most abstract ideas and making them a reality. That’s more than an opportunity, that’s a privilege.” Marta Klimowicz, Head of Marketing

From my perspective, rebalancing the men-to-women ratio in tech is not only about justice and equality. This is something companies should involve themselves with to foster well-being in the workplace and deliver more innovative ideas, thus staying ahead of the competition, and, in turn, making bigger profits and growing at a more rapid pace. There’s still so much that can be done in order to prove to companies that they need more women in their workforce, to prove to women that a career in IT is absolutely within their reach and something they may be great at, and to change pervasive societal notions and thus strive to eliminate all inequality.

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