By Anne Shaw, Contributor
Despite company leaders understanding the benefits of hiring a more diverse workforce, organizations in the technology sector have been slow to hire—and had trouble retaining—women and other members of minorities communities. The result of this failure, in recent years, has been dire.
Stories from women like Ellen Pao, the plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins, and Susan Fowler, who unveiled pervasive sexism at Uber, demonstrate the link between a lack of diversity and a culture of discrimination.
For Katharine Zeleski, a co-founder and the president of PowertoFly, an organization that helps employers improve gender diversity, the solution to being more inclusive may be right in front of us. It starts with recruitment.
“Many companies are alienating the qualified women who want to work for them, and who they want to hire, during the interview process itself,” she writes in a recent New York Times op-ed. “They’re missing opportunities to make simple, immediate improvements by changing how they communicate with women who are sitting across the table from them now.”
While there is no quick fix for improving gender diversity in the workplace, there are strategies executive leaders can implement today that will attract qualified women to their teams. Below is a list of strategies to implement today, as demonstrated by companies doing their part to promote inclusion.
1. Promote Flexible Working Arrangements
Recent research from the Anita Borg Institute, which identifies top female-friendly tech employers, highlights factors that account for high representation (and retention) of women employees. It also identifies potential trouble spots for tech employers.
The institute’s 2017 annual survey found that one reason female tech employees were more likely to leave their company than their male counterparts was due to inflexible working arrangements. A key element to improve gender diversity, it found, was to offer flex-time policies. According to the institute, a flexible framework would allow employees to choose their hours, work remotely, and access job-sharing opportunities.
One company that’s adopted this flexible policy model—and highlighted it during the recruitment process—is Accenture, an organization that aims to have a 50/50 gender-balanced workforce by 2025. The global professional services firm offers a variety of ways to work flexibly, including job sharing and working remotely. In fact, 75 percent of Accenture employees take advantage of some type of flexible work arrangement.
As a result of this policy, women made up nearly 40 percent of Accenture’s workforce in 2016. During that same year, 40 percent of the company’s new hires were female, and 30 percent of promotions were awarded to women.
2. Involve Women in the Recruitment Process
Including women in the recruitment process is key to activating all the strategies listed above to hire more women. Yet, making women a foundational part of recruitment also avoids a subtle obstacle many tech companies face.According to research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, while many companies aren’t aware of it, women are less likely to apply for jobs or accept offers when they perceive language that may exclude them. Buffer’s experience with misaligned verbiage has now become a classic case.
In 2015, the social media management platform realized that less than 2 percent of candidates for developer jobs were female. The company’s CTO consulted with Angie Chang, the Vice President of Hackbright Academy, a coding school for women, and found that the word “hacker” used in the description of the developer role might be deterring women who didn’t identify with this term. Buffer changed the description to “develop,” to avoid any potential exclusion and continues to use this moniker today.
Companies like Textio have popped up to review the nuanced messages conveyed in the job description language, but one simple way to combat gendered language and behavior is to involve more women during the hiring process. Having women present during interviews, involved in the writing of job descriptions, and sitting on boards—Women in Recruitment Org states—is essential to addressing gender inequality in the workplace.
3. Review Interview Processes for Unconscious Bias
After looking at its own diversity numbers in 2013, Etsy determined the company did not have enough female coders—and that it might be guilty of unconscious bias during its interviewing process.
The company first examined a practice known as “whiteboard coding,” where coders take to a whiteboard to solve complex coding problems on the spot. While the practice had by this time become a standard part of the interview process for software engineers at large tech companies, Etsy began to question whether it contained elements of unconscious bias.
“The fact is, we don’t hire people to code on whiteboards,” Marc Hedlund, head engineer for Etsy, told Forbes in 2013. “That’s more about performance art – and it’s confrontational. Conceivably, it’s also gender-biased.”
In the place of whiteboard coding, Etsy now pairs candidates with current engineers to work on relevant programming tasks. As a result, half of Etsy’s engineering hires are now women.
4. Communicate Career Development Opportunities
According to the same Anita Borg Institute survey, women in tech are also less likely than men to stay with their current employer because they feel less optimistic about their career growth. But not all companies are guilty of this lack of direction.
When Atlassian, a software development company, asked for internal feedback from junior-level female employees, the women shared that they felt unsure about how to get promoted to mid-level roles. To combat this uncertainty for current employees and address it during recruitment, Atlassian launched pilot leadership and development programs.
The program coordinators selected emerging female leaders to take part in a senior technical mentorship initiative, and later developed an apprenticeship program for Latina, African-American, and indigenous women to address the lack of women of color in leadership roles.
The programs positively impacted Atlassian’s efforts to retain junior-level female employees by supporting their career growth. In turn, the examples set forth by these women have become a strong talking point for Atlassian recruiters to attract even more women to tech roles. Since the launch of the programs, the company has increased its female tech hires by 80 percent.
5. Organize Internal Diversity Networks
To support an inclusive culture, large tech organizations like Dell have found that establishing networking groups for employees who share common ethnicity, gender, or lifestyles can help them take advantage of mentorship opportunities and give back to their communities.
Dell has set a goal to have 40 percent of its global workforce engaging with one of its fourteen employee resource groups by 2020. These groups include Women in Action, PRIDE, Black Networking Alliance, Latino Connection and more. The company promotes its employee resource groups on its Diversity & Inclusion web pages as just one means of growing its diverse workforce. In addition to the employee resource groups, Dell’s Global Diversity Council engages senior leaders, including Chairman and CEO, Michael Dell, to give input on the company’s diversity and inclusion strategy on a regular basis.
As of early 2017, 23 percent of Dell employees were engaged in one or more employee resource groups. These commitments to creating a diverse workplace have landed Dell on multiple Employer of Choice lists, including the #2 spot on Fairygodboss’s list of Best Companies for Women in 2017 and #28 on the DiversityInc Top 50 list – one of the few technology companies that made the list.
“A diversity of perspectives, backgrounds and experiences is the catalyst for innovation. That’s how we deliver better results for our customers and our team members. For us, a diverse and inclusive culture is a competitive advantage.”
—Michael Dell, Chairman & CEO, Dell Technologies
6. Start Early with Support for Girls in Tech
For many companies, addressing gender disparity in tech also means partnering with organizations that support girls—and their interest in technology—from the get-go.
To attract and inspire future female technologists, companies like BlackRock, Dell Technologies and Pixar have partnered with Girls Who Code (GWC), a nonprofit that arms young women with skills to promote their fluency and leadership in computer science. While Dell Technologies’ program targeted 15,000 girls in underserved communities, BlackRock’s GWC partnership emphasized mentorship between existing low- and mid-level female tech employees and girls seeking leadership advice.
Partnerships with organizations like Girls Who Code demonstrate the importance of creating an environment that supports and inspires women in technology even years before these young women enter the recruitment pipeline.
Ensuring the Future Is Balanced
While recruitment and hiring are, as Zeleski highlights in her New York Times call to action, just part of the puzzle to balance gender representation in tech roles, they are crucial to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
Recruitment tactics are becoming the difference between technology companies that enjoy the benefits of a diverse workforce and those that miss out. When more women fill tech roles and hold leadership positions in tech companies, organizations become better aligned with their customer base, improve problem-solving by incorporating various viewpoint and, ultimately, achieve a stronger financial performance.