Women in technology: A global challenge

The need for gender diversity in technology is undisputed, and according to reports, there are still very few women leaders in technology. In a recent World Economic Forum article “Why do so many women leave engineering?,” a study found that in group situations, especially during internships and summer jobs, female engineering students were often given less challenging problems and were relegated to doing routine ‘managerial and secretarial’ tasks instead of the ‘real’ engineering work. Without opportunities and adequate support – it’s no surprise that women may choose a different career path.  

As business leaders, it is our responsibility to recognise the benefits of creating a more gender inclusive environment. It goes beyond our corporate responsibility as employers. It is an absolute business imperative. As an article presenting a 2014 Gallup survey on the subject put it, gender equality is vital “not just because it’s a laudable goal” but because “it simply makes bottom-line business sense.”

While there are numerous organisations and events that have an impact, more needs to be done to attract, hire, retain and promote women in the tech industry. 

What’s holding women back?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by researchers from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research highlights that the lack of visibility is what holds women back from reaching the high echelons in technology careers.

Moreover, a Lean In / McKinsey study has shown that women are 30 per cent less likely to get regular feedback and input on their performance, which becomes an obstruction to enriching their performance over time. The same study found that for every 100 women, 130 men are promoted from entry-level roles to a managerial role. This shows that women are behind from the very beginning of their careers. 

The McKinsey research notes that even employers that believe in, and support, women in the workplace may have employed management exercises that curb opportunities for women. According to the analysts, this is unfortunate because women are often more likely to be intuitive, show empathy and collaborate across all executive board areas. All of which are fundamental attributes for many strategic roles from the lowest levels. This set back occurs once women are already settled in the workplace however, the route to employment is also riddled with setbacks. If we are to effect change in the long term then there must be a concerted effort to encourage young women into traditionally male dominated STEM subjects.

Teach them young

Teaching children technical skills is no longer a choice, but a necessity. Including girls in STEM education, from an early age, is crucial to ensure a steady growth of women in ICT.

The private sector can assist here by connecting the dots between secondary education and careers in technology. Particularly as organisations work to develop business technology pathways directly to STEM degrees and even STEM-based careers.

The reality is that in today’s digital economy most professions will be based, and even dependent on, technology. So, while it’s not a given that every student will want to pursue a career in technology, many will have careers that utilise tech and this is what primary and secondary education supports. Supporting these careers is a win-win for both business and wider society.

Walking the walk

Although we still have a long way to go, leaders are beginning to understand that there is power in reflecting the community in which they operate, and that diverse points of view are differentiating. Not to mention, conducive to the bottom line.

In technology alone, women leave positions at a rate of two times that of men. Yet women drive 70 – 80 per cent of consumer purchasing through a combination of buying power and influence. They also bring specific skills to gender diverse teams in the wake of digitisation.

Ultimately, businesses must make a true commitment to providing greater opportunities for women and this should start with recruitment. HR professionals have the important job of finding and keeping qualified candidates with a keen eye on diversity. 

But it doesn’t end there, after onboarding female talent, employers should make every effort to create a thriving women’s network. This needs to prioritise diversity & inclusion with the aim of helping women advance their careers focused on building strong relationships, sharing professional insights, developing skills and seizing career advancing opportunities to drive success. A rich mix of gender perspectives helps to drive innovation and enables companies to better serve customers, and this approach should be earmarked with goals. 

For example, SAP committed to having 25 per cent women in leadership by the end of 2017, and has created numerous initiatives to reach that goal. Its award-winning Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program (LEAP) for women is one of the most innovative leadership development programmes in the industry. The Women’s Professional Growth Webcast Series reaches thousands of colleagues and customers (women and men) each year, and its male advocacy programme enables genders to collaborate more effectively. This is just one example of how we are working to minimise the ‘man made’ gender gap. 

Can technology solve the industry-wide problem? 

We have access to technology today that lets us know for instance, a team’s gender balance is out of synch, or too many people with a certain skill or experience level are leaving faster than others. Still the reality is that by the time your software or your HR partner reports back to the head of business that the balance is out of synch, it will be too late.

But what if companies were instead focused on applying machine learning, intelligent services, artificial intelligence – built into the software – to enable you to identify the origins of bias before you get to that ‘out of synch’ place?

Case in point; to track our goal of 25 of leadership positions filled by women, a dashboard was created to provide continuous status of the women in management KPI, as well as the gender split by different career levels, in career movement (such as promotions), progressions and hires, and in terminations. SAP HR professionals can now easily track progress, see which geographies or business need action, and proactively take actions in the different processes like recruitment, mentoring and succession planning with the relevant business management representatives.  

Fundamentally, we can continue to talk about the lack of women in tech, or we can do more to encourage them to become and remain an intrinsic part of the technology mainstream. We need to do this by tapping into their young aspirations, nurturing their path of study and supporting their leadership goals. Only then can we take steps towards equalising the gender imbalance and give women the opportunities in tech that they deserve. 

Miguel Castro, Lead for Culture and Identity, SAP Global Diversity and Inclusion Office
Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock