Hurdling the Tech Gender Gap

We all know the tech industry has a gender gap problem that companies need to address. In the meantime, what can women do to gain a foothold—and advance?

By Ellen Lee

First, the good news: Major tech companies report that the percentage of women in senior leadership is increasing. For instance, between 2014 and 2018, women in senior leadership positions rose from 23 percent to 30 percent at Facebook, and from 20.8 percent to 25.5 percent at Google.

Here’s the bad news: Despite recent heightened attention to the gender gap, progress has been slow. A wide gap still persists in the tech industry, more so than in other sectors, especially at the highest rungs. “The image of the brogrammer culture still reigns, unfortunately,” says Anna Beninger, a senior director, research and corporate engagement partner at Catalyst, a nonprofit with a focus on women in the workplace. “The reputation is actually still well deserved. Despite the public effort to be transparent about workforce representation and the need for more women in senior leadership, very little progress has been made.”

A 2018 study by Silicon Valley Bank found that 57 percent of start-ups have no women in executive positions and 71 percent have no women on their boards. It’s more stark for women of color. A 2018 analysis by Reveal of 177 of the largest tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area found that one-third had no executives who were women of color. It also found that women and people of color tend to be overrepresented in support positions, such as administrative assistance and customer service, rather than in roles that are more likely to propel them into the C-suite.

Fortunately, an evolving, growing number of efforts are helping to fill the gap, offering women opportunities to network, find mentors, and develop their leadership skills among a supportive cohort. Here is an overview of some of these efforts.

Conferences and Gatherings

Last year’s Grace Hopper Celebration, a conference dedicated to women in technology, drew a record 20,000 attendees. Additional conferences for women in technology, such as Wonder Women Tech and the Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference, are cultivating communities of women in technology.

“Just knowing we’re on this hard path together, and we’re supportive of one another, time and time again, that’s what helps,” says Cara Delzer, cofounder and CEO of Moxxly, a start-up that makes it easier for mothers to pump milk when they return to work after having a baby. Early on, Delzer and Santhi Analytis, cofounder and chief technology officer of Moxxly, attended and were inspired by Y Combinator’s Female Founders Conference. It buoyed them as they faced challenges launching their start-up, from raising money to building the company to designing and manufacturing their product. “You’re part of this movement,” Delzer says.

Formerly known as Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, Girl Geek X offers regular talks and networking dinners at tech companies such as Qualcomm, LinkedIn, and Salesforce. Each event draws between 70 and 400 women.
There, women have the chance to be in the spotlight and practice public speaking, as well as network and seek advice in a safe, supportive space. Over the course of Girl Geek’s 11 years, attendees have successfully parlayed the dinners into more high-profile speaking invitations, new jobs, and leadership roles, says Angie Chang, cofounder and CEO of Girl Geek X.

“The dinners are a great way to build that network and get those opportunities that attendees may be not getting at their own companies,” she says. “We provide a weekly place for women to get reinspired.”
Last year, Girl Geek X launched the Elevate Virtual Conference, an opportunity to hear talks by female tech leaders, as well as connect with one another in a private online forum. Some 2,500 attendees tuned in for the one-day virtual conference, which will be held again this year in March.

“The new normal is always to look around the corner, pushing forward with your ideas,” Chang says. “Girl Geek X is part of that. We encourage women to take the mic, to put themselves out there.”

Corporate Boards
One way to advance women in leadership is through finding opportunities to serve on corporate boards, traditionally a male enclave.

At the forefront of this movement is theBoardlist, founded by tech executive Sukhinder Singh Cassidy. Corporate boards, after all, help drive the culture and leadership of a company, particularly because the board oversees the company’s CEO. With the increased focus on equity in the tech industry, a gender-diverse board can help companies build more inclusive workplaces.

“Boards are the pinnacle of the power structure,” says Shannon Gordon, CEO of theBoardlist. “A number of studies have shown that the more diverse a board is, the better a company performs against almost all financial measures. It’s literally good business.”

More than 5,000 women are showcased in theBoardlist’s marketplace of female leaders, including founders of companies with at least $5 million in annual revenue and executives at the vice president level (or above) at companies with at least $25 million in annual revenue. Not all of the women in the marketplace are in the technology industry; though its origins are in the tech industry, theBoardlist encourages women in all industries to join. Since theBoardlist’s launch in 2015, companies seeking to diversify their board have paid to run 500 searches, resulting in such high-profile placements as two new eBay directors, Adriane Brown and Diana Farrell.

“We have lots of proof that there is a pipeline of female candidates who are ready for the boardroom,” Gordon says. “We want to make sure those women are visible.”

In addition, theBoardlist holds workshops and boot camps in major cities throughout the country that walk women through the job of corporate boards and the steps they can take to make themselves an appealing candidate. “Board searches seem closed and mysterious, especially for people who are not on the proverbial
golf course,” Gordon says. “We democratize and demystify the information.”

Mentors and Sponsors
In any industry, mentors and sponsors are critical to career development. In the tech industry, it can be more challenging to find the right mentor or sponsor, in part because a go-go start-up culture doesn’t leave much time for the cultivation of relationships.

In the greater Washington, DC, region, the volunteer-run Women in Technology trains women for corporate board roles through its Leadership Foundry (women must apply to participate). The nonprofit, which is celebrating its 25th year, also holds some 75 programs annually, including a local job fair and its flagship Mentor-Protégé Program.

“One of the biggest challenges years ago was not having enough role models for women in science and tech careers,” says Margo Dunn, president of Women in Technology. “That’s not really the challenge anymore. Now the challenge is how do you move girls and women through the system.”

Ellevate, a networking community for professional women across all industries, offers opportunities to find mentors and support, both online and in person, throughout the country. For instance, its in-person mentor meetups operate like speed dating: participants either seek advice or volunteer to be a mentor. Throughout the evening, the mentees rotate about every 10 minutes, connecting with five to seven mentors. The purpose, says Ellevate CEO Kristy Wallace, is for women to receive feedback and advice for a particular challenge they’re facing, with steps they can take the very next day. “We found it works well,” she says. “We can get bogged down with a five-year plan, but these are microsteps we can take to move forward.”

Women can also apply for Ellevate’s 12-week Squads program. Offered twice a year, it brings together six to eight women online for regular video chats and peer mentoring. Ellevate’s algorithm forms the groups based on factors such as career stage, availability, and location. Each week, one woman is in the “hot seat,” soliciting advice from the rest of the group.

Though Ellevate is not solely aimed at women in technology, many have participated and found it helpful, Wallace says. Tech women can leverage connections and support from women outside their industry. They receive a diverse array of feedback and are encouraged to think about their challenges from different perspectives. In one instance, says Wallace, a woman at a tech company felt frustrated because she didn’t see a way to move up. Though she enjoyed working there, she was thinking about leaving to seek better opportunities. Her peer mentors in her Squad suggested that she look into moving into a different department at the company. She did—and didn’t have to leave. “She thought about it through fresh eyes,” Wallace says. “Having an external network, you can unpack the situation and find a pathway forward.”

A Long Road Ahead
Despite such efforts, the tech industry still lags behind other sectors in tackling the way it recruits, retains, and promotes women. Tech companies need to do more, says Beninger, such as addressing biases built into its culture. In particular, the tech industry still largely sees itself as meritocratic. Many continue to believe that the best rise to the top, no matter their gender, race, or background. “When people believe the workplace is meritocratic, they’re not checking their biases, and that makes it worse,” Beninger says. “That’s particularly intense in the tech industry.”

The reality is that the tech industry—and the workplace in general—is far from meritocratic. Consider a recent survey by the Center for Talent Innovation. It found that 71 percent of executives pick their “mini me” to sponsor, that is, the majority of executives select someone who is the same race or gender to champion and open doors for advancement. Without the same kinds of opportunities, it’s no wonder that women leave tech for other industries, or shift into consulting roles, instead of continuing to climb the corporate ladder. In fact, women quit tech jobs at a higher rate than men, with the most cited factor being a lack of career growth, according to a survey of a thousand women last year by Indeed. It found that only half of women believed they have the same opportunities to rise to senior leadership roles as men.

Instead of “fixing” women, tech companies need to fix themselves, Beninger says. Mentorships, conferences, and leadership-training programs are “a good thing and can have a positive impact,” she says. “But none of that is going to move the needle unless you address the root cause. The reality is that there’s nothing wrong with women.”

There is hope: the 2018 study by Silicon Valley Bank found that 41 percent of start-ups said that they do have a program in place to increase the number of female leaders at their company. That’s up from the year before, when 25 percent of start-ups said they had a program to cultivate more female executives.
Dunn, the president of Women in Technology, agrees that tech companies need to step up to the plate. But the group isn’t holding its breath. It plans to continue rolling out programs that can help its members reach the next level in their careers. “We can’t sit around and wait for organizations to do their part,” Dunn said. “We have to keep going.” DW

Ellen Lee is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter at @helloellenlee.

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