This is a transcript of Episode 7 – Women in technology. You can also listen to episode 7.
Clearly, I think that anyone who’s trying to hire in tech will definitely tell you there’s a pipeline issue. There’s not enough, we aren’t getting enough female candidates.
I have a very distinct memory even being six or seven and having this perception that I should be good at social and English and maths and science is for really smart kids and it seems to be the guys.
I can remember being asked by senior leaders why do people leave and, you know, it’s not pleasant.
Welcome to Feel – a podcast about leadership. My name’s Andy Kelk. We’re back after a break with a brand new episode. If you’ve missed out on earlier episodes, you can get them from iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud or feelpodcast.org
This time around, we’re talking about diversity – particularly in the technology sector – why it’s important and what organisations can do to get a more diverse workforce.
Studies suggest that women make up just one quarter of the workforce in information technology with many women leaving the industry mid-career.
But technology hasn’t always been a male-dominated industry. Pioneers such as Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper are two of the foremost figures of computing’s early days and programming used to be seen as a female-oriented career.
To start our discussion on diversity, we’ll hear from Cyan Ta’eed, co-founder and executive director of Envato on why it’s important to have diversity in an organisation.
I think tech is an amazing space to be in, I think it’s a space where you can have a great deal of influence and you can make a difference in the world. And I really want everyone to have the opportunity to make that difference and to build things that will help a diverse range of people to make their lives better. So that’s the sort of the reasoning that really resonates with me.
But additionally there’s research that backs up the concept that it makes for stronger teams. It makes for teams that are better at problem solving, that can think about their customers more effectively, that can problem solve in a way that a very homogenous team maybe can’t.
A 2013 survey by Credit Suisse Research showed that companies with one or more women on their board delivered higher returns on equity and had better average growth than those that didn’t.
Em Campbell-Pretty, enterprise lean and agile coach backs up the theory that male dominated firms are undesirable:
A very, very common pattern that I observe walking into large IT organisations is that 90% of the management will be male. So again, that’s hard. That’s weird. And it’s not good for balance.
Another study released recently says how do you get brighter teams? Teams with women on them are brighter teams. And it’s clearly the diversity more than anything else that makes a difference.
What factors are driving women away from workplaces? Kerri Rusnak, formerly of the REA group and now VP of technology operations at Home 24 believes that pay is a big factor.
I think the numbers show that there are gaps and there’s significant gaps. It’s not a difference of 5 or 10 percent. In women in IT it’s significantly lower than men and that has to be looked at. Those are massive. If you looked at a society and said that only 25% of the population can read, you’d go “what the hell is this society doing if only 25% can do something?” And then you look at those statistics again and say and now in leadership positions when they’re actually running these teams, what’s that percentage? And that’s lower. And you’d have to say, if you looked at that, in any other form of evidence and anything else at a scientific level, there’s something going on.
I know my own experiences from pay, I’ve felt that I’ve had to negotiate much harder to get pay rises. I feel that there’s an unfair demand on people having to negotiate deals. And I think too that women are, and I’ve read an article that says a lot of the feedback that women get in their performance reviews tends to focus on emotional and personality traits versus skills traits. And I’d never thought about it but then I went back and read my own performance reviews across the years and, sure enough, the comments that are made are about my personality or about my emotional state and they’re not about whether or not I need to develop hard skills in other areas.
When it comes to jobs in technology, women are at a particular disadvantage because of the perception of the skills required and that those are inherently male skills. Em Campbell-Pretty debunks that view.
There’s a whole thing that I quite buy into – Carol Dweck’s work on mindset; Linda Rising talks about it a lot as well – this conditioning that we have growing up. “Boys are better at maths”. And they’ve done all these tests where they tell kids : “boys are better at maths” and they take an exam and boys do better. Then they tell kids that everyone’s good at maths and the girls do better than the boys. So there’s a whole heap of stuff in there that’s more than just women in IT. It’s just a whole world of stereotypes that really influence how we are. There’s real empirical evidence that you’ll actually mould your behaviour to reflect the stereotype.
I think the other thing on women in tech and women in IT is frequently those who do well are perceived quite negatively. There’s another test, quite famous, where they get people to look at the leadership behaviours, I think of a Henry and a Harriet or something. Exactly the same document, just change their names, Henry’s a great leader and Harriet or Helen, or whatever her name is, is bossy and aggressive.
So women are dropping out of the technology industry and that leads to a problem for all organisations. But there’s also an issue with the pipeline of people studying science, technology, engineering and maths. Steve Hardisty, director of engineering at Rocket Internet.
There’s a basic economic problem of supply and demand. The rates for women going into universities and doing computer science is dramatically lower than it was, I think at any point since we’ve been doing computer science. We’re basically rock bottom. In terms of sheer numbers we’re probably better off but in terms of percentages we’re a lot worse off.
And it’s not because the colleges are doing anything wrong per se. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But the sheer numbers on the supply side are just skewed horrendously.
Even if we didn’t have brogrammers and we didn’t have environments where blokes are encouraged to be blokes, which often can be mutually exclusive to being a friendly environment. Even if you solve that problem, and that is a huge problem than absolutely has to be solved, the supply side is still so horrifically broken.
Em Campbell-Pretty also focuses on the culture of organisations.
My experience being a business person or any person working closely with IT teams in large organisations was not a very pleasant experience. It can be very boysy, it can be very inappropriate and I was young when I got into this. I can remember being maybe just 30 and on the receiving end of quite aggressive behaviour from senior IT leaders that were old enough to be my parents. It’s not a great dynamic.
I can remember being asked by senior leaders “why do people leave?” and I say, well you know, it’s not pleasant. It’s not pleasant. And I’m sure it’s just water of a duck’s back for guys but I think sometimes it’s a bit different. I mean I didn’t enjoy it but I coped and I can see why a lot of people just say “I’m going to go and work somewhere where people are nicer to each other.”
As well as changing culture, Kerri Rusnak thinks we should change the image and perception of what a career in technology actually entails.
If I look back at my own journey when I chose IT, I would have never once thought about it. For me, IT was a very solitary experience. It was highly technical, it was maths-based and, if I think about it, I remember even in elementary school feeling as though the guys were good at maths and I wasn’t. And I have a very distinct memory of being six or seven and having his perception that I should be good at social and English and maths and science is for really smart kids and it seems to be the guys. And I do remember having this sort of distinction at a very young age. Now, if maths and science is important in terms of being in IT, and I’m not good at maths or science then therefore I’m not designed for IT. And that’s a false assumption.
I think there’s this real assumption that IT is technical and by technical, it’s engineering, and by engineering it’s maths and/or science. And if I’m not good at those things then that’s not the career for me.
But in IT I don’t think we sell enough of “Hey, yes, you might use technology, big deal, we’ll talk about that later, let’s put that on a shelf. But did you know in IT you can change the world?” We don’t talk enough about the power that technology has to change the world and that the skills, we’re going to teach you; don’t you worry about that, you don’t even need to know math anymore; you don’t actually need to program properly anymore; the languages now are so advanced that it’s actually more the thinking, the logic and if you’re willing to engage in that, you’ll be able to do some really cool stuff. And if you can’t then you’ll have a team, don’t worry about it But we don’t sell that. We don’t sell enough about what’s possible with IT, we talk more about the skills of IT.
So what are some things that any of us can try to do to change the gender balance in technology companies? Cyan Ta’eed from Envato has some ideas.
Clearly I think anyone that’s trying to hire in tech will definitely tell you there’s a pipeline issue. There’s not enough, we aren’t getting enough female candidates. So from that point of view, I listened to a really interesting talk from Debbie Sterling, the founder of Goldieblox, and she grew up in America in the South. And she just got dolls and teddy bears when she was little. And when it came time to do engineering, which is something she was quite interested in and passionate in, she found that she was very far behind when it came to her spatial awareness. One of her theories was that she had never been given anything to do with construction when she was a little girl. And all the boys had been building things in Lego and doing shop and constructing and finding out about the engines of cars. And she’d never had any exposure to any of that stuff. So she hadn’t developed any of the basic skillset that one develops as a child and so she had to play catch up. And I think that’s a bit of a barrier for many women because they just assume that “I’m just not good at this stuff”
So, I guess, if you’re just looking for something really basic to do, when it comes time to buying presents for your daughters, your nieces, your family, friends, children, buy the girls Lego. Buy the girls things that they are going to need to construct and actually requires spatial awareness. That’s a really basic thing that you can do.
There’s lots of stuff. There’s apps, there’s development apps that you can give to children. Interestingly enough, I’ve had five or six men in the last couple of weeks say to me that they’ve become interested in diversity in tech because they’ve had a daughter who said “I want to do what my daddy does” and they’ve thought “I don’t want her to be in this industry the way it is at the moment, this industry needs to change.” And that’s been their spur to action. Which has just been really, you know, it’s quite touching in a way to see these fathers really taking it on because suddenly there’s this immediacy for them.
As well as working on the pipeline or supply of young women wanting to learn technical skills and get into the industry, it’s also up to companies to make changes about how they recruit.
You can definitely look at your hiring processes. And you can say “OK. What do our job ads actually come across like? What sort of language are we using there? Do we have really, really clear criteria in terms of our hiring – exactly what we want in a hire so that our unconscious biases aren’t coming into our selection?”
Likewise, once you’re actually managing a team, if you have women in your team or a diverse team which, ideally, we should; you can be thinking to yourself “OK, what is my criteria for promotion? What is my criteria for salary raises? What is my criteria for giving people opportunities?” And you can become more aware of the differences between men and women and how they’ll typically ask for things and their typical confidence levels.
Without wanting to generalise, I think once you really start to dig deep into this you can see, as a manager, perhaps you can start to look beyond your unconscious assumptions about what makes a leader and what makes someone who can manage a team and what makes someone who can get the opportunity to manage a project. And start to consciously think: “OK. What criteria am I using here?”
And once women are in your company, you also need to focus on keeping them there. Cyan goes on to explain what Envato is doing to retain women especially as they become mothers.
We’re looking at it in a couple of different ways. The first way is we’re really trying to make our work environment friendly to women who have other responsibilities, who do want to go and pick up their kids, who have another side of their lives, who can’t just be at work from 7am to 7pm every day. So, we have things like a very flexible work from home policy, flexible working hours. That makes a difference.
We’ve got a really good maternity leave policy but we’ve realised that it’s not only to do with “Oh, you can have 18 weeks of paid leave off and 2 weeks of unpaid partner leave”, it’s also “OK, well what’s our process when women are leaving?” to make sure they feel like they’re still going to be included when they’re away and they’re still going to have their job and we still care and we want them back and we want them to feel like they’re still a part of the company while they’re away.
And when they get back, how are we helping them transition back in so that they don’t feel they’ve been sidelined or undermined or anything else. Even as a founder, coming back after both rounds of maternity leave, and this is as someone who was talking shop for two hours every day at least, keeping my oar in. All the new people, everything changing, it’s very jarring. So that’s been good for me personally because it’s helped me to understand just how challenging it is to come back from maternity leave and how it does knock your confidence around briefly and you need support in order to push through that.
The scenario you really don’t want to have is to have women departing the company because it’s just too hard. Because they say “you know what, everything changed, I wasn’t supported, I’m not sleeping, I’m expected to do the same level of work within the office as I was before, there’s been no gentle transition for me so that I can get back in the game slowly. This is too hard, I’m just going to leave.”
A very common theme – that it’s just too hard and that women either don’t start out their careers in technology or they try it but a variety of factors drive them away. While there’s plenty of discussion around changing education, promoting coding or adjusting hiring patterns, it’s up to existing organizations in the industry to take a look at themselves and to change. Those very same male dominated organisations. This is not an issue just for some of our society. This is an issue everyone in technology needs to think about and act upon.
That’s it for this series of the Feel podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening.
If you like what you’ve heard in this series, please consider rating and reviewing the show on iTunes – it gives valuable feedback and helps others find out about it. And if you want to discuss things directly, get in touch on twitter – @feelpodcast, or contact me via the website – FeelPodcast.org
I’m Andy Kelk, this has been Feel. A big thank you to Alex Stokes, Cyan Taeed, Em Campbell-Pretty, Kerri Rusnak and Steve Hardisty. The show’s music is by audionautix.com and our website is FeelPodcast.org.