Breaking Down the Barriers Keeping Women Out Of High Tech

circuit_board.JPGBy Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)

America is falling behind. A recent study revealed that many executives are concerned that the United States is in danger of losing its global leadership position in science and technology. Why? Perhaps it’s that we’re not tapping a valuable resource: women.

According to The Athena Factor—a study reported on by The Glass Hammer in July, 2008—52% of highly qualified women in science, engineering and technology (SET) leave before reaching the upper levels of their organizations. The study pointed to several reasons for the so-called brain drain, including dismissive and sexist attitudes of male colleagues, lack of mentors, and work environments not conducive to the promotion of women.

A recent study by the Anita Borg Institute entitled Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology found that this trend and the corresponding difficulties are exacerbated in the high tech industry, where the number of men and women were relatively equal at the entry level of the industry but, at the upper-level, there are 2.7 more men than women. “Women are minorities across tech leadership but, if [the workforce was] 20% women at all levels, at least you could say that there is equal representation across the board. But [it is significant] that there is a higher number of women at entry level[than at the executive level],” said Dr. Caroline Simard, director of research for the Anita Borg Institute and co-author of the study.

The Anita Borg Institute study found that mid-level men and women experience workplace cultures differently and that women in high tech find that to succeed requires “significant personal sacrifice as well as a concerted effort to be assertive in order to be heard.”

One key finding is that there is a significant “family penalty” for women in the industry. “The high tech industry is extremely fast paced,” said Dr. Simard. “There is an expectation of constant availability.” Thirty-three percent of the participating women reported that they postponed starting a family due to career demands. Some of the participants who chose to have children reported that they never discussed that part of their life at work. The report quoted one participant as saying, “My co-worker didn’t know [I have children] because I never talk about them. I am afraid that the people at work will think that I think about my babies too much.”

In addition to work/life balance issues, there are significant barriers to the promotion of women based on lack of mentoring and unclear promotional criteria. It seems while many high tech companies give lip service to creating a work environment in which both men and women can thrive, very often there is a difference between policy and practice. For example, Dr. Simard mentioned that all companies have programs for telecommuting but the application of the programs is often left to discretion of management. If there is sufficient pressure for employees to put in facetime, workers simply don’t utilize the program. “That is why having a manager “getting it” is so important…”

Another factor essential to the advancement within a high tech company is keeping up-to-date on technological advances, which companies generally expect to occur outside of work. While men and women both have a hard time keeping up, “men are able to do more on their own because women don’t have as much free time out of work, ” added Dr. Simard.

This points out a key difference revealed by the study: women who work in high tech tend to be married to men in high tech as well, which means that both partners in the marriage are subject to the same industry time pressures. Men who work in high tech, conversely, tend to benefit from partners who don’t work outside the home, thus reducing—if not eliminating—many of the time demands inherent in managing the demands of home life.

The study also identifies key areas technical companies can focus on to inspire women to remain in the workplace. Some of these tips include:

  • development of clear and balanced promotional criteria
  • flexible work days
  • a more reasonable work pace
  • better options for part time work and child care
  • establishment of more formal mentoring programs and recognition for mentors
  • building of more diverse leadership teams
  • investment in tech development programs for employees during work hours so they can stay current

And things are starting to change. Google is known for its on-site day care. Cisco’s Women’s Leadership and Development is ensuring women are developed into senior leaders. Many high tech companies are already beginning to address the workplace issues that block women (and men) from staying with and advancing within the companies.

The Anita Borg Institute is helping to support high tech women by creating connections between the women within a company and among the women’s networks of each of the individual companies so that the women can exchange best practices and support one another. “Tech is so isolating…the[se] networks are created especially for tech women,” said Dr. Simard.

They’re also working with many other companies to develop and improve their mentoring programs, based on the understanding that it is a necessity to ensure the companies hold onto top qualified high-tech women.

The Anita Borg Institute’s introduction says it all: “Gender diversity, in particular, is a benchmark for high-tech success…gender diversity in the high-tech workforce fuels problem solving and innovation — the driving force of technology.”