Women at the Top of Tech: Two New Reports Released by the Anita Borg Institute

anitaborgreportsBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Two new reports published yesterday detail the challenges faced by women at the top of the tech industry, as well as practical steps to keep them there. The Anita Borg Institute, a non-profit organization working within the technology industry and academia to make the tech field more welcoming to women, has released Senior Technical Women: A Profile of Success and the 2009 Technical Executive Forum report on the Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement of Technical Women: Barriers to Cultural Change in Corporations.

Senior Technical Women details the challenges faced by women who have climbed to the top of their companies – and discusses how they managed to succeed despite these challenges. According to the report, “women hold 24% of technology jobs, yet represent half the total workforce. This underrepresentation persists even though the demand for technical talent remains high…” The report, based on a 2008 “survey of 1,795 technical men and women at seven high-technology companies in Silicon Valley,” focuses on the responses given by senior technical women – 4% of the individuals who participated in the study.

“This report asks ‘what about the women who beat the odds and made it to the senior levels?’” explained Dr. Caroline Simard, Vice President of Research and Executive Programs. Dr. Simard went on to explain that the report should be useful to companies looking to retain senior technical women as well as for young and mid-career women looking for advice as they work to advance into leadership roles.

Success: Expectations and Challenges

The study includes survey of how senior women felt they displayed attributes of success – as compared to all respondents to the 2008 survey.

“These women view themselves as collaborative risk-takers. They’re more likely to say they are assertive” than women in entry- to mid-level positions, explained Dr. Simard. But this assertiveness comes at a cost. As is oftenthe case for women, the women polled for this study reported that “they did pay a price for this,” said Dr. Simard, “in likeability.”

The report explains: “Because women’s assertiveness defy long-standing gender stereotypes, women often experience a “likeability penalty” when they are assertive. This is especially true in male dominated domains such as science and engineering.”

55.6% of senior level women saw themselves as assertive, compared with 41.1% of entry- to mid-level women, and 48.4% of senior level men.

The report also produced interesting findings regarding the women’s self-perception of innovation, another quality determined by the survey to be a top attribute of career success. According to the report, “60.2% of senior men describe themselves as an ‘innovator,’ versus just 38.1 percent of senior women.’”

Dr. Simard explained that this may be related to the perception of innovation as a masculine quality. Respondents “associated innovation with toughness,” she said.

While the majority of senior women felt they were not innovators, more than half did see themselves as risk-takers – about the same amount as senior men. The report explains, “The current wisdom about men being more willing to take risks than women may be nothing more than a well-publicized gender stereotype based on research more reflective of previous generations.”

Work/life issues also proved to be a challenge for top women, with 49.2% of senior level women reported working long hours to achieve success. In fact, “72% cut back on sleep to advance their career,” said Dr. Simard.

Two Leadership Tracks for Senior Technical Women

The report also details how women choose among (or are pushed into) two leadership paths within the tech industry – management and the individual contributor (IC) track. According to the report:

“We find that senior technical women are significantly more likely to be in a manager position (36.9%) than are men (19%); conversely, men at the high level are significantly more likely to be in an individual contributor position (80.6%) than are women (63.1%).” Interestingly, more women in the IC track (26.8%) reported having a non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degree than women within the management track (12.5%) – which shows that women in the management track have a high level of technical expertise.

The report continues:

“These findings echo previous research on STEM industry careers, where 45 percent of women technologists felt like women were being “pushed” into execution roles, and 42 percent of women reported that women do not have equal access to technology creation roles.”

Dr. Simard added that there are several other reasons that senior women were more likely to go into management. First of all, “an unconscious bias by which women are [perceived] to have better people skills.” Additionally, “at the mid career level, there are significant challenges in the work/life domain” that make the management track seem more amenable to their needs. And finally, it may represent a “self-fulfilling prophesy,” in which women see the only way forward in management – that they are not actively encouraged or considering the IC track.

Recruiting and Retaining Women Leaders in Tech

“If you don’t have diversity at the table, then the ability to innovate is hampered,” said Dr. Simard. The second report, Breaking Barriers to Technical Change in Corporations is a summary of findings produced at ABI’s 2009 Technical Forum on the Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement of Technical Women.

The report explains that some of the main barriers to women in the technology industry come from its culture – one biased against “those who don’t code,” which favors “hero behavior” and “in your face communication styles.”

According to the report:

“…technical women are significantly more likely to be in dual-career couples than are technical men; therefore, they are more negatively impacted by this “hero culture.” At the highest levels of the technical ladder, this “Hero,” sacrificing mindset is sending the message that those who have family responsibilities need not apply.”

Another challenge women face is that “risk-aversion” in recruiting and advancing individuals encourages leadership to hire and promote the people who look and think like the those already at the top. Additionally, the IC track lacks a development pipeline – mentorship programs and development networks are not likely to be found within this sphere.

The report details solutions such as changing the recruitment process to be sure companies are reaching out to diverse communities. Additionally, Dr. Simard said, “Change initiation can not succeed without support from the top, but also requires modeling – walking the talk.” For example, in order to ensure that flex policies are actively promoted, executives can engage in this practice themselves.

Additionally, accountability is necessary to encourage the adoption of gender diversity practices. Dr. Simard explained that while executives and women may be aware of diversity issues, mid-level managers may not be focused on it. This may mean “aligning the reward structures of managers” to engage them in diversity practices. For example, “mentorship may not be seen as part of the culture or as a rewarded behavior,” she explained, “but many successful programs make [participation in such a program] a requirement.”

At the senior levels, companies need to be sure they are engaging their top women – by providing training and development of their professional abilities. Additionally, they should actively provide opportunities for advancement. After all, Dr. Simard warned, these women have valuable skill sets and companies need to be focused on their retention. “They can vote with their feet,” she explained, “and there are other job opportunities.”

Both reports are available online. PDFs can be accessed here: Senior Technical Women: A Profile of Success and 2009 Technical Executive Forum report on the Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement of Technical Women: Barriers to Cultural Change in Corporations.