Why Role Models are Critical for Developing Women Leaders in Tech

iStock_000009318986XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Recently, The Glass Hammer revealed our new research on women in technology – we wanted to find out what companies can do to better retain women at the junior and mid-career levels. Many companies are making a robust effort to recruit a high percentage of women at the entry-level, but few are building the organizational structure that will ultimately keep them there.

In our study, we identified a few motivators that stoke the career ambition of junior and mid-level women in technology – things like “walking the talk” (see our earlier article on the topic) and participating in a leadership development course.

Another key indicator of C-suite ambition was having a role model. In fact, the vast majority of our respondents (79.9 percent) said they had a role model. Meanwhile, respondents who didn’t have a role model were significantly more likely to say they had no C-suite aspirations than those who did have one.

That’s why, we believe, it’s important for companies to recognize the importance of nurturing connections between junior and mid-level technologists and the people at the top who support them through sponsorship initiatives, women’s networking groups, and mentoring programs.

Role Models

Our research shows that by helping junior and mid-level women identify with those at the top, leaders can encourage women to keep progressing in their careers at their company.

It’s important for firms to make champions for women visible – whether male or female. That’s another interesting point of our research. It didn’t seem to matter to our respondents whether their role models were male or female. In fact, only a small group (14.1 percent) of our respondents said they had only female role models at their company. A somewhat larger group (22.8 percent) said they only had male role models at their company. The largest share (42.9 percent) said they had many role models, both male and female. About a fifth (20.1 percent) said they had no role model.

Our research showed that there was no significant difference in the gender of one’s role models with respect to one’s desire for advancement to leadership. What matters is that there is someone to look up to.

We also found that having role models was correlated to a number of other key factors for women’s advancement: having a company that “walks the talk,” having a women’s network, having male champions in the organization, having a person act like a sponsor, supporting a person as a protégé, and having leadership that makes verbal commitments to supporting women.

When companies work to build connections between women and senior people, they are laying the groundwork to develop women technologists with lots of potential for future leadership.

Stand-Out Women

We also wanted to find out who our respondents really look up to in the industry, so we asked them to each name one women in technology they admire. About a quarter (25.5 percent) left the question blank, and 9.2 percent (somewhat alarmingly) wrote that they couldn’t think of anyone. But the majority of our respondents nominated a woman in tech they look up to.

In all, 86 different women were named. The diversity of candidates can only be seen as a positive indicator that there are women leaders in technology who are inspiring the next generation.

In fact, only eight names were repeated more than once – and there was a fair amount of diversity amongst them as well, in personal background and career progression. Unsurprisingly, the top nominated woman in tech was Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (15.1 percent of nominations), followed closely by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (11.6 percent). Next was Padmasree Warrior (7.0 percent), Carly Fiorina (1.6 percent), Meg Whitman (1.6 percent), Ursula Burns (1.1 percent), Virginia Rometty (1.1 percent), and Stephanie “Steve” Shirley (1.1 percent).

The other 78 women leaders in tech were named once each. This diversity of leaders is important. Women in tech are clearly looking up to a variety of different people and modeling their behavior after a number of different individuals and styles. Our research shows that there are many ways to “be” a successful woman leader in tech – and our respondents know that. Rather than one archetype female leader, we can expect to see a variety of successful women at the top tomorrow, each leading with her own authentic style and voice.

Download Women in Technology: Leaders of Tomorrow [PDF]

Join The Glass Hammer and our panel of experts at the 4th Annual Women in Technology event on September 4th in NYC.