Capturing Innovation: How Can Companies Make Tech Teams More Diverse?

By Cathie Ericson

iStock_000016827030XSmallThe news has been astounding: People are face palming over the fact that only 15% of the tech employees at Facebook are women.

And they are atwitter that it’s even slightly worse over at Twitter – only 10% of the tech employees are women.

But while people immediately tend to fault the company’s hiring practices, Karen Catlin, a former vice president at Adobe Systems who currently works to develop women leaders in the tech industry, maintains that the companies aren’t necessarily doing a poor job hiring women; they’re just not finding the candidates they need. And then, even when women are hired, they tend to leave the company earlier than men.

In fact, a Harvard Business Review article shows U.S. women working in science and technology fields are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry.

“Companies have work to do on promoting women, and making sure that if they stay in tech, that they can have the careers they want,” Catlin said.

Here are seven ways that companies can attract and retain women employees:

1. Tone it down.
Many tech companies are, by nature, very guy-oriented. Catlin references one company that would have a push-up contest for people who came in late to meetings. Perhaps since most women wouldn’t want to participate in that or won’t be invited to even if they wanted, this is not an environment that’s welcoming to women. The truth is that a ritual like that doesn’t just turn off women; it turns off everyone but a certain type of man who thinks that’s acceptable in a work place. Companies need to make sure that their unofficial rituals (like push-ups) and their unofficial social activities (like poker nights or strip clubs) aren’t scaring women away.

2. Don’t make assumptions.
“We tend to go out and drink (or play golf; or attend sporting events) and she won’t fit in.” You hear this a lot — executives fretting that the traditional team male bonding might exclude women. In fact, this is the corollary to the above point. Many of the business-building and bonding activities can seem to exclude women. But, it is entirely important to break stereotypes here — some women like to drink, play golf and watch sports; while at the same time, lots of men don’t. Choosing team members because they may or may not like your favorite activities is pretty short sighted. Another common assumption: she won’t want to travel because she has kids. Who knows? Maybe that mom can’t wait for a break and will volunteer for all these conferences others dread.

3. Check the culture of the company.
Does the company seem to reward face time rather than productivity? Women still tend to be in charge of the bulk of home responsibilities, so their work schedule might need to be more flexible. But just because they leave at 5:30 p.m., rather than 8 p.m. doesn’t mean they’re putting in fewer hours…they just might be doing them at different times and places than in the office. Says Catlin, “You don’t want women to worry that their personal priorities will keep them from being successful.”

4. Update recruiting tactics.
Recruiters tend to go to the same pool for candidates, which can cause them to overlook talent that might not be in plain sight. Catlin suggests that companies alert recruiters that they would like to see at least two women, for example. Once they’ve been identified – even if on paper they don’t look like the strongest candidates – companies can assess them for themselves. Or, in many companies where employees earn a bonus for a referral, increase the amount they earn for a diverse candidate. “It raises everyone’s awareness and helps you get to your goals,” she says.

5. Elevate role models.
It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if women don’t see other women routinely succeeding at higher levels, they may assume there’s not a path for them. Highlight women who are successful in tech roles and encourage them to form networking groups or hold seminars to share best practices. Make sure that company communications prominently features them, to make it clear that women’s achievements are recognized.

In a study entitled “Women in Technology: the Leaders of Tomorrow,” conducted by The Evolved Employer and The Glass Hammer, they found a strong correlation between having a role model and having C-Suite aspirations. The vast majority (83.3 percent) of women in tech who said they wanted a C-Suite job also said they had a role model. Almost a quarter (24 percent) of respondents who had no C-Suite aspirations also stated that they do not have a role model. This was significantly more than the proportion of respondents who answered yes to having role models but did not aspire to the C-Suite (11 percent). These results demonstrate that identification with others in the company who model desirable behaviors is an important driver for motivating women in technology to keep progressing in their careers.

6. Consider a returnship program.
Financial services companies are well-known for their “returnship” programs, designed to provide an extra level of support for women who have taken a break to raise kids. Tech companies should develop similar programs that would let women ease back in by providing that extra layer of training, support and mentoring.

7. Be aware of unconscious bias.
“We are all born with unconscious bias,” Catlin says, which is that pre-formed notion of what we think a certain mold is and who we think fits it. Just knowing that this is at play can go a long way toward shaping the way you view situations – and help you readjust your paradigm.

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled several male CEOs of tech companies who admitted to be frequently puzzled by what their women customers wanted. Perhaps one way to avoid that problem is to ask the women on your team and in your customer base!