On the 30th of November I spoke at CTO Summit about Getting to Gender parity without the Awks.
Previous attempts I had made to sum up answers to ‘How can we attract, retain and inspire more women in technology careers?’ had left me fumbling for easy-to-digest responses. My male colleagues wanted to help, but it can be an awkward conundrum to untangle and confront.
On one hand I’m sure I’ve been the recipient of some positive discrimination in my career: was I entitled to weigh in on this subject?
This infographic of Cognitive Bias from better humans blog, indicates that we are walking bags of bias when it comes to most matters of the heart and mind—was this contributing to my polite tippy-toeing around the subject? Had I fooled myself into believing discrimination of women in tech didn’t exist? And/or was I well aware of the unconscious bias of others around me with their eyes wide shut?
When I went deep into my psyche (and Google) I found that female oppression isn’t something that was thought up by the internet, and we have, as a race, a long history of considerable (and at its roots, biblical) inherent societal discrimination when it comes to the progression of ladies.
That’s a bit bleak….and hard to fit into a coffee catch up with a well meaning tech fella who wants to know “How can I help?”
I realised I needed a better answer to that question.
First of all let’s remind ourselves what exactly is the specifics of the problem here?
Women are outnumbered in Tech Careers
All industries: 58% Men | 42% Women
Technology: 82% Men | 18% Women
Women are dropping out of technology roles faster than men
17% Men | 41% Women
Perceived competence level needed to go for promotions is 100% in women
60% Men | 100% Women
And 64% of women in tech careers report a lack of confidence and concern over navigating workplaces dominated by men
So this is the atmosphere that our women are working in. It’s dominated by men. Women are opting out of career advancement in tech. They are not confident and aren’t going for promotion.
However, it’s not all bad news—the pendulum is swinging rapidly in favour of the women. But what can we all do in our roles as team members and leaders in our tech organisations to help?
I knew that there were many simple, low effort things that our peers and leaders could be doing, that were almost ‘free’. As an ‘agile person’ it was incumbent on me to start with high value low effort ideas; hacks if you will.
#1 Play catch up with your own bias
Try to confront your own bias and own it. When you can acknowledge your lack of awareness or bias you are simultaneously able to remove it. It’s perfectly OK to say out loud “I remember I used to think this wasn’t a real problem in our industry but now I see that it is”. Or “I don’t feel like we have a problem but I’m open to hearing about if we do”.
Because we all have bias, it sets an amazing example if you can declare your own, or at least open up a conversation about it. Owning it, even if it makes you a little vulnerable, stops making it something that might not exist.
#2 Applaud her role related skills
How many times have you witnessed a female colleague being praised for bringing the gift of ’emotional labour’ to work? Acknowledging activities such as team building, bringing cakes and creating a feel good factor at work can have a detrimental effect to the individual’s progress in her core role.
So if you can stop, think, change your compliment/acknowledgement to be something that is related to her doing her actual job instead of abilities that we, rightly or wrongly, associate with being a women; the nurturing, networking and softer skills, it’s going to make her feel more confident in her position as an effective team member.
#3 Notice out loud
It can be quite a catalyst to change to notice out loud how many women are in a particular team or meeting or event. The CTO Summit in 2015 had very few women in the audience. That was noticed, mentioned and tweeted and in one cycle the proportion of females in the audience increased markedly.
You can notice lots of things like how many teams you have with females in them, or count up how many female applicants you are getting for tech roles.
I’ve observed that this kind of behaviour has a snowball effect inside an organisation. Stories come filtering back from all over REA about male dominated teams that are actively on the look out for females.
What I particularly like is when a male colleague of mine starts this conversation first, then everyone including the women can jump in with some ideas to help increase the numbers of women represented. Solving problems is bread and butter for tech people. It’s what they do really well, so if you can get the problem surfaced well with supporting data, then solving tends to magically happen.
4# Who is doing all the talking?
Data tells us there are already more male voices than females in tech, and research tells us that men re-phrase what women say and get credit for the same words. So what hack can you do to create a space for women’s voices if you have lower number of females in the room? Well if you’re a man you can silence one voice which is your own. If you’re a leader you probably have the influence to make space for women’s voices; could you let a female run your next meeting, or invite her opinion in a conversation? Make a game of it and see if you can get through a meeting without saying anything yourself perhaps?
On a side note—and side benefit—don’t be disappointed if you don’t agree when you ask for a female opinion. We’ve come to learn that diverse opinions create higher team performance, so it would be disappointing if you just got bland agreement when you do encourage more female voices in the room.
#5 Bring your sister
If you are going to a conference, training course, meet-up, or even a meeting, give a female exposure to this by taking it upon yourself to invite a female.
One of our women in tech Denise gave me the idea for this one. She volunteers for Girls In Tech, a group of people that come together to activate and promote women in technology. They have this idea of encouraging females along to participate in their events, be it your mum, your sister etc. Think about the women in your teams that you work with every day. Is there an opportunity to bring a female who has ambition to attend a leadership meeting? We know from the stats they are low in confidence so can you create exposure and opportunity for them by doing more of this, and then you inadvertently create opportunity for hack #4 which is more female voices.
#6 A little encouragement goes a long way
Super easy: find your women’s social media tweets and re-tweet, like or quote them. I have a few people who do this for me, and they might not know they are doing it, but it’s amazing for my confidence to think that something I wrote was clever, an article I blogged was insightful, or if something I wrote was funny. So look for those opportunities to make your women in tech colleagues feel valued. As peers we have the opportunity to engage as a positive force on behalf of our women, and it’s almost free.
#7 Follow a more gender balanced set of people
I went through the people I follow when I was preparing for the talk and it was less than 20% female. Now I only look for new interesting females to follow as a rule, and in this way I’m evening up my perspectives on issues. Agile people, tech people, people in the media and comedians; I try and curate it to be more women’s voices and you could do that too. I was shocked at my own propensity to listen to male opinions and voices. Now I find lots more out there, my mind has been opened, and also beyond gender diversity to things such as sexual identity and different political viewpoints.
So examine your own social media preferences, the articles you read, your own media ‘bubble’ and decide if you could open up your mind to more diverse or balanced voices out there.
8# Get to know her
The only true way I’ve found that works in removing all awkwardness is to get to know the individual so you can have an open conversation. To find out what women have in terms of ambition, confidence gaps, talents—get to know them! And this takes a little more effort.
What I suggest is take your women for a coffee and say “I just want to know all the girls in my org because the data tells me they might be feeling some of this stuff” and women probably won’t open up to you without you explicitly saying “this isn’t a particular work chat, it’s really just a get to know you meeting”.
If you are thinking that your female tech colleague doesn’t have a lack of confidence, or isn’t feeling like quitting tech maybe you haven’t asked her? Or maybe it would be hard for her to tell you that unless you’ve taken the time to get to know her? Maybe she’s going to open up a little more to you about what her ambitions are if you open that genuine conversation?
#9 Let her choose
Exclusion is subtle, and you can use subtle change to equal up the situation in your teams. For example, events that you know are going to be massively overrun with men that have beer and pizza on their catering choices can unintentionally exclude people. I don’t drink beer or eat pizza so when I go to meet ups like that I have to be a pain and ask for soft drink or a cup of tea. Knowing that and designing your events and meet ups around that can achieve more inclusion.
If you can resist having burgers and beer for lunch en masse and accepting that ’Sally just likes to eat lunch quietly at work, she doesn’t like big outings’ that can also create inclusion.
Could you maybe one day eat lunch with her in the lunch room? Maybe let her choose what the team function is going to be, or ask her what her preference is and then YOU make the choice for the rest of the team to favour her preference?
Alcohol can be a great release for many people at the end of a hard week of work, but did you know a lot of women won’t drink at work functions? Some women don’t want to be compromised or vulnerable or expose themselves to situations where they are perceived poorly. I would think that’s particularly true for women who are feeling less confident so could you alternate with a few non alcohol related events?
Many women withdraw from career progression because they feel they are out-classed from the get go because they are not seen at these events influencing the right people or fitting into the team norms. So try and make the team norms NOT revolve around social rituals that exclude her, even if it’s unintentional.
#10 Let her own her victories
Or in other words try not to “ice the ladies cake”.
Allow her to own her victories. I know it can be challenging when we all work in autonomous teams and we don’t necessarily aim to call out heroes in technology work, but try and let her claim her victories, or create an opportunity for her to do that. She might be bad at taking credit for her awesome work, and may not have been rewarded through her life or career for standing out. I know I am very bad at taking positive feedback and have had instances of people having several attempts at saying “good job, congrats” without me blowing it off as someone else’s good work. If she shuns the limelight it can be equally boosting to privately thank the individual.
The opposite of this is when you see a manager taking everyone else’s work, putting their own little sprinkle of magic on it and re-interpreting it for their boss or for leadership to digest. I really hate it, so if you see that happening in your teams try to not do it.
These were my top 10 hacks. I actually had a lot more and hopefully if you’ve been thinking about your female in tech colleagues, it may have sparked some ideas of your own to try.
Now you might be thinking that your job is already complex enough, and adding another layer of the gender of the person sitting in front of you to your troubles isn’t going to make your job easier. But the easiest hack of all could be how influential your words are, and what you have to say when you have opportunities to talk about this topic. For me that’s more impactful than all the numbers games of equaling up percentages of women versus men in tech roles, to have it acknowledged and supported by the people you work with in teams every day.
I think the coolest part about getting to be an advocate for the women in tech at REA Group and in our industry, is when you witness someone’s small victory like a promotion or a woman in tech having a success that reflects positivity back on her. Or when I hear someone say I’ve inspired them to stand up for themselves and their opinions and abilities at work. I’m lucky enough to get that in feedback a lot from our women, probably because I am a women, but that could easily be you.
You can be the person that creates that feeling of inclusiveness inside your tech teams, so that the women want to be there, so they are confident to stay & stretch themselves and be their awesome best. You can be the person that creates that atmosphere of inclusion without the awks.
- Women are outnumbered in tech careers—2016 LinkedIn Workforce Diversity Report.
- Women are dropping out of tech careers at more than double the rate of the males
- Women don’t apply for jobs unless they are 100% qualified
- Women are lack confidence in male dominated workplaces—STEMconnector white paper, March 2014
Women in STEM: Realizing the Potential