Joining forces to break the glass ceiling

Joining forces to break the glass ceiling

Diverse organisations are more likely to generate increased profit than their less diverse peers, according to McKinsey & Company. But how can technology companies attract and retain more women? Three female leaders in this space share their insights 

Alice Chambers |

Although more companies are addressing the gender gap in the technology sector, the Women in Tech Survey 2023 reveals that women make up only 26 per cent of those working in IT. In the USA, they represent 23 per cent of the technology workforce and in Europe, they constitute 19.1 per cent of the ICT sector, according to the WomenTech Network. However, the share of women in technology is more encouraging in Southeast Asian (SEA) and Latin American (LATAM) countries, with ranges from 34 to 40 per cent in SEA, as noted by Boston Consulting Group, and up to 38 per cent in LATAM, according to India-based technology company Draup.  

WomenTech suggests the disparity between the number of men and women in the technology sector can be attributed to the fact that only 16 per cent of individuals with a degree in computer and information sciences are women, with similarly low numbers in engineering technology and physical sciences. However, the underrepresentation of women in the technology industry cannot be solely accredited to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education. Many of the senior technical leaders at various organisations come from non-technical backgrounds. So, what other factors are contributing to this issue? 

We ask three leaders from organisations dedicated to promoting gender diversity in technology to share their insights into the reasons behind the underrepresentation of women in the industry and how the technology landscape is evolving to combat this. They also discuss why diversity plays a crucial role in driving the development of new tools and solutions for technology companies.  

The Microsoft Global Diversity & Inclusion Report 2023 shows that the number of women working at Microsoft has grown by 3.6 per cent since 2019 to 33.1 per cent. How has the overall technology business landscape changed for women in the last five years?  

Christine Bongard: We have seen changes, but they have been slow. The number of women in leadership positions has increased by two per cent but we only represent 12 per cent of all C-suite roles.  

Positive advancements include the rise of flexible work arrangements, which has helped women balance career and family responsibilities, a greater awareness and stricter policies against workplace harassment and an increased focus on workplace mental health.  

Anna Radulovski: The technology industry has seen shifts like remote work, the return to offices and the introduction of hybrid working models, as well as challenges such as layoffs and the rise of generative artificial intelligence. These changes have influenced the landscape for women in technology. Despite improvements in female representation and support from women’s employee resource groups, significant barriers remain. The ‘broken rung’ phenomenon continues to hinder women from advancing to mid-level and senior roles, where there is a noticeable lack of diversity. Addressing this problem is crucial for achieving true equity. 

Gavriella Schuster: Technology companies have moved away from only hiring people with 20 years of experience. With technology moving so quickly, organisations now need people who can improve customer journeys and understand the value of AI. In fact, people who have been in the industry for a long time can be more of a liability because they are used to thinking differently about new use cases. I think that has opened doors for people who haven’t traditionally been in the industry for long, like women, to participate.  

A WomenTech Network survey found that 57 per cent of women in technology, media and telecommunications roles plan to leave their jobs within two years. What do you think are the key factors that make it difficult to attract and retain women in the technology industry? 

CB: First, there’s the well-documented gender pay gap, where women often earn less than their male counterparts for similar roles. Second, hiring practices can sometimes be biased, favouring candidates from certain backgrounds or networks, perpetuating the gender imbalance. Moreover, the perception of a ‘bro culture’ in technology can create an unwelcoming or even hostile environment for women. In addition, some women still lack access to mentorship and sponsorship, both of which are crucial for career development and advancement.  

AR: The technology industry is portrayed as male dominated, which deters women from joining. The lack of female role models and educational gaps in STEM also contribute to gender imbalance. Additionally, societal norms often misrepresent technology roles as solely highly technical, overlooking skills like management and creativity where women often excel. Addressing these issues requires educational institutions and technology companies to collaborate on proactive outreach curricula, showcasing diverse role models and real-world examples to engage young women and challenge these stereotypes. 

GS: It’s very hard for a woman to break into the club. Historically, hiring practices see firms finding candidates through their network that is usually male dominated, unless they are intentionally working to break this process. If a woman is hired but joins a team of men, she is likely to find it difficult to thrive unless she has some great allies due to bias and microaggressions pushing her away. That is why we have a lot of statistics to show women leaving their careers in technology more often than men.  

Women in Tech

What inspired you to go into a career in the technology industry? 

CB: I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. I started during the birth of the personal computer and have thrived in the fast-paced, challenging environments, helping businesses to adopt new technologies. Throughout my career, the scarcity of women in technology prompted me to connect with allies who provided invaluable coaching and mentoring, which led to the development of the non-profit organisation The WIT Network with like-minded women. Feedback from allies was instrumental in shaping my leadership style and approach with customers, partners and employees, and The WIT Network aims to provide women and men the same opportunities to grow their careers in technology. This journey has been incredibly rewarding and I am deeply grateful for the experiences and growth it has brought me.  

AR: Several years ago, I was struck by the lack of women at a technology conference I attended. This spurred me to establish initiatives like Coding Girls and WomenTech Network to support and empower women. We focus on providing resources, mentorship and networking opportunities to foster an environment where everyone can thrive. Our efforts are driven by the belief that technology should promote both innovation and equality, ensuring women have equitable opportunities to lead and succeed.  

GS: I wanted to do something where I could be on a continual learning path and that is what inspired me to work in the technology industry. The start of my technology career was the era of end-user computing, which was very new and a lot like it is today with data centre computing in that not a lot of people had experience in it. This meant that technology companies were willing to hire people who didn’t have as much experience with the technology but understood customer behaviours.  

Please tell us about a key moment from your career and how it has helped to shape you as a leader. 

CB: Fifteen years ago, I participated in my first Microsoft partner advisory council and have served on three different Microsoft councils since. This experience allowed me to cultivate essential skills such as networking, public speaking, problem-solving and team collaboration. It was an incredible journey that significantly elevated my leadership capabilities. Moreover, it connected me with many lifelong friends, creating bonds that have lasted well beyond our time on the councils. The experience was truly transformative, both professionally and personally.  

AR: Early in the pandemic, as CEO of WomenTech Network and a new mother, I faced the challenge of cancelling all in-person events. Choosing to adapt rather than wait, we organised our first-ever virtual conference within three months. This experience taught me resilience and agility, and it deepened my commitment to supporting women in technology. The overwhelming feedback from attendees showed the conference not only expanded our reach but also provided a vital connection and hope during a difficult time, strengthening our community globally.  

GS: When I had my first child, my manager at the time scheduled strategic meetings between 18:00 and 20:00, despite my requests to change the time due to nursing. This made me feel undervalued and taught me what kind of leader I didn’t want to be. Now, I always consider others’ availability before scheduling meetings. 

Collaboration software like Microsoft Teams is helping women to work flexibly from home so they can continue their role as caregivers while progressing in their careers. How has technology helped you, or people you mentor, to overcome challenges in the workplace? 

CB: Cloud services like Microsoft 365 enable employees to access documents and apps from anywhere, which is perfect for flexible and remote work arrangements.  

Personally, I find it incredibly beneficial to learn and build skills through platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning, which offer a wide range of online courses that fit into my schedule. I also really enjoy using apps like Headspace and Calm for stress management and mental wellbeing; they remind me to take a few minutes to breathe and recharge.  

AR: Real-time communication apps like Teams have revolutionised workplace inclusivity and flexibility. These tools help women and caregivers balance professional and personal commitments by enabling remote work. This integration fosters a work culture that values both efficiency and personal wellbeing, enhancing satisfaction and dedication among employees. Such technological advancements support a diverse and dynamic workforce by making the workplace more adaptable.  

GS: Previously, we had to be in the office to access the corporate network, so being able to connect from home on a virtual private network was liberating. I was able to wake up early and get extra work done without leaving the house. 

The advancements in Teams for real, seamless conversations are fantastic. We’ve adapted to this way of working without awkwardness, allowing people to join meetings from anywhere, which has made a huge difference. 

Companies where women comprise over 30 per cent of the workforce are significantly more likely to financially outperform those with less than 30 per cent, according to McKinsey & Company’s 2023 report, Diversity matters even more: The case for holistic impact. Why do you think this is? 

CB: Companies that prioritise gender diversity attract a broader range of job candidates. This leads to different approaches to problem solving, better decision-making with thorough analysis and creative solutions, and a more inclusive and supportive work environment.  

Overall, the link between gender diversity and profitability is clear. Broader talent acquisition, stronger financial performance, improved reputation and increased employee satisfaction collectively contribute to the superior performance of gender-diverse companies, making them more likely to achieve higher profitability than their less diverse peers.  

AR: Gender-diverse teams reflect a wide array of experiences and viewpoints, leading to more innovative problem solving. This diversity is crucial in developing new technologies like generative AI and refining best practices. By challenging conventional thinking and anticipating diverse customer needs, these teams deliver more effective solutions. Thus, by embracing a wider talent pool, organisations enhance their capacity for innovation and significantly increase their potential for higher profitability. 

GS: A room full of people who are all like each other will fall into ‘groupthink’, where their similar experiences limit their perspective. A notable example is the Microsoft Surface kickstand design, which was uncomfortable for women wearing skirts – a design flaw unnoticed until too late. Carolyn Criado Perez’s Invisible Women highlights numerous instances where omitting female data has compromised business decisions. Research indicates that women often seek alternative solutions in high-pressure situations, in contrast to men who favour riskier options. So, integrating diverse viewpoints not only improves team dynamics but also the quality of decision-making.  

Gavriella Schuster

Gavriella Schuster talks about the importance of allyship at industry events, including at the Microsoft Alumni Network Connect Conference in September 2023

What are the most impressive examples of projects you have seen to help attract and retain women in the technology industry?  

CB: Company leadership must set the tone in order for other levels of management to buy in and provide additional levels of support to women. This is even more effective if paired with fair hiring practices, offering flexible work arrangements and addressing pay equity. Firms that conduct regular pay audits to identify and correct disparities and also maintain transparency in salary bands and criteria for raises and promotions are more likely to build trust among employees.  

AR: Several initiatives are doing great work to bring more women into technology and keep them there. The Grace Hopper Celebration is one of the largest events for women in the industry, offering chances to network. WomenTech Network is a global community where women can get mentorship, explore career opportunities and connect with industry leaders at our global conference and monthly networking events.  

GS: With allyship, it’s the little moments that matter. When you recognise that some microaggression has occurred, what I like to call an ‘inclusion inhibitor’, a colleague can step in and re-empower that person. The most important thing is to create a culture of inclusion. If we help people realise when they have power and privilege in certain situations and how to respond to that, then every individual feels valued, regardless of where they are in a hierarchy. 

What else do you think the wider technology industry can do to help inspire women and those in other minority groups to get involved in the sector, either whilst they are still in education or once they have joined the working world? 

CB: To inspire minority groups to enter the technology industry, it’s crucial to highlight the achievements of diverse individuals, offering role models and mentors for guidance. Early exposure through workshops and technology education in schools, combined with financial support like scholarships and grants, can reduce barriers. The WIT Network then works to lift women up through their careers. We do this through education, mentorship and networking across our 13,000 members, most of which work in Microsoft partner organisations. 

AR: Microsoft and other technology companies can expand their impact by partnering with organisations focused on women and girls. These collaborations can offer tailored educational programmes, workshops and events that introduce young women and girls to STEM early on. Such partnerships also enable mentorship opportunities, connecting industry professionals with aspiring technology enthusiasts to build networks and instil confidence. By working together, organisations can make technology careers more accessible. 

GS: Awareness of diverse technology roles beyond coding, such as product management, marketing and operations, is lacking. This deters women from pursuing technology careers, so organisations should promote job opportunities better. Similarly, universities should expand curricula to include varied positions beyond traditional IT roles.  

Additionally, upskilling programmes often focus too narrowly on certification, like requiring all Microsoft sales, marketing and operations roles to earn Microsoft Azure certification, which can misleadingly imply that they need coding expertise. It’s crucial to clarify what each certification entails and the specific skills it provides. 

WIT Network

Communities within The WIT Network meet regularly to network, find mentors and be inspired through learning together

How do you think the business landscape will evolve for women and those in other minority groups in the next 12 months? 

CB: The adoption of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives will help support women and minority groups. Shareholders and activist groups are increasingly holding companies accountable for commitments, demanding detailed employee demographics, racial equity audits and pay gap reports. These measures are expected to improve inclusive hiring and promotion practices. 

Also, the rise of AI presents opportunities for minority groups with AI ethics proposals pushing for the adoption of policies to prevent bias and discrimination in AI apps. 

AR: Predicting the evolution of the technology landscape for women and minorities is complex. However, adopting transparent promotion tracks and inclusive hiring practices, alongside providing mentorship, advancing equal opportunities, and promoting women and minorities into leadership roles, can transform the industry. These efforts will not only create fairer workplaces but also drive innovation by tapping into the unique perspectives and skills that women bring to technology.  

GS: Organisations need to respond to the industry-wide talent shortage by expanding their employee candidate set. The best way to do this is by recruiting outside of their network by intentionally changing recruitment practices.  

It’s also important to note that businesses are snapping back to working in the office. Several companies are reinforcing set days in the office and so becoming less flexible, leading to the loss of women in technology roles. Women favour roles that are more flexible and will avoid those that are not.  

Christine Bongard is CEO of the WIT Network, Anna Radulovski is CEO and founder of WomenTech Network and founder and board director for Coding Girls, and Gavriella Schuster is a former Microsoft executive and currently serves on the board of directors for several technology companies within the Microsoft ecosystem.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2024 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription. 

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