As a woman and a feminist (though there was a time when I dared not admit that in the workplace), I have years of experience in high technology companies. Working in human resources, part of my role was hiring for technology positions. Later in my career, I was focused on hiring and retaining people for tech jobs. All along my journey, the progress I saw toward achieving gender parity in jobs, pay, and promotions was painfully slow.
Despite the buzz to the contrary, the reason for the dearth of women in technology roles, and especially in leadership roles in technology, isn’t a scarcity of female talent. In the science and engineering disciplines, women earn half of all bachelor’s degrees. Clearly, women in higher education are not afraid of technical subject matter.
Based on a number of recent media stories backed up by ongoing research, women are stymied, stagnated and overlooked. A report released a year ago by the Center for Talent Innovation found that U.S. women working in science and high tech fields are 45 percent more likely to leave the industry in their first year than their male counterparts. This is despite the finding that 80 percent of the women said they loved their work. More than 32 percent of women in emerging-market science and tech companies feel stalled in their careers. One-third of women feel they are not able to break into social networks in the workplace. A staggering 72 percent of women perceive gender bias in their performance evaluations.
The result of this unlevel playing field is that only 14.6 percent of executives, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Why is this goldmine of talent being wasted?
I look at career progression as a series of gates. The first gate, getting hired, is still a gauntlet for women. Early in my career, I learned about a study that found women and men were hired for different reasons: Men were hired for their potential, women for their track record. Work done by legal scholar Joan C. Williams shows that this gender-based reasoning hasn’t changed. To compound the problem, there’s what Williams calls the “Prove It Again” barrier: Women’s accomplishments are often attributed to luck, so they have to prove themselves anew each time; men’s results are attributed to skill.
There is neuroscience behind this: Our brains are nonstop categorizing machines. We are always comparing and creating pecking orders. In working with hiring teams, I’ve run into this countless times: The pecking order means that for each open position, there’s only one best person in the entire universe. Despite policies and training on the advantages of a diverse workforce, asking the team to place a value on the race or gender of top candidates was perceived as asking them to settle for someone who was second, third or fourth best. Oftentimes, the only criteria they could offer for their preferred candidate were “they’ll fit the team better” or “they’re a better cultural match.”
That brings us to the second gate: “fitting in” to tech and science-focused organizations. There is also brain hard-wiring at work here. David Rock’s SCARF model says that social pleasure and pain fall into five domains: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Women tend to value relatedness and fairness more than men. They may find little of either domain in an all-male team and even less in leaders who value a male-anchored model of workplace behavior and leadership traits.
Women often report finding themselves locked out of influential networks in their organization. Men more readily form alliances with other men. This limits the coaching, mentoring, encouragement and word-of-mouth marketing that’s so important to establishing a reputation within an organization. They have fewer eyes and ears working for their benefit.
For women who aspire to achieve higher levels of responsibility — which, studies say, is most of them — the third gate is promotion. Forty-four percent of U.S. women reported feeling as though they were being judged against male leadership standards. Says Laura Sherbin, the director of research for CTI, “When the prevailing leaders are all men, it’s very difficult for women to look, act and sound like the leaders they succeed.” With few female role models to follow, women’s confidence, and even their propensity to apply for promotions, diminishes.
Complicating matters further is that leaders are expected to be assertive, but women who are one standard deviation toward aggressive are considered “bossy” or even “bitchy.” The benefits of an assertive personality don’t fall to female bosses.
Sadly, many women in technical careers exit through the fourth gate — they leave the company. For some, the demands of motherhood make coping with the testosterone-driven high tech environment unbearable. To leaders seeing women stay home after having a child, this reinforces the mommy stereotype and lets them absolve themselves of any responsibility for the woman’s decision.
Workers join companies for one set of reasons and leave for a different set of reasons, usually related to the quality of the direct manager. After running the gauntlet of the first three gates, many women experience diminished confidence. The extreme outlay of energy they need to fit in, feel accepted, find community and be viewed as successful takes its toll.
What about the toll on U.S. businesses? Losing a highly paid worker costs a company about two years’ worth of wages in recruiting and training expenses and lost productivity. Alexandra Russell of Stanford cites research that shows the U.S. annual gross domestic product (GDP) would increase by more than $800 billion if women were more fully integrated into the workplace and placed in leadership roles in parity with men.
Department of Labor statistics show that at the current rate of progress, it will take until late in this century to achieve leadership and pay parity for U.S. women. What can companies do? Leaders need to take a public stand. Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich has said, “Without a workforce that more closely mirrors the population, we are missing opportunities, including not understanding and designing for our own customers.”
How to fix the problem and capture that $800 billion? There’s no macro fix. The problem has to be handled at the organization level. First, a company needs to doggedly pursue the reasons high performing women leave. As a leader, you need to taking a deep breath, prepare to be humbled and talk to the ones who got away. Chances are, with some water under the bridge, the leavers will be honest with you. Second, set aggressive goals for gender representation. Third, pick the right metrics to make sure you have a diverse funnel of applicants, finalists and hires. Monitor their experiences after three, six and 12 months. The more proactive you are about retention, the less you’ll spend on hiring and training. Finally, help the word get around that the gates to success are wide open to women.
Susan Strating is co-owner of NeuroSense Consulting, an HR consulting company specializing in neuroscience-based business coaching, management training, and leadership development. firstname.lastname@example.org.