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The gender gap in leadership roles
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We need to do better when it comes to promoting women in tech

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With alarmingly low numbers of women entering the tech sector and even fewer in leadership roles, Tara O’Sullivan asks 'what can HR do to help?'

30th Nov 2021
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Every year I sit down to write an article on how women in tech have been faring. And each time I put it off for days because I worry what I will do if nothing has changed, or it’s got worse. Well, its 4pm on a cloudy Friday in Ireland and I’m finally writing the article. Unfortunately, my worst fears are being confirmed.

Big companies, poor records

According to Statista, about 24 per cent of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft’s (GAFAM) technology employees are women. In fact, the low number of women working in tech jobs and leadership roles versus the total workforce show that clearly, we still have a long way to go. 

In better news - according to data from Catalyst, women hold 26.5 per cent executive, senior-level and management positions in S&P 500 companies. We know that Covid-19 has had an extremely negative impact on women in the workforce and in January 2021, we hit a new 33-year low. Unfortunately, this negative trend continued throughout 2021. 

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, men gained all of September’s new jobs while more than 300,000 women left the labour force, the largest drop-off of women from the workforce since September 2020, reports the National Women’s Law Center

Despite these grim statistics, my main worry isn’t even the participation rate of women, it is when we all go back to a more flexible, hybrid work environment, blending in office with working from home options, as a long-term response to the ongoing health crisis.

During the height of the pandemic, a study found that 34 per cent of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared with just nine per cent of women with children

This seems like a reasonable and understanding response for organisations to recognise the need for flexibility in these challenging times. But there’s a potential downside for working women that could be extremely detrimental to their careers. Research shows that men want to return to the workplace more than women (68 per cent versus 57 per cent)

Let’s assume this plays out as predicted and more men return to work than women. Based on this scenario, men will be seen more and physically present more in strategic sessions, all hand on deck emergency meetings, face-to-face with customers, prospects, sales leaders, the C-Suite, board meetings and meetings with investors, etc. This is bound to lead to men getting more promotions than women, making a bad situation even worse for women in business and technology.

Unfortunately, we’re already seeing evidence of this situation. During the height of the pandemic, a study from Qualtrics and theBoardlist found that 34 per cent of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared with just nine per cent of women with children.

All of this is disheartening, to say the least. But we all can and must do our part to continually address this imbalance and inequity. So, how can we help?

Remote versus in the office

Organisations need to make sure people who work from home are not discriminated against, so if one person is on Zoom, everyone should be on Zoom, irrespective of where they are physically. This takes planning.

Leadership, managers, and teams need to ensure that important meetings are planned in advance and people don’t just decide to drop into a meeting room to tackle a major issue, otherwise people who are not present in the office will not be given the opportunity to be part of the solution. This is a cultural mindset that must be modelled and adhered to by leadership and throughout the entire organisation.

Women are expected to be nurturing and collaborative, so when we lead, we go against expectations—and often face pushback from men and women

Meeting attendance

You need to make sure women make up meeting attendees. According to Tech Radius, the ratio of women that report seeing no other females in meetings is 11:100. Organisations that find there are few or no women present in their workforce at all levels, including leadership, need to address this imbalance.  

Change Performance Reviews

A study by Shelley J Correll, a professor at Stanford found that gender impacts evaluation of employees. The study found that a poorly defined evaluation process opens the door for gender biases to shape performance evaluations, because managers often perceive the same behaviours differently whether a man or woman engages in them.

Similarly, Lean In found that 66 per cent of women received negative feedback on their personal style such as “You can sometimes be abrasive,” compared to less than one per cent of men. Women face a double standard that men don’t. Men are expected to be assertive and confident, so co-workers welcome their leadership. In contrast, women are expected to be nurturing and collaborative, so when we lead, we go against expectations—and often face pushback from men and women. 

Rewriting job descriptions to emphasise cognitive skills over specific types of experience could go a long way to encouraging more women to apply for positions that would challenge them and put them on the executive track

Performance reviews need to be adapted to recognise a range of management, leadership and working styles.  This approach will not only benefit woman, but also other types of people, whether male or female, who may be major contributors to the organisation, but don’t exhibit the characteristics of more aggressive or extroverted employees.  

Conscious bias in job ads

Rewriting job descriptions to emphasise cognitive skills over specific types of experience could go a long way to encouraging more women to apply for positions that would challenge them and put them on the executive track. There is a gender decoder site HR can use which is a quick way to check whether a job advert has the kind of subtle linguistic gender-coding may inadvertently discourage women from applying.

Keeping women out of technology roles is also impacting our earning power, as technology is one of the top earning industries in the US. According to PayScale, In 2021, women make only $0.82 for every dollar a man makes, which is one cent more than they made in 2020.  Not only are women paid less than men, but women of colour are also paid less again. By calculating presumptive raises given over a 40-year career, women of colour stand to lose $900,000 on average over a lifetime.

Yet again, this year, there isn’t much light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps by focusing on some of the above points, we will have better news next year.

 

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