Alice through the looking glass: On the other side, the IT workforce must be (more) diverse

Alice through the looking glass: On the other side, the IT workforce must be (more) diverse

As International Women’s Day comes and goes again, we continue to ask the same questions.

The myth of the glass ceiling in IT remains a wicked problem. Women have shaped computer science, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper and Mary Lee Berners.

Women have been working in IT in force since the 1960s, when it really took off as a commercial industry. An industry so exciting that we’ve reimagined and reinvented our lives, businesses and societies.

The urgency of digital transformation today puts new emphasis on creating a resilient workforce, populated by people with different perspectives. Yet as International Women’s Day comes and goes again, we continue to ask the same questions. Why so little scaling of diversity in tech, specifically female participation? Why so few female technologists from start-ups to boardrooms? From my personal lens – why am I often still the only female presenter at a conference; on a long haul business flight; or in a C-level meeting?

Over the past week on panels, breakfasts and lunches, we’ve heard the same old musings on how to encourage females into STEM; how to inject diversity into the IT workforce; and how to attract, retain and promote female tech talent. The answers are generally:

  • We try but it’s not sexy/interesting/female friendly/[insert excuse here].
  • We do our best but [insert excuse here].
  • We try but there’s not enough applicants/experienced senior females/[insert excuse here].

Things are only getting worse. According to the 2018 Gartner CIO Survey, 14 percent of CIOs are female – the proportion has remained much the same for years. The number of females entering STEM programs is steadily declining and has been for some time. No one seems to quite understand why.

Diversity matters

Diversity in tech matters — for innovation, product development, revenue/profits, meeting future workforce demands and closing economic and wealth gaps. There’s consistent correlation between leadership diversity and better financial outcomes. There’s a body of evidence that shows how diverse teams — people who think differently from one another and have different areas of specialisation and expertise – are more innovative. Ethnically and gender diverse teams offer companies more problem solving tools, broader thinking and better solutions.

Simply put: more diverse teams make better decisions. Yet, tech remains a notoriously homogeneous sector, despite billions of dollars spent in recent years to increase diversity. We know the causes for disparities are complex, with biases and barriers existing throughout the tech pipeline, from K-12 education through to the workforce and venture capital. But to what extent does culture drive out talent, resulting in a revolving door for under-represented groups?

Pipeline is a problem and it’s getting worse. But there’s another equally important problem: the pipeline is leaky. In other words, why are females and other unrepresented groups leaving tech early in their careers?

Glass versus concrete ceiling

There’s a tech glass ceiling that’s not as high as we thought, as females are bumping against it mid-career. Let’s look at it more as a story of the glass versus concrete ceiling. 

The glass ceiling is an external set of circumstances. It obviously exists or at least we think it does. The presumption is that we want to smash or shatter it. It holds women back, not other underrepresented groups.

Whereas, the concrete ceiling is psychological. There’s a general lack of awareness of the phenomenon. It’s harder to break and has a protective purpose. It holds women back and has a negative effect on everyone, above and below.

The Kapor Centre for Social Impact in the US released a “Tech Leavers Study” in 2017 to find out why people voluntarily leave their tech jobs. Women cited unfairness; lack of flexibility — most jobs are full-time and office-based; career breaks; and no strong affinity groups, as the top reasons they leave.

If we also look at why women aren’t moving up or getting ahead, research from Gartner indicates that while men are comfortable pursuing opportunities for which they met only 60 percent of the stated criteria, women typically apply only when they meet all required qualifications. Men are overrepresented in pipelines into IT and this imbalance only increased higher up in the organisation.

Turn diversity around

IT organisations need effective diversity and inclusion programs. We need to develop leaders who foster inclusion. And we need to measure the impact of these programs.

IT leaders must focus on what they can do in both recruiting AND retention. Getting women and other underrepresented groups into the pipeline in greater numbers is important, as is stopping mid-career leavers on the brink of promotion and higher level positions.

Start by understanding and leading with the facts on diversity business benefits. Review and revise job descriptions and job postings for inclusion. Be aware of micro-challenges and use proactive interventions. Create gender partnerships to promote and demonstrate fairness.

High-performing women need to be encouraged to pursue progressively more senior career goals. The most progressive organisations create visibility into leadership opportunities for high-performing women and highlight how they are, or can become qualified, for more advanced positions.

Most importantly, women, tell your story! Work relentlessly on yourself to attain emotional and intellectual self-awareness. What impact would you like to have? What actions can you take? What are your contributions to making the technology sector and the world a fairer place?

Jenny Beresford is a research director with Gartner's CIO Advisory team. Previously, she has served as a CIO in global enterprises, held VP and GM roles in consulting and technology firms, worked as a hands-on enterprise agile coach, an innovation lead and a digital transformation director. 

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