Computing Applications Broadening participation

Innovation and Inclusion

What technology companies, especially startups, need to know about building great places to work—for her and him—in the digital age.
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Innovation and Inclusion, illustration

San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Boston—these cities are magnets for startup companies inventing breakthrough technologies that are changing the way we learn, get around, socialize, and do our jobs. While these cities are acknowledged for their socially progressive urban cultures, the cultures within some of these startup companies are a far cry from progressive when it comes to gender diversity and inclusion. At most technology startups, women are underrepresented at all levels.

It seems unthinkable that companies developing technologies for use by males and females alike would fail to recognize the benefits of including women in the product development process. Yet, while women constitute about half of the U.S. workforce, they filled only about 23% of computing positions in 2012.a In our article published in the February 2009 issue of Communications,1 we reported the number of women in math and computer science positions had declined from 33% in 1984 to 27% in 2004. Earlier this year, Google revealed women held 17% of the company’s technical positions. By publicly releasing this data, Google joins other companies, such as Intel, that are shining a spotlight on a problem they are working hard to fix.

One explanation for female under-representation is that many technology organizations have workplaces that are inhospitable to women. This is particularly true for technology startups with predominantly young male employees. Geek culture is embraced and encouraged. Senior staff may have little or no management training, and social networks heavily influence hiring decisions. Work/family balance is not considered. The deck is stacked against women’s being recruited or retained in such environments.

Some companies, including Google and the other 40+ partners of the Anita Borg Institute, are taking important steps to increase the participation of women in their technology organizations. Most are established companies that have been around long enough to experience what research has shown: that women are essential to their innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. The companies simply cannot afford to lose them.

When these mature technology companies acquire startups (as so many do), they face the challenge of evolving the culture of the acquired company so that all employees can thrive. There is often a lot of work to be done to instill a culture of inclusiveness. Startup companies, whether independent or newly acquired, have much to gain by learning from established companies that are committed to workforce diversity.

For over 15 years, the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) has worked with women technologists and the organizations that employ them. Our expertise, body of research, educational sessions, and major events make ABI a valuable resource for organizations that want to better recruit, retain, and advance women technologists. In this column, we describe some of the ways ABI is helping its partner companies to create workplaces that welcome women and men alike.

Informing companies of where they stand. The first step for a company seeking improvement is to understand the current state. This applies equally to diversity metrics as to product specs or customer engagement statistics. While data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can help companies determine the participation of women in their overall headcount, the EEOC does not report data specific to the technical workforce.

To clearly view where they stand, companies must know the percentage of women at the entry, mid, and senior levels of their technical workforces. They also need visibility into the participation of women in management positions versus technical individual contributors (such as members of technical staff). And, they need to be able to compare this data to industry benchmarks and peer companies. Once they fully understand their current state, organizations can review data over time to determine whether they are making progress toward their workforce goals.

Several years ago, ABI recognized there was an unmet need to better understand and measure the technical workforce. No benchmarking data existed, in large part because there was a paucity of research relating to the technology segment of the workforce and even less about the representation of women in technical positions. The ABI Board of Trustees launched the Top Company for Women in Computing Initiative in 2010 to give companies the quantitative analysis they needed to establish performance baselines. With participation from leaders in industry and academia, we established the first methodology for benchmarking women’s participation in the technical workforce. We also developed the first clear definition of the technical workforce as it relates to computing.

Our work with partner companies has shown us that maintaining an inclusive culture requires commitment from all parts of the organization.

Today, the Top Company Initiative is the only source for cross-company data about technical women at specific job levels. It is widely recognized as the authoritative resource for companies that want to know how they measure up when it comes to recruitment, retention, and advancement of their women technologists. An important result of the Top Company Initiative is companies can compare their diversity statistics to those of companies in their peer group. This year, 24 companies participated in the Top Company Initiative, including American Express, Bank of America, eBay, EMC, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, Intuit, Microsoft, NetApp, salesforce.com, SAP, VM-ware, and Yahoo. Companies that have participated over several years can analyze changes over time and measure the pipeline as women advance through each stage of their career paths. Once companies are able to identify the exit points for women on the technical track, they can more effectively address and remediate the root causes for their departure. Many partner companies have incorporated Top Company Initiative measurements into their internal dashboards to ensure visibility and management accountability.

Helping companies institutionalize diversity as an organizational priority, from the top down. Senior managers are important role models, and their individual actions make a difference. Managing by example is essential for companies that want to engender change. Last year, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, an ABI partner company, issued a memo to top managers stating that company leaders needed to drive a culture change to eliminate gender biases in the workplace.b Vijay Anand, Vice President and Managing Director, Intuit India, said: "At Intuit, diversity and inclusion are core values we live by. A diverse workforce that mirrors our customer base helps us build deeper empathy and delightful solutions for our customers."c

Each year, ABI hosts the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. In 2013, over 4,700 women attended GHC, representing more than 350 companies, 400 academic institutions, and 50 countries. ABI holds GHC India to address issues specific to India and its culture.

Included in GHC activities is a Technical Executive Forum, where high-level executives meet to share experiences, reinforce commitment to diversity, and recommend specific initiatives. Executives from ABI partner companies learn from each other and, through their presence and participation, demonstrate that gender diversity is a priority. This past spring, we held our first Technical Executive Forum in India.

In addition, ABI holds meetings several times each year for our partner companies, where we share recent research and best practices and discuss what is and is not working to recruit, retain, and advance women technologists. These meetings offer companies a rare opportunity to learn from each other and hear firsthand about initiatives that are having a demonstrable impact.

To make gender diversity an integral part of corporate culture, organizations must formally train managers in best practices and hold them accountable through goal setting and measurement. In our 2013 paper "Women Technologists Count," we make recommendations, grounded in research, for management training, development, and accountability. One such recommendation is that companies make retention goal achievement part of a manager’s performance evaluation. At IBM, an ABI partner company, targets for the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women are set and communicated from the executive to line-staff level. Accountability on all diversity metrics is tied to managerial evaluation and compensation.

Changing the culture and organizational practices that inhibit women’s progress. To build workplaces where women technologists can contribute and thrive, companies must take a hard look at whether their corporate cultures promote diversity. Often unintentionally, companies create work environments that alienate women and drive them out of the technical workforce. Our work with partner companies has shown us that maintaining an inclusive culture requires commitment from all parts of the organization. For example, Intel—an ABI partner company—established its Command Presence Workshop to train and provide experience for women technologists to effectively present to male-dominated executive audiences in situations that are highly dynamic and intense. So successful was this workshop that it is now offered for all employees.

Women face inequities, large and small, starting at the recruitment process and throughout their climb to senior levels. In our 2012 paper, "Solutions To Recruit Technical Women" (see http://bit.ly/1wmeV6v) we describe how unconscious biases lead organizations to define a "cultural fit" for recruits, a stereotype that excludes many qualified female applicants. These same unconscious biases are the root cause of condescending and dismissive treatment of women in the workplace. In the paper, we give specific recommendations for retooling the hiring process, including institution of a blind résumé screening process and requiring that at least one viable female candidate be considered for every job opening. These and other recommendations were informed by research conducted for "Climbing the Technical Ladder" (see http://bit.ly/1tWXjA6), ABI’s groundbreaking study of women and men pursuing technical careers.

A highlight of each year’s Grace Hopper Celebration is the recruiting event, where GHC sponsors access résumés from thousands of women candidates for technical positions. Companies have the opportunity to interview candidates on site, in an environment free of unconscious biases. GHC is renowned as the single best place to recruit women for jobs in computing, with 165 companies participating in the GHC recruiting event in 2013.

The Grace Hopper Celebration is helping partner companies make big strides toward changing another aspect of corporate culture that drives women away—the feeling of isolation and dearth of women role models and professional networks. Women outside a male-dominated professional network are blocked from accessing career opportunities, mentors, and technical exchanges. Seventy-nine percent of attendees said they felt less isolated as a woman in technology as a result of participating in the 2013 GHC. At GHC, women technologists are able to receive inspiration from role models, network with peers, and learn about professional and technical developments. GHC brings together women at different stages of their careers, as well as male industry leaders, and provides a unique venue for women to foster networks and improve collaboration.

ABI partner companies have come a long way in evolving their organizations, policies, and practices to promote gender diversity. We have seen measurable progress among companies that participate in the Top Company Initiative. At the same time, the companies recognize they still have much more to achieve. These established companies, including those mentioned in this column, are demonstrating their commitment to change by acknowledging the gender diversity problem and taking tangible steps to attract and retain valuable technical talent. For startup companies that hope to succeed and grow their organizations, now is the time to be learning from their more established counterparts. When it comes to creating an inclusive workplace, it can never be too soon.

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    1. Klawe, M., Whitney, T., and Simard, C. Women in computing—Take 2. Commun. ACM 52, 2 (Feb. 2009), 68–76.

    a. Anita Borg Institute using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey Household Data Annual Averages.

    b. Reported by Kara Swisher in AllThingsD on March 13, 2013; see http://bit.ly/1qETY7l.

    c. Intuit press release dated December 26, 2012.

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