This opinion post was written by Rachael Andrews, technical course director for WhiteHat Security. Andrews has worked at WhiteHat Security for more than two years, previously in roles as a vulnerability verification specialist and a DAST configurations specialist. Views are the author's own.
During the past decade, much has been said and written about the lack of inclusion of women in the tech industry. The good news is that more and more women are speaking up to bring gender inequities to light and beating the drum to encourage younger women to push past long-standing societal roadblocks in pursuit of their dreams to work in tech. Yet, meaningful progress toward equality remains slow or minimal inside most tech companies.
Everywhere, there are examples of qualified women still struggling to gain credibility and respect for their tech knowledge and skills. A paradoxical example of this struggle happened in March of this year, when the news program "60 Minutes" failed to profile a female-led organization in an on-air segment examining how to close the gender gap in tech. One might say that the show's producers had sadly missed the point they were trying to make.
A 2018 study by Boston Consulting Group found that women-led companies are delivering more than twice as much revenue per dollar invested than those founded by men, yet less than 3% of investor funding has gone to women-led startups in the past two years. Further, if you review the Fortune 500, which covers industries beyond tech, you'll find that just 33 female CEOs are included in the exclusive leaders' club of power and experience.
Why do gender imbalances proliferate in tech?
The answer is not cut and dried. Many gender-related factors and societal prejudices have long prevented women from pursuing the study of technology at university. For example, these factors include the male-dominated environment, even at the faculty level, perception that the major is inherently a better 'fit' for men, and negative feedback or low grades causing them to leave the major. In fact, the way in which recruiting and mentoring in STEM have been framed, through government and other policy initiatives, could be contributing to why women feel undue pressure in related fields — because those efforts actually end up reinforcing the idea that STEM is for men.
To significantly or permanently remove these barriers, advocates for women must continue applying pressure. Women also must recognize their own role in creating these barriers and allowing them to be perpetuated. While a cultural shift is needed in how men regard a woman's ability in STEM, women must also commit to creating a positive role in another woman's success. We must encourage our gender to look for opportunities to support one another and pull each other up as we travel the path of our career journeys.
A guide, teacher or tutor — not just a mentor
Lacking same-gender counselors or advisors could be one prominent factor responsible for women not achieving the upper echelons of success in the technology industry. It may be a sort of "chicken-and-egg" situation, but research has shown that mentors are key influences in the success of women. Knowledge sharing is vital and having an advisor to help navigate business challenges or side-step career pitfalls can build confidence, increase wisdom and influence career retention. A study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst revealed that when paired with a female advisor, 100% of female engineering students stayed in their major for a sophomore year.
So, how can we truly shift the culture around executive management to encourage more female tech leaders? It's obvious we have to become our own strongest advocates.
Here are a few strategies to try:
1. Create formal mentorship or advisor programs
In an effort to show awareness and acceptance of women and minorities, many tech companies have already established diversity and inclusion (D&I) task forces. But hiring to increase diversity is not equal to policies that actually foster inclusion in your company's workflow. In fact, without having policies or programs that enforce inclusion, diverse hires end up leaving the company soon after they join. However, creating a formal program where women are advised and mentored by other women in the organization is one way to ensure diverse inclusion in top-level decision making and strategic planning.
2. Informal pairing with other women on the team
Similarly, an informal approach to the advisory program can also be effective in organizations where employees work in teams to complete projects. A good example is software development or coding projects, where teams are established to develop and build new product features and to test for or fix problems in an application.
3. Allow women to break women out of their work silos
Another idea to foster female empowerment in the workforce is to establish cross-functional programs that provide women with frequent opportunities to use leadership strategies and skills they might not be using in their existing roles within the company.
4. Go global and share ideas that create solutions
Organizations with a global presence can think outside of the geography of their headquarters and establish a global task force of female employees who are committed to each other's success. Arrange for the women to meet quarterly, in different locations around the world, to solve an issue for the company.
5. Volunteer with STEM programs for young women
One way to shift the culture of women in tech is fostering change with a younger generation. Organizations can look to groups like Girls Who Code to increase their community involvement and help ensure that girls who are interested in tech are granted an opportunity to get involved.