A recent piece on the New Yorker's financial page titled "Valley Boys" caught my eye. Its discussion focused on demographic reports released this year from big tech companies. To sum it up, the reports and article described tech as a "man's world." As a computer scientist, technology executive and woman, I am troubled and puzzled by this characterization. I wonder: why are there so few women leaders like me in technology companies? Also, what might we do to change the environment so that fewer biases block women's success in my field?
As the New Yorker piece points out, the numbers look grim: 45 percent of tech companies don't have a single female top executive. The number of female computer science majors is dwindling. I've written before about how to inspire more women to pursue careers in technology fields. Inspiring them to aspire to tech management is even harder, especially when articles like the New Yorker's draw attention to the daunting, uphill battle that women in tech can face.
When I consider how to inspire other women to think about their long-term careers in technology, I want to encourage them to think big. There really is no reason more women can't reach leadership positions in tech like I have, and those of us already here can help with that.
I have three ideas that I think will help companies to become "bias interrupters" as the New Yorker references. These ideas will help to grow the number of women succeeding in tech and growing into positions of tech leadership.
1) Women tech leaders need to tell their stories.
Women executives in technology need to tell their stories, not just the one about breaking the glass ceiling but also about our paths to careers in tech. This brief "elevator pitch" can inspire others to see themselves in our shoes longer-term. For me, I've talked often about my parents raising me gender-neutral, with the same expectations, toys and activities that they'd have offered a son. This helped me to develop in a way that led me to feel my choices were wide open and not limited by my gender. Whether raising sons or daughters, sometimes our kids just need to hear "you can do it," whether they're on a soccer field or thinking about majoring in computer science in college. Positive encouragement goes a long way from parents and also from role models in fields that young women are considering. In telling our stories, we need to be honest about the mistakes we made and obstacles we scaled, too, so that younger women can learn from us.
2) Tech leaders need to think actively about eliminating prejudice and increasing fairness in all processes, from hiring to retention to managing ongoing cultural shifts.
To change the conversation about women in tech from how few of us are here to how many of us might get here, we have to begin at the beginning. How might companies change their recruiting and interviewing policies to attract more women? The New Yorker remarks on how Google asks the same interview questions of all candidates. This would be a great policy for all tech companies to adopt.
Then there's the problem of retention. Women who get here often don't stay. Why? I've written before about the "brogrammer" culture, and this is one major reason. It turns women off. Companies need to find a way to eliminate it. Hiring more women will help, but, until then, blending gender on teams and paying careful attention to leading in a gender-neutral way will help.
It is important to keep discussing gender-balance in the workplace, as numerous studies have shown how gender-balance is a net-positive for a company. More balanced teams are more innovative and successful. Open and honest internal conversations, as I've done with our women's leadership group at RingCentral, help. Raising the conversation with other professionals, as in this recent piece I wrote for Project Eve, is important, too.
So often, companies think of how their products might be disruptive in industry. We could ask ourselves the same question by turning inward: how might we disrupt the way companies are run by doing things differently? How might hiring, retaining and promoting more women improve our company's culture for both genders?
3) Tech managers can encourage our employees to focus on and build on their strengths.
Knowing both what you are good at and also that you are good at it counts for a lot in this field. In my case, I know that my strengths include solving hard technical problems as well as motivating teams to be innovative. The more I focus on my strengths, the stronger they become, and the more people notice and consider me expert in those areas. Good managers must pay gender-neutral attention to employee confidence. It is known that men will advocate for themselves more than women. If we are to hire and retain more women, we must promote them more, too. This may mean that we have to help them speak up for themselves more. I consider it a "win" when I hear any employee, male or female, say "I'm good at that." Confidence is among the best assets an employee can have.
It's also disruptive for women not to conform to a "norm." I have spoken about how I've never been uncomfortable working alongside men, even tolerating their sports-talk and cigar bars. Sure, I'm a woman -- one who always enjoyed playing sports. I'm also one who will wear skirts and heels to the office. I don't have to be one way or the other. "Norms" disappear and workplaces become more gender-neutral when we treat each other more like we're the same than like we're different because of our gender.
Even if companies do all of these things, it's going to be hard work to get more women in tech and in tech leadership positions. I am convinced that the best route is to start somewhere: get more women to join tech companies, including some who aspire to leadership. Support them strongly and help them evolve into role models who will encourage more of the same. With 45 percent of tech companies absent women executives, there are too few women like me who young computer scientists can imagine as themselves 20 years down the line. The more we focus strategically on these issues now, the better for diversity in leadership - and successful innovation - in the longer run.
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