Don’t bother hiring women if you won’t do what it takes to keep them
Some of the best available strategies to attract and retain women may be things your company simply doesn’t want to do.
Research has shown that companies with greater gender diversity perform better. So if you’re a technology company, you probably want to hire more women. But if your company doesn’t support women’s careers, you’ll be wasting their time and yours.
One of the most important things you can do is also one of the most obvious, and it’s not actually that hard. Make sure you are paying women the same as you pay men.
The other is harder. You must make hostile behaviour unacceptable in the workplace.
Hiring qualified women
The gender diversity problem in tech is often talked about as a “pipeline problem”, meaning that women aren’t ending up in the industry because there aren’t enough qualified women coming through the education pipeline. But increasingly this is not the case. There are many roles in the technology sector that don’t require a computer science or software engineering degree, and we see many highly qualified women who do have that academic background choosing to leave the industry.
Another common area to place the blame is on unconscious bias in recruiting. Your company may be running job advertisements that are inadvertently turning women off with subtly biased or masculine language, or the recruiters interviewing your candidates may have unconscious biases that affect their hiring decisions. If you think that is happening in your company it is definitely worth addressing. But don’t be tempted to think that if you can get past the hurdle of actually hiring women, the problem will be solved. Next you have to retain them.
Paid parental leave and flexible work
So you want to have a workplace that supports women’s careers. An obvious place to start is putting in place policies that support employees with caring responsibilities. If you haven’t done that, you really haven’t tried at all, let’s be honest. Policies like paid parental leave and flexible work should apply to men too, and men should be encouraged to access them.
If your company has a generous paid parental leave policy, you offer flexible working arrangements and you provide a private place where breastfeeding mothers can express milk, you may think that you’ve done enough to support women’s careers.
So where are the women? Why aren’t they coming to work for you and telling you what a wonderful job you’ve done?
Pay gap analysis
Chances are, you’re not paying women enough. Let’s quit pretending that the gender pay gap is a mysterious or intractable problem. It’s not something theoretical that may or may not exist somewhere outside the realm of your control. It’s highly likely the gender pay gap exists in your organisation. It’s right in front of you and you can change it.
Are women compensated the same as men at your company? Do you even know? A gender pay audit can help you to understand any discrepancy between men’s and women’s salaries. Do the work to find out the state of play, and be transparent about it. Make a plan to address the discrepancy and communicate it to staff, male and female.
If we want women to feel supported in their careers and valued by our companies, we have to show them that we actually care about making sure that they are compensated fairly. We can’t just pay lip service to the idea.
If women in your organisation are paid less than men, they know that they are not valued. If they can recover from that blow to their confidence and ambition, they are going to look for a job elsewhere. Putting your energy into a place where you’re not appreciated is a source of incredible stress, which is compounded by the stress of financial insecurity and inadequate retirement savings.
Work as a hostile environment
For women in the technology sector, being made to feel uncomfortable at work is not just about sexual harassment and blatant discrimination. Harassment and discrimination do occur, and must not be tolerated, but there are a range of more subtle behaviours that are much more likely to fly under the radar.
Women in tech deal with men who won’t accept our criticism, and who respond to it by belittling us. We encounter men who feel we are a threat to their position, and who try to make us look incompetent and unprofessional. Rather than wondering if this behaviour is motivated by sexist intent, it is important for employers to recognise that this behaviour is hostile and should not be tolerated.
If an employee is not able to communicate respectfully and work effectively with their colleagues, that is a problem with the employee’s conduct and performance. An organisation that fails to manage it as such is not an organisation that supports women’s careers.
Managers should address these behaviours through the lens of their impact on effective work and team cohesion. It should be made clear that failure to work well with others is viewed as under-performance, and it affects the employee, the team and the organisation. A social contract can be agreed upon within teams, with team members contributing ideas of how they do and don’t want their colleagues to behave. When hostile behaviour occurs, involve the employee in identifying the root cause of their behaviour and putting in place strategies to change it.
Women don’t want to stay in an organisation that is hostile to them. They should not be expected to put up with bad behaviour or try to mend fences with poor team players.
What if women just aren’t cut out for tech?
You might be tempted to ask if the problem might rest with women themselves. Maybe women just need to be shown that technology is a good career option. Maybe the problem is that women are not confident, they’re not driven, they think math is too hard. Maybe women need coaching and mentoring to learn how to participate in the tech sector.
When we place the focus at the individual level, we are essentially saying that we have done enough at the organisational level. We are insisting that the problem no longer lives inside our companies, structurally and culturally. When we aim to show women that working in the technology sector is a good career option, we necessarily assume that it is.
That is not to say that there isn’t a place for mentors and role models for young women and girls. As a female software developer myself, I am trying to be one. But I must focus on what I can do to make my industry better before I can focus on telling other women how good it is.