8 guidelines to advance women in tech on International Women’s Day

Just in time for International Women’s Day, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)’s Luskin Center for Innovation has released “Rethinking Public, Private and Nonprofit Strategies to Advance Women in Technology,” a 60-page report that articulates just how far the tech industry still needs to go to address its gap in gender diversity – and how it can get there.

The report, which was co-sponsored by Cisco and Google, and co-authored by Luskin researchers Rebecca Sadwick, Sophie Mako Tanaka, Rhianon Anderson, Adina Farrukh, and Kiana Taheri, starts by providing a detailed analysis of how women and minorities continue to be underrepresented at every stage of the U.S. tech industry, from education to the boardroom.

“Ironically, while the tech industry epitomizes innovation and progress, it has some of the most asymmetrical representations of women and minorities of any industry in the United States,” the report says. “Despite recent efforts to address the diversity gap by corporations, high-profile non-governmental organizations, and the public sector, women’s representation in technical and executive leadership roles has not improved since 1991.”

The report then goes on to outline how companies can address the problem, using a set of guidelines established during a conference held on April 30 last year, in which the Luskin Center gathered some 250 influential leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to discuss the tech industry’s gender gap and what can be done about it.

“As economists and researchers can attest, gender disparity in one of the most profitable and rapidly-growing fields is not simply a ‘women’s issue.'” the report says. “There is a significant body of evidence showing that more diverse companies are more profitable.”

We spoke with some leaders in the Canadian technology industry for their reaction to the report. Here are the eight guidelines the report recommends that companies follow, along with some tips offered by Canadian executives and organization leaders.

Guideline 1: Use data to assess diversity

“Once a company begins collecting data, transparency and public accountability can further its efforts to augment diversity,” the researchers write, citing eBay and Google as positive role models, as both companies release their diversity data both internally and publicly to illustrate their commitment to transparency, and thus, increasing diversity.

Guideline 2: Provide female entrepreneurs with access to funding models that reduce bias

Female-run startups receive just three per cent of all venture capital (VC) funding, the researchers found, noting that studies on unconscious bias indicate that women who present content that is identical to their male counterparts at traditional VC pitches are often viewed as less competent and less innovative.

Though venture capital firms with at least one female partner are three times more likely to invest in companies with a female CEO, more than 77 per cent of American VC firms have never had a single female partner, the researchers found; moreover, the number of female partners in venture capital firms has declined in the past decade, from 10 per cent in 1999 to six per cent in 2015.

“Because women are disadvantaged by traditional funding models, providing alternative access to capital can promote their opportunity in tech entrepreneurship,” the researchers wrote. “Blind applications and those that specifically target women for investment or mentorship can counter the disadvantages women traditionally face within the startup-funding pipeline.”

Guideline 3: Focus on the hiring process to reduce subconscious biases

Studies show that women are often disadvantaged at every stage of the hiring process, from resume to interview, the researchers said, thanks to a mix of conscious and unconscious biases about their abilities.

At Microsoft Canada, removing unconscious bias is a key goal for the company’s hiring managers, president and CEO Janet Kennedy told ITBusiness.ca.

“We have set targets for ourselves, both from a hiring and career development perspective, to ensure we are driving diversity at all levels of leadership,” she said. “I am proud that 50 per cent of my leadership team in Canada are women; however, I know that there is much more that needs to be done to drive diversity right across the organization.”

The UCLA study suggested that companies can avoid the unconscious bias trap by restructuring the hiring process in a clear, transparent way: for example, by deliberately structuring candidate interviews and evaluation criteria, or by making resumes anonymous, or by asking applicants to submit mock assignments.

Guideline 4: Standardize performance reviews

Simply put: the impact of subconscious biases can be mitigated by establishing clear criteria about whether specific job expectations were met, the researchers wrote.

“When performance review criteria are not standardized to evaluate specific job functions, women are more likely than men to be assessed based on their personalities rather than actual job performance,” they note.

Guideline 5: Increase quality mentorship

This is an area which Jeff Gilchrist, Canadian lead for international tech firm Avanade Inc., knows very well: His company, which organizes an annual Women’s Day event of its own, has partnered with the non-profit Aspire Foundation as part of its corporate citizenship program to provide mentorship to more than 500 women.

It has and continues to pay off, he added, with several women hired into executive positions over the last 6 months.

“The reality is… the more diversity you accept into your organization, the stronger your organization is going to be,” Gilchrist told ITBusiness.ca. “Diversity drives better solutions, better results, better culture.”

Gilchrist himself has been mentoring a female employee since last September, meeting with her on a monthly basis to discuss how future projects can provide the necessary experience for her to eventually receive a promotion, while offering advice on subjects such as communication with executives.

“She’s expressed that her goal is to be promoted, so we then talk about… the opportunity [she has] to achieve A, B, and C this year. However we both know that in order for that to happen, [she’s] going to have to juggle a couple of things for that to occur,” he said.

Guideline 6: Expand public-private partnerships

This is another key goal for Microsoft, Kennedy said, with the company using such in-house programs as YouthSpark and its CodeGeneration movement to encourage young people, girls in particular, to embrace coding and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields from an early age.

“Female representation in the tech sector is low and, from a geographical perspective… lower in Canada than in the U.S.,” she said. “I think we need to do a much better job – on both sides of the border – in encouraging more girls and young women to pursue careers in the STEM fields.”

Of course, for the many grassroots organizations dedicated to advancing the role of women in tech such as TechGirls Canada, none of the issues covered by the UCLA study or addressed by companies such as Microsoft or Avenade are anything new, Saira Muzaffar, TechGirls’ head of strategy and outreach, told ITBusiness.ca.

“We find it very frustrating to see the hard work of grassroots groups used to validate surface-level involvement from the private sector whenever tech powerhouses cut a small cheque for a pilot program and provide no meaningful contribution to long-term sustainability,” she said.

Even when gains are highlighted, Muzaffar said, they only capture the tip of the iceberg, failing to mention the struggles faced by the majority of women in entry-level and mid-managerial positions in the tech industry, which can range from disparaging comments to being shut out of meetings to full-on harassment.

“Comparing the percentage growth of women in CEO positions has limited applicability in actually understanding the reasons behind and the importance of changing public policy, labour and employment laws and business and corporate culture in the tech sector at large,” she said.

“We can improve the gains significantly by mandating pay equity issues, hiring practices that support underrepresented populations, and by having corporations that target women and marginalized people as customers actually putting their company’s money towards supporting these demographics with training, equal compensation, and leadership positions,” she added.

Guideline 7: Build upon mandate-driven public policies

In the UCLA report, the researchers note that public policies can have a significant impact on equitable workplace policies, but they require cooperation from the private sector to be effective. When British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to promote name-blind job applications, for example, he relied on partnerships with both the civil sector and private companies that voluntarily agreed to implement them.

Guideline 8: Commit to diversity at all levels of leadership

As Avanade’s Gilchrist illustrates, diversity starts at the top: When evaluating candidates for promotion, he said, the company’s hiring managers don’t stop after considering their most qualified employees, but evaluate a second list of female and minority employees who didn’t make the cut, discussing how they can provide the right opportunities so that these talented employees will be up for consideration the next time around.

That, not incidentally, is how he ended up with his mentee in the first place.

“If you do not start thinking and acting and considering this issue as an issue that warrants management’s attention, you won’t change the paradigm,” Gilchrist said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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