The US is Throwing Away its Competitive Advantage

December 23, 2020
# min read
Janice Giannini

In our August newsletter, I wrote an article titled Advertising Values or "Living Our Values" Can We Tell the Difference Anymore? This is the perfect segue to a problem the US is currently facing: there are not enough women in technology.

This is an especially thorny issue because we are living in a knowledge economy where talent is a competitive edge-we need all the talent we can get. To act otherwise is to weaken our economy and risk giving up our role as technology leaders.

There is already quite a bit of quality research to help us understand what's happening. For example, we know that an adequate number of women go to college and join companies in technology fields. But as they age, their numbers drop dramatically, especially in C-suites and board rooms.

We still don't know precisely why that is, but we're starting to understand. One good source is a 2008 HBR report called "The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology." Author and coder Rachel Thomas referenced the report in her July article entitled "If You Think Women in Tech is Just a Pipeline Problem, You Haven't Been Paying Attention." Specifically, Thomas uses a hair-raising statistic from the report: 41% of women working in tech eventually end up leaving the field (compared to just 17% of men).

Thomas also cites researcher Nadya Fouad and Kieran Snyder. Snyder interviewed 716 women who left tech after an average tenure of seven years. Almost all of them said they liked the work itself and cited discriminatory environments as their main reason for leaving.

In NSF-funded research, Fouad surveyed 5,300 women who had earned engineering degrees (of all types) over the last 50 years. She found that only 38% of them are still working as engineers. Fouad summarized her findings on why they leave with "It's the climate, stupid!" Says Thomas: "This is a huge, unnecessary, and expensive loss of talent in a field facing a supposed talent shortage. Given that tech is currently one of the major drivers of the US economy, these impacts everyone. Your company is not a meritocracy and you are not "gender-blind."

I invite you to read the article to learn about several recent studies on unconscious gender bias. Perhaps the most worrying is from Yale researchers showing that perceiving yourself as objective is actually correlated with showing even more bias. "The mere desire to not be biased is not enough to overcome decades of cultural conditioning and can even lend more credence to post-hoc justifications," writes Thomas.

If tech culture is going to change, everyone will have to change, especially men and most especially leaders. Here are several excellent suggestions from Thomas:

  • More training for managers. Untrained and unsupervised managers cause more harm to women than men.
  • Formalize hiring criteria before you look at applications. This helps minimize any unconscious emphasis based on gender.
  • Don't rely on self-promotions or self-evaluations. Women perceive their abilities as being worse than they are, whereas men have an inflated sense of their abilities.
  • Create a collaborative culture. Men who speak up more than their peers are rewarded with 10% higher rating; women who speak up more are punished with 14% lower ratings.
  • Offer maternity leave. When Google increased paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the number of new moms who quit Google dropped by 50%.
  • Make sure your leaders act in concrete ways to demonstrate they value diversity. In other words, live your values versus advertise your values.

I invite you to consider the following:

  1. No matter what business you're in, you need top technology talent in your business, so these ideas apply.
  2. Unless you are making a conscious effort to create an atmosphere in which women can thrive, you are (possibly without realizing it) creating a culture that's the opposite of what you need. Woman make up half of our population, so there should be at least that percentage in your top management and on your board.
  3. It's (way past) time for old-boy networks to let go of their grip of the C-suite and the boardroom. In fact, board members who take their duty of care seriously should consider rotating out of their positions to let women take their place. A radical idea, I know, but one whose time has come.

I've seen first hand the damage being done to companies by executives and boards that refuse to recognize how important women are in technology and business. The simple fact is this: the US economy needs us in the board room.

Read the next article in the series:
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