Board members of the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code reflect on why women are typically underrepresented in technology-related jobs and how to improve the numbers.
Gender diversity remains an issue in technology organizations. The number of young women completing engineering and technology programs has dropped significantly over the past 30 years, and a report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology suggests that a little more than half of all US women who do enter technology fields leave their employers midcareer.
The first part of solving the gender-diversity problem is to “normalize” technology as a career path for women, say the leaders of Girls Who Code (GWC), a nonprofit organization founded several years ago to provide computer-science education and training to girls in grades 6 to 12. But that’s just the beginning, they say. GWC’s after-school and summer-immersion programs can help build a robust pipeline of young women who are curious about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, but once they graduate universities and formally enter industry, companies have a big role to play in keeping these women in the fold.
In conversation with McKinsey’s Kara Sprague, members of the board of GWC—Jane Chwick, Alexis Maybank, and Jamie Miller—discussed the gender-diversity gap in technology, as well as tips for recruiting and retaining more women in technology organizations.
Understanding the gender-diversity gap in technology
Jamie Miller: At an early age, girls are conditioned to move toward different paths than boys. So if you think about boys when they’re young, they’re involved in clubs that make things, and they use their hands, and they get involved with mechanical thinking. Girls don’t tend to be as encouraged to move into those sorts of play or toward those kinds of interests. As they evolve in their middle-school and high-school years, the girls’ level of interest in technology continues to decline, and they are less likely to pursue interests in these areas, and stick with them, as compared with the boys. That’s where Girls Who Code is trying to have some impact: How do we engage girls at a young age, at the middle-school level, at the high-school level, and get them exposed to, excited about, and interested in coding and other technologies so that we can have a much higher percentage of women who major in computer science in college and, ultimately, end up in the technology fields?
How companies are seeking to correct gender imbalances
Jane Chwick: In the early 2000s, before I had the role of overall technology at Goldman Sachs, I was asked to become the senior sponsor for women in technology at Goldman. I have to say I didn’t even realize there was a problem at that time. I identified all of the high-potential female technologists in the division, and I created leadership training programs for them. I took all of the senior-most people in the division—who all happened to be men, besides me—and I assigned each one of those men a group of five women. I had them work on a real-life technology project together. They had a real deliverable that mattered to the bottom line. Those men got to know those five high-potential senior women and became their sponsors as they grew in their careers. And within five years, 70 percent of those women became managing directors at Goldman. I think that particular program started a movement at the firm.
Jamie Miller: At GE, about 25 percent of our IT professionals globally are women. In our early entry-training programs for technology, 32 percent of participants are women. I think we’ve driven at that from a lot of different angles. First is getting involved with organizations like Girls Who Code. We also have a program called GE Girls that is specifically focused on creating immersion programs for high-school girls that expose them to robotics, to computer-science, to engineering fields. We partner with universities to do it; our aviation business, for instance, has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in our GE Girls program. In a three-week immersion camp, we’re demonstrating mechanical-engineering concepts, robotics, 3-D printing, and other sorts of manufacturing tools. It’s had measurable effects in terms of retaining the girls’ interest and keeping their interest high as they enter high school and start thinking about what to major in in college. Second is being an advocate for women as leaders. There’s a big difference between supporting or sponsoring women in the workplace and being an advocate. Being an advocate means you take an active interest in developing and coaching other women. You advocate for them to move into roles or be exposed to projects and types of jobs that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to or known about. As a leader, you play a big role in pushing to make sure slates are diverse—so that when a big project comes up and you need team leaders, the organization is being inclusive in its thinking.
Finding and keeping talented women
Alexis Maybank: I think there are a number of things corporations can do. They can prioritize the hiring of more women in their recruiting and outreach efforts. I think sometimes you have to go even further back and start cultivating those relationships at the college level, and make that a direct responsibility of your recruiting teams. So that means internship programs and the like become very critical in doing that well. Once [women] are in the corporation, though, a lot of [the effort] is around socialization. What culture is in place? Is the culture focused on reaching parity and solving for certain things that you prize from an organizational standpoint? Mentor programs can be critical. It’s good to have that other person you can turn to within the organization when you run into a tough situation or if you have a question that you need help thinking through.
Jane Chwick: You need to make sure your recruiting team includes diversity. People won’t want to come to a place where they are, say, the only person of color or the only female on the team. They want to feel part of a team where there are people like them, and they want to see that reflected in their early discussions with the company. Quite often, because of where we are in this progression, you will find yourself as the only woman in the room. But don’t be discouraged. Your job is to be successful in your role and to pull women in with you and help them to enter the profession and work hard to succeed.