The tech industry is different, and not always in a good way.
Women held about 57% of all professional jobs in 2015, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, but just 25% of computer-related jobs.
Among young women engineers, computer scientists, and other technologists, more than 75% describe themselves as “very ambitious,” according to data from the Center for Talent Innovation, with 85% gunning for a promotion in the next 3 years and 62% aspiring to one day reach the C-suite.
But women in tech leadership are infamously rare, and just 25% of young women in the industry say they get the career support they’ve been promised.
A wealth of data show that women are subject to biases that discourage them from advancing and even lead them to leave the tech sector. Clearly, there’s more that tech firms can do to support women.
What Organizations Can Do
Organizations can rigorously review and update their diversity and inclusion initiatives. They can educate people about second-generation gender bias – practices and behaviors that appear to be gender neutral, but which harm women — and have the tough conversations about it being an issue for all to address. And they can support female leadership programs that help women take greater risks, experiment, and create communities of support and challenge.
Research has also shown that there are several things women can do to help themselves.
Women engineers aspiring to leadership positions should focus on 3 things:
- Knowing their self-worth.
- Finding creative ways to grow.
- Building a network with sponsors.
Here’s how to get started.
Knowing your Self-Worth
Men and women often think about their readiness for new opportunities in different ways.
Men are likely to say they’re ready when they feel they have about 60% of the knowledge and skills they need. Women, by contrast, are more likely to wait until they feel 90% there.
But to advance, women need to say “Yes” more often and more quickly, says Kelly Simmons, a CCL senior faculty member who focuses on issues involving women in the tech industry. Are you saying yes enough? Quickly enough?
How do women find the courage to say “Yes” when they don’t feel 90% ready? Simmons says one key is for women to stay connected to understand how they can contribute.
Top women tech leaders are passionate about what their companies do, what their teams are doing, and what they do, she says. Aspiring women tech leaders, Simmons adds, must “know what they want and know what their value is.”
Finding Creative Ways to Grow
Leaders need to find ways to learn new skills and connect with new people to grow professionally.
Women generally get markedly easier stretch assignments. But senior tech leaders need business acumen, negotiation skills, and political savvy. Challenging stretch assignments provide better opportunities to develop those skills. Women in the industry must receive more opportunities with a focus on these hard leadership skills.
Growth opportunities can include “extra” responsibilities, such as presenting on behalf of the company at a conference or serving on an industry technical standards committee.
Women engineers need to also make sure they’re successful with these opportunities and that they get credit for them. That might mean, for example, finding a mentor to advise you on approaching the challenge in a new way and to champion you as you do things in ways you haven’t before. You’ll also want trusted colleagues to provide honest feedback.
Some women may feel that by asking for support, they’re revealing weaknesses that might hurt their prospects for advancement. Women need to find a way to quiet those inner voices and make sure they get the support they need to be successful, and that they are recognized for their accomplishments.
A network of sponsors is especially helpful in that regard.
Building a Network with Sponsors
Networking is widely regarded as critical for career development, but building a network of sponsors is especially important for women in the tech industry.
A sponsor is not just another person in your network. It’s someone who has the power and knowledge to recommend you.
“It is specifically helping women when a male colleague says, ‘You know, you should choose Kelly for that. She would be awesome,’’’ Simmons says. “In a heavily male world, that’s helpful.”
But building those relationships can be tough. In a heavily male workforce, for example, the social interactions where professional networks develop may take place in environments that aren’t always comfortable for women — drinks after work, for example.
Some companies and managers are doing better at removing those implicit biases. They might encourage breakfast meetings instead of drinks after work, for example. But women, Simmons says, may have to “hack” their own path to build their network of sponsors.
Simmons suggests meeting people one-on-one and doing informational interviews. It can also involve looking outside the company for key relationships. In Silicon Valley, for example, there are a number of networking groups for women in technology.
And women shouldn’t forget opportunities to help each other. At one large, well-known tech company, one woman started an internal women’s mentoring program.
The tech industry is beginning to focus more on why women leave the sector at mid-career levels rather than ascending into leadership positions. But women who want to be successful in tech should also focus on what they can do to avoid mid-career stalls.
Our Technical Women’s Leadership Journey is a unique program designed to help high-potential women in STEM careers. The program — based on decades of CCL research — empowers women to break through mid-career barriers and rise to senior technical and leadership roles.