There is little debate that women are still under-represented and unempowered in the workforce; the numbers tell the story. Although we’ve seen improvement in recent decades, significant gender disparity remains. Back when I joined the tech industry in the early 1990s it was heavily male-dominated and there were very few women in leadership roles, but programs were put in place to change that. While we’ve come a long way since then, with a better equipped generation of women, the representation of women in tech is actually declining globally.
Less than 25% of tech positions are filled by women, and many of those positions trend towards ‘softer professions’ such as business analysis, design, customer experience and marketing roles. Even more disturbing are the statistics at the top. Only 5 percent of leadership positions in the tech sector are held by women, and in Australia, the 2017 StartupAUS Crossroads report revealed that only 15% of startups have at least one female as part of the founding team.
The reasons for women’s lack of engagement and empowerment are complex. Some of them are due to women simply not putting themselves out there to the same extent that men do. For example, women typically won’t apply for a job unless they have 100% of the criteria, whereas men apply with 60% of the criteria. Men will generally ask for a pay rise, women won’t. Research by Brigham Young University in the US shows that women only speak about 25% of the time in corporate meetings, and are more likely to be interrupted. There is a reason why terms like mansplaining, manterruption and bropriation have crept into the modern vernacular.
Here are a few ways women can be empowered at work:
1. Improve networking and mentoring opportunities
Networking can be challenging; it’s a skill which doesn’t come naturally to many people. According to a survey by The Guardian, 73% of workers in the tech industry believe the industry is sexist. With news stories of sexism rife in the industry, it’s clear there is a work culture problem of ‘brogrammers’ that needs addressing – in terms of engineering and product development – Apple is 79% male. Facebook is 84% male, Microsoft 83% and Google 82%. This gender imbalance in the workplace transfers to mixed gender networking groups.
To empower women, it is important that there are appropriate support mechanisms that provide a space for discussion of gender issues and equality without judgement. All-female networking groups like Geek Girl Academy and Women in IT provide wondererful support and networking opportunities that do a great job at boosting confidence as well as connecting women with potential mentors. Employers should actively promote their female employees to be active in relevant industry and professional networks as a means of enhancing internal programs.
2. Having clear role models and leadership programs
Sheryl Sandberg – in her book Lean In – said “we can’t be what we can’t see”. The more women we see in senior leadership roles the better as it provides positive role models that in turn opens the door for more. Some organisations traditionally only have men in senior roles, and it can be a psychological as well as a practical block for women. According to a Harvard Business School study, employers tend to favour men when all else is equal, based on (erroneous) perceptions that men perform better on average at certain tasks. High-achieving men are three times more likely to get a call back than high-achieving women with identical qualifications. Having women in key roles is one way to change perceptions.
This doesn’t happen without support. We are seeing a lot of excellent acceleration programs – like SheStarts and Female Founders, and the Australian government is actively investing in encouraging female entrepreneurship. This is exciting, but in-house leadership programs are critical to developing women in leadership, especially women in male-dominated industries.
3. Offering flexibility
In recent years we’ve seen a move towards paid parental leave and also recognition that men are involved in childrearing. This has led to more positive work conditions. But there’s still some way to go before we reach parity in offering parental leave to both men and women. We also need more flexible arrangements for parents coming back to work. Childcare is one of the biggest ways to empower people in that phase of their lives, but there are issues in the childcare system that we need to fix. Cost as a percentage of salary is one of these. It doesn’t make financial sense for many families to have both parents working if childcare is costing as much as one of their salaries.
Diversity is critical for workplaces because of the different perceptions, experience and approaches that different types of people bring. This goes not only for gender diversity, but also age, culture, ethnicity and personality. Empowered women tend to bring a more collaborative model to the workplace. They also tend to have a different management approach.
Empowerment in the workforce involves being ready to take risks. Women need to be taught to do that, though younger generations are showing more confidence in putting themselves forward. Risk-taking behaviour at work remains more predominant in men, but the University of Exeter found women are equally capable of taking risks.
We also can’t afford, in a world where certain skills are in urgent demand, to lose people from the workforce. Looking back at the 1980s and 90s, women would take a break to have a child and not come back. It’s a waste of talent. There’s a slew of statistics showing a correlation between female participation and higher company performance. Empowering women is empowering the workforce – plain and simple.
Liz Hardie is a spokesperson for GO1.com. Prior to joining GO1, Liz was Head of Product at Neto E-commerce Solutions. She has had stints with Suncorp, Temando and held various positions in the public sector including associate director, IT planning with Queensland Treasury Corporation.
This article was first published by Australian Women Online