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The gender bias at the top of IT can be a contentious subject. We ask three IT leaders what the industry must do to progress the issue.
In my opinion and from personal experience, there has been a change in gender diversity in IT over the past decade. However, if we want to attract more female talent to the workforce, we need to break down the common misconceptions and stereotypes that surround the industry.
When people think of a role in IT, they generally think of it as a male occupation, working as an internal service provider to support the existing infrastructure and being isolated from the business. But, at a time when technologies are evolving rapidly, IT goes far further, playing a key role in helping to digitize and grow the business.
As a sector, we have a job to do to engage and educate young people in schools. We need to take apart existing preconceptions systematically, when it matters most: when young women are making decisions about where to focus their studies, determining the future direction of their career. Currently, we are losing part of the battle for female talent before we start.
I also believe businesses need to adopt a tougher approach when it comes to recruiting, ensuring they proactively seek women for roles, so they have a diverse pool of talent from which to choose and develop future leaders. This can take patience and persistence, but we will never correct the imbalance if we are not committed at the point of recruitment. When it comes to interviewing candidates, it’s really important to put in place a representative and balanced interview panel to help in the hiring decision. By having a diverse group of people to conduct interviews, each member of the panel can easily help counteract and eliminate potential biases, ensuring the most suitable candidate for the job is hired.
The culture of workplace biases is one that we can’t ignore. At Coca-Cola we have worked to tackle this issue by implementing a number of internal programs to help drive diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Our leadership teams see a diverse and inclusive workforce as key to our ongoing commercial success.
I also believe it is key that business leaders set clear targets for gender diversity when they are recruiting. I am not in favor of quotas but have noticed over the past years they drive the right conversation and appropriate actions related to recruiting and advancing female leaders.
Only by men and women working together can we truly progress the issue of gender equality in the sector. And with respect to IT specifically, recent figures from the European Parliament reveal that women hold only 19% of management positions in this sector in the EU. We need to enlist male colleagues as active partners in driving change.
By ensuring men and women are represented equally, we also ensure that the businesses we are leading reflect the world in which we live, helping to set them up for success.
In my experience, in male-dominated sectors such as IT women can be less likely to share their opinions in a group setting and less likely to put themselves forward for stretch opportunities in their roles. There is a confidence gap between the genders that needs to be corrected. I believe that if you find yourself in the minority as a woman in this profession, you should not feel intimidated: get involved, speak up and share your value. You must be part of the conversation to be an agent of change.
I know gender balance in IT is a problem and it’s why we have been investing significant resources across our organization to improve female representation. There isn’t a silver bullet of change when addressing the issue. Instead, it requires a full end-to-end process refresh to systemically de-bias the system.
Our brains are wired to make unconscious decisions to help us make sense of the complex world around us. That means there is a direct link between our unconscious thinking and our actions. And, when it comes to making decisions at work, it’s important that they are not biased.
Studies have found that traditional diversity training approaches have had the opposite of their desired effect. To avoid that we recently rolled out a new recruiting process globally with the goal of having at least one woman and one man on each interview panel and interview loop. Improving gender balance on the interview panel and loop has been shown to increase the likelihood of hiring a woman.
The main challenge for women in IT is the lack of representation of women in leadership. This becomes even more apparent when trying to retain women because there are few female role models coming up through the ranks.
One practical way to make improvements with gender balance is to focus on how to give inclusive, balanced feedback throughout the year as well as in year-end discussions.
A common occurrence is that underrepresented groups are more often evaluated by their stereotypes or other criteria not related to their job, as opposed to an objective set of criteria or a concrete job description.
For example, according to research by Harvard Business Review, women are less likely to receive specific feedback tied to business outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. This can mean that they don’t get a clear picture of what they do well or guidance on how to get to the next level.
Simply investing in better feedback can have a dramatic impact. It’s important to level the playing field for employees outside the dominant group. Therefore, leaders must share the responsibility to recognize the impact of bias on processes and commit to mitigate it together.
To take genuine steps forward with gender parity in IT we must stop talking about the issue in the abstract and start taking action by putting metrics in place that reward change at all levels. When a leader truly embraces the fact that diversity elevates business success, it then makes sense to build improvements into the organizational structure and business objectives in promotion of a diverse management – in the same way we incentivize effective cost management or meeting growth objectives. Objectives supported by actionable targets and rewards should be commonplace for developing a workforce and management team built to deliver on the promise of diversity.
We must recognize that there are biases at play in the IT workplace. While female students are now being acclimatized to the idea that STEM is a field for everyone, we in the industry must be careful not to let our biases derail the progress being made. One way to start is to recognize and speak about their existence.
For example, it has long been known that informal networking is often a prerequisite for upward mobility. Are we holding these networking events at hours that may prevent women or men with family obligations from attending? Is the social aspect of your team gathering geared towards activities that are typically enjoyed more by men than women? Do the job descriptions we write for our recruitment ads use language that is biased toward one gender over another? Becoming aware of the biases that exist is a first great step to addressing them.
Gender equality at work affects both men and women. The IT industry is a fast-paced, high-pressure environment. Rewarding outcomes rather than the number of hours worked is a good place to start.
I believe women who have progressed through the ranks in IT need to make time to pay it forward by both contributing to formal mentoring programs and informally mentoring talented colleagues.
And I think men can help progress gender equality by ‘tuning in.’ Some of the biggest lifts I have had in my career have come from men who ‘heard and saw’ me. Most of my informal mentors were men who took the time to encourage me to take on more challenges in the workplace.
Earlier in my career, I was impacted by a double standard in recognition and compensation. My manager who told me that although I was the top performer on his team, he was not giving me a raise because he only had so much to go around – and my male colleagues on the team had families to support. At that time, I was the only female on his team and up until that moment, I had not really realized how biased his assessment of compensation increases was. When I had a new leader who fought for me to get a pay raise it turned out I was being paid more than 30% less than all of my male colleagues despite being consistently ranked as a top performer.
While a male leader perpetrated this bias, it was indeed another male leader who cared enough to take proactive action and correct an inequality that I wasn’t even unaware of. It goes to show that one strong leader can make a difference.
Illustrations: Paddy Mills/synergy art
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