Throughout my career, I’ve experienced first-hand how a progressive approach toward diversity and gender equality can deliver vast and unique business benefits. My first job after earning my MBA, for example, was at a German software startup whose progressive outlook on labor practices led us to experiment with everything from part-time work to job sharing between husband-and-wife teams.
Later, when I worked in London as a consultant to fast-moving and innovative technology clients, there were distinct advantages to having a woman in a senior position: It gave our company access to speaking engagements and clients who were similarly interested in encouraging diverse partnerships and panels. Throughout all these experiences, I saw how diversity brought a positive creative tension to the teams I worked with.
In fact, for the first 15 years of my career, I was somewhat shielded from the downsides of gender inequality, even though I was a rarity as a woman in the STEM field. While I encountered few women in my work as a consultant to technology clients in the 1990s, I gave little thought to the novelty of that status until around 2010, when the industry began discussing the representation of women in the tech workforce.
Now I’ve come full circle. Even before the pandemic, women represented just one in 10 tech executives in the U.S., and almost half of women said they’d experienced discrimination in the European tech sector. Now, according to many accounts, the pandemic threatens to set us back even further as women struggle with work/life balance. More than ever, I want all businesses to recognize what they’ll otherwise miss out on if they fail to support gender equality and inclusion in the workplace.
To me, the logic is clear: If diverse thinking leads to innovation, then businesses need to create an environment where diverse teams can thrive.
An Unlikely Ally
In some ways, we could consider the global pandemic as an unlikely ally in terms of spotlighting the necessity of advocating for diversity and gender equality. The sobering reality is that in the U.S., more mothers have returned to work, yet only one-quarter of children in the U.S. are back in school full-time. Globally, COVID-19 increased the unequal burden of care carried by women, causing more women than men to leave the labor market, according to the PwC Women in Work Index.
It’s a moment of urgency and accountability for leaders. We ask ourselves how many women have paused their careers because of child care? How many have gone part-time in order to home-school? What will be the impact of COVID-19 on women’s career development? These questions are at the front of my mind as a leader accountable for the careers of women across the world. The pandemic is a call to action to support women and offer the flexibility needed to retain them.
But diversity and inclusion aren’t things that “just happen” – it’s not a matter of “add diversity and stir.” Instead, it requires us all to take action. Like many women in my position, I’ve begun mentoring and coaching direct reports and proactively advocating for women who are ready for promotion. For its part, Cognizant launched new work options in January, permitting full-time associates in the U.S. to work hours outside the standard schedule or transition to a part-time schedule, and in North America to adjust their schedules to take off every other Friday.
Flexibility for All
We can do more. In fact, I’d like to see the pandemic serve as a turning point for embracing more flexible ways of working that support not just women but also diverse populations of all types. Work was already changing before the crisis, thanks to advanced technologies and new mindsets toward where, how and why work gets done, forged by digital-native businesses and employees. It’s really a matter of continuing to build toward this future of work.
I’d say the technology industry is particularly well positioned to support all kinds of flexible work arrangements that would not just benefit women but also attract the new generation of workers who expect to be able to work remotely and flexibly – especially after having done so for the last year of the pandemic. Perhaps more than any other sector, we know how to use the tools that provide flexibility – from remote collaboration, to technology support, to meetings. If we combine these with a more data-driven, fluid and innovative approach to career models, we’ll have laid the groundwork for supporting women and being more inclusive at the same time. After all, creating something new is what the tech industry is all about.
When flexibility is embedded into organizational power structures, we’ll start to see increased representation of women and other under-represented populations in leadership roles. If we can start moving in this direction now, while the lessons of the pandemic are still fresh in our minds, then we can say we’ve learned something positive during this crisis that will ensure a more progressive approach toward gender equality and a more diverse workplace in the future.
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