When I graduated with a business degree four years ago, I went to work at a tech company – with just a little bit of trepidation. My perception of the culture at most tech businesses was that, as a woman, I’d need to out-talk the men in order to be heard.
I was mostly right. That’s why I consider myself really fortunate that, before long, I heard from a senior director at another tech company – a woman – who recruited me to join her senior tech consulting team, which at the time was all male. This manager was intent on increasing the gender diversity of the team but was having little luck getting resumes from experienced women. Instead, she was reaching out to recent female college grads such as myself who may not have had the tech credentials but had demonstrated other characteristics, like grit, empathy and the confidence to express and defend an opinion.
I was not only hired, but this senior director also became a mentor to me – and I can honestly say I would not still be in tech today without her encouragement and guidance.
Now working at Cognizant as a Senior Manager on the Digital Engineering team, I make it an MBO of my own to bring her legacy to Cognizant when I interview and review candidates joining our product and delivery teams. Not even one year after my joining the company, women now account for one-third of our team and mission.
An Untapped Resource
I tell this story because I believe it holds a few lessons-learned for any company today that’s striving to increase its gender diversity, particularly in the area of digital engineering. While most companies have caught on to the importance of gender diversity, it’s vital for success in the digital economy to attract women into STEM careers, and digital engineering in particular.
Consider that while every business today relies heavily on software to succeed, finding enough software engineers poses an existential challenge. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71% of the 1.4 million computer science-related jobs available in 2020 will remain unfilled.
Growing the ranks of women in technology would help narrow that gap. Of course, not only are fewer women obtaining computer science degrees today than in the past, but those that do go into the field don’t stay – according to one study, the attrition rate for women in computer science is 41% compared with 17% for their male counterparts. Businesses that can turn those statistics around would truly benefit from an untapped resource.
A second reason to focus on gender diversity has to do with today’s focus on designing code using human-centric strategies – what we call “digital engineering.” It’s only logical that having a gender-balanced team of software engineers would result in the creation of products and services that reflect the needs of both male and female consumers.
For example, our team worked with a financial services company on designing a new product aimed at millennial customers that appealed to altruistic investment. The company needed to respond to new demands from these younger customers, who value cash and investments in a very different way from previous generations. Additionally, women accounted for the highest number of investments – a dramatically different trend. I (the only female millennial on the team at the time) was also the only one who expressed a negative opinion. I was opposed to the idea of giving to charities that don’t necessarily align with my values – which, it turns out, is a commonly held opinion among millennial women. As a result of our input, the company steered the product in a new direction, and nine months later, bottom-line revenue had increased by 22%.
Attracting and Retaining Women
Businesses owe it to themselves to figure out how to attract and keep more women among their digital engineering talent pool. From my own experience, here are some ideas on how to do that:
- Set hiring goals. Metrics help you focus attention on the goal. They also create a “must-do” attitude on a topic that, while generally considered important, often is not met, with blame placed on external excuses (resumes of women entering the pipeline are more rare, there aren’t as many women software developers graduating from college as there are men, etc.) When managers of all levels feel pressure and hold stake in the need for a more balanced team, it is not thought of as a lucky outcome but rather a pertinent action.
My previous employer set a goal of 33% women. At Cognizant we’re aiming for 50%. This will set us up to be competitive with all those other tech companies (namely Google, Amazon, etc.) that are now dominating the market as “Best Places to Work.”
- Invest in people with aptitude. Hiring managers tend to ask for people who are so qualified that they can be fully onboarded in just a week or two. But that’s a short-term view. Individuals are apt to feel more loyal to an employer that hires them “as-is” and is willing to invest in them. Women, in particular, are renowned for shying away from applying for a position when they don’t meet 100% of the requirements. It’s incumbent on businesses to seek out women with the right background and aptitude, even if they have less experience, and invest in honing their skills.
- Pair new women hires with a mentor or sponsor. Studies have shown the correlation between sponsors and career development for women leaders. And like I said, I don’t know if I’d have stayed in the technology field were it not for the senior manager who served as my mentor. I’m not the only one. In a year-long study, female engineering undergraduates assigned to a female mentor felt more accepted by their peers, more visible and more confident in their engineering skills compared with those with no mentor or a male mentor.
- Volunteer with organizations that introduces girls to coding. Study after study concludes that early exposure to coding is the biggest factor in whether girls pursue computer science degrees in college. High school may be too late to get them interested. So if you’re in business, volunteer with organizations that introduce elementary and junior high school girls to programming. The director of my team works with Girls Who Code. If you’re in higher ed, take inspiration from colleges and universities that are graduating more women with computer science degrees. For example, Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., quadrupled the number of women enrolling in its introductory computer-science course after emphasizing the benefits of computer science to society.
There are surely more women like myself for whom it’s a thin line between staying in or leaving the high-tech industry. That would truly be a loss, both personally for them, and to the businesses they’d otherwise work for. With a little encouragement and continued support, businesses could turn to this untapped resource to expand their software engineering talent pool and benefit from gender diversity.