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5 ways to attract and retain female technologists

Beth Stackpole | March 8, 2016
Companies are stepping up to increase gender diversity in their tech workforce because it’s smart business. Top firms share advice on how they’re making headway.

After five years at LinkedIn and a prior decade spent at tech startups, Erica Lockheimer had grown used to navigating a male-dominated workplace, despite bumping up against the occasional gender-related bias.

Over the years, Lockheimer, a software engineer, made a point of attending women-in-tech conferences and diversity programs to learn to steer around those roadblocks and advance her career. As her confidence grew, so did her desire to leverage those experiences to coach female colleagues struggling with similar issues.

Lockheimer's grassroots efforts to keep gender diversity in the spotlight caught the attention of LinkedIn's top engineering brass, who wanted to double down on attracting and retaining female talent. Lockheimer, 40, now senior director of engineering growth at LinkedIn, pitched them a plan to make gender diversity account for 20% of her job responsibilities and performance metrics.

Having a dedicated Woman in Technology (WIT) executive team, Lockheimer argued, would ensure the company had all the key ingredients for gender diversity success, including a formal roadmap, executive sponsors and a healthy budget. "We want to really commit to it and hold people accountable like any other project," she explains. "If it was on a volunteer basis, we'd make only incremental progress."

"Incremental" is certainly one way to describe the status of gender diversity in corporate America as a whole and the tech workforce in particular. A 2015 Women in the Workplace study (pdf), born from a partnership between LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, found women are underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline.

According to the study, in 118 companies surveyed across all industries, an average 45% of entry-level professional positions are held by women. But that number shrinks considerably as you move up the ladder -- to 37% for manager roles, 23% for senior vice presidents and only 17% for the C-suite.

The situation is even more extreme in the technology sector, which has come under fire for its low numbers of female employees and a culture that is non-inclusive, sometimes even toxic, to women.

By aggregating publicly available data from nine technology companies -- Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Intel, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo -- the Wall Street Journal recently determined that women on average hold 26% of those firms' leadership positions and just 18% of their technology jobs. Similarly, a publicly shared spreadsheet tracking women who are specifically writing or architecting software (created by a female software engineer at Pinterest) indicates that only about 19% are female across the 84 companies reported on.

That's a real problem for businesses, and not just a human resources problem. Solid representation in the workforce from both genders ensures products and services meet the needs of the total market, not just a specific slice, hiring experts and business leaders say. Moreover, men and women bring different skill sets and operating styles to the table, each essential for achieving technology-driven business success.

 

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