How do we drive diversity in tech? 5 female leaders weigh in

April Bohnert

Diversity is one of the hottest topics in tech right now — and, as we’ve seen from recent headlines, for good reason.

As much as we talk about the importance of a diverse tech workforce, there is still much to be done to overcome social stigmas, build inclusive cultures and provide the right resources to the right people at the right time. The question we need to be asking ourselves is what we can do, both as professionals and businesses, to drive diversity. What can we do to affect change right now? And what can we do today to create permanent, lasting change for future generations of tech professionals?

We put these questions to five local women in tech. Here's what they had to say.

Keri Gohman joined cloud accounting company Xero as president of the Americas in December 2016. Joining the team, Gohman said, felt like coming home. She attributes that feeling to Xero’s global culture of inclusivity and acceptance.

What are the biggest challenges facing women in the tech industry today?

The problems facing women in tech are the same as those facing women in other sectors, but often more pronounced. As people, we all vote with our feet. So tech companies need to focus on not only encouraging more women into their workforces, but ensuring they create an environment where they can thrive.

What needs to be done now and in the long term to improve diversity in tech?

It needs to come from the top down. Gender diversity can only thrive when the CEO and board are committed to creating an environment that sets women up for success — starting from the hiring process all the way up to staffing the board and senior team.  

While businesses need to think about gender diversity at the top, they also need to think about it through all the ranks of the company, so they can demonstrate to women a path all the way to the top. If we can do this as well as help encourage more women to study technology at university, I think we’ll start to see some meaningful long-term change.

How is Xero promoting diversity?

Our CEO, Rod Drury, is extremely passionate about diversity and inclusion, leading the business as a whole to do the right things to create a workplace that supports this. Declaring this a priority has helped the organization form a global senior leadership team comprised of 50 percent women. All of which comes through an environment where people are empowered to do the best work of their lives and be their authentic selves.

 

Ana Rodrigo is a technical principal for ThoughtWorks’ diverse, global client base. Her unique background and experiences inform the way she works with customers, the way she approaches software solutions, and how she views the challenges in tech diversity. 

What are the biggest challenges facing women in the tech industry today?

I think societal biases and stereotypes are incredibly damaging and are behind the barriers we experience as women in the workplace, particularly in tech. It affects everything: who is deemed competent and able to be in leadership and technical roles, how people are perceived in meetings, how people are compensated, and even how seriously HR might take a complaint of harassment. And if we as individuals and organizations don’t challenge our biases and are not intentional about creating an inclusive and safe environment for all, we will never get over these barriers.

What needs to be done now and in the long term to improve diversity in tech?

A first step is to realize that we all have deeply ingrained biases and we make decisions all day long. Sometimes, those decisions can make a big difference, like who gets promoted, who gets a career-advancing opportunity, and even who we decide to talk to during lunch and get to know better. So let’s implement mechanisms in our operations and decision making to reduce bias.

For example, blind code reviews hide information that is irrelevant to evaluating if the candidate can write good code, like gender or where the candidate went to school. Also, standardized success criteria for roles or advancement opportunities can ensure that selection is based on the criteria, rather than on who comes to mind automatically.

Culture and environment are also important. A company can say that they value diversity, but subtle cues like the makeup of the leadership team will determine if people feel like they belong and can thrive in that culture.

For the long term, we need to focus on intersectionality if we really want to make a big impact. We’ve put people in boxes, but the reality is that many factors make up an individual (race, class, gender, ability, etc.). Our efforts in diversity and inclusion won’t be as effective or far reaching if we ignore that reality.

How is ThoughtWorks promoting diversity?

At ThoughtWorks, people are our greatest asset and our culture is very unique. Diversity and inclusion aren’t driven just by benefits to the business, but also by passion to make our company and the industry more reflective of the communities we serve.

As technologists, we’re also very passionate about continuous improvement and innovation and solving problems, which requires seeking feedback in all of that we do. So, over the years, we’ve experimented with and evolved different programs, for example broadening the places we look for talent, ensuring that Thoughtworks University (a two-year entry level program for recent college graduates or people starting a career in technology) has 50 percent-plus women, rolling out unconscious bias training, and ensuring that our leadership development programs have 50 percent women, to name a few. Winning the 2016 Top Companies For Women Technologist Program by the Anita Borg Institute is a testament to the hard work and intention that ThoughtWorks puts into running our business with diversity and inclusion as a key guiding principle.

 

Micheline Nijmeh is the chief marketing officer for Xactly, which provides an on-demand sales performance management platform for businesses. She’s worked for major tech firms throughout her career. As a member of the C-suite, she discussed how she works to drive diversity throughout her company.

What are the biggest challenges facing women in the tech industry today?

I believe any professional trying to work in a very fast-paced industry faces challenges, especially women. Building credibility and providing visibility into their accomplishments is sometimes challenging.

As women, we have to work on balancing work and personal life. Therefore, we need to be very vocal about our accomplishments and our opinions, as sometimes we do not have the luxury of participating in ad-hoc lunch meetings or after-work drinks due to family engagements. Learning to communicate effectively is critical.

What needs to be done now and in the long term to improve diversity in tech?

Being thoughtful and considerate about the processes put in place for a company that supports gender diversity. Look at the makeup of your existing employee base (and your executive leadership) and provide a path to leadership roles. Make the workplace inclusive.  When putting in place change efforts, be thoughtful about who should be on the decision-making committee. Train and educate managers (whether hiring, promoting or managing) to minimize unconscious bias. Leverage data to ensure that your perception is validated with facts (minimizing bias). Invite industry associations and thought leaders to inspire women leadership

How is Xactly promoting diversity?

At my company, we use actual data to ensure we are keeping track and leading gender diversity. We have in-depth training for managers to ensure they are asking the right questions during the hiring process. We empower all employees. Our company has built a culture for anyone to be able to speak to executive staff and speak up — whether it be in our monthly all hands, our weekly staff meetings or our one-on-ones.

We also send out surveys, done by the company and a third party, to empower employees to share their thoughts, and then we follow up with actionable plans. We have held women in tech meetings with third-party associations to help foster development opportunities.

 

Michelle Feldmann is a senior software developer for the video surveillance company Envysion. There, she plays a key role in the design, development and ongoing maintenance of the company’s analytic software. She’s worked as a developer for over 25 years and has seen both how far the tech industry has come and how far it still has to go.

What are the biggest challenges facing women in the tech industry today?

The challenges facing women in the tech industry are the same as those encountered in other professions: equal pay and a lack of women in influential leadership positions. We need to know our worth, become strong advocates for ourselves and mentor the next wave of professionals.

What needs to be done now and in the long term to improve diversity in tech?

I was disheartened to learn that just five years ago my coworker was one of only six female computer science graduates at a major Colorado university. That’s similar to my graduating class over 25 years ago!  

Whatever measures have been taken to address long-term diversity in tech are not working. For an immediate impact, women interested in tech need to be open to the challenge of transitioning from their current positions into the tech field. There are several fast-track programs available that allow people with little experience to quickly and confidently enter the tech arena.

How is Envysion promoting diversity?

The female engineers I have worked with are very talented and do not need special consideration. Envysion does a great job of interviewing and hiring the best candidate for a position — regardless of gender.

 

Sue Buck is the VP of product development for Vertafore, an insurance software provider that recently made Denver its new headquarters. Over the years, Buck has held a number of senior roles, and today she manages a global team of software and quality assurance engineers.

 

What needs to be done now and in the long term to improve diversity in tech?

As a young woman entering college or coding bootcamps, there is very limited information on the career opportunities that are available to you. When you enter the program you will also find out there is a very small number of women to connect with.

Young women often have the image in their minds that they will be coding in a basement and not talking to anyone. In fact, it is the complete opposite, as the majority of our work revolves around teams. By working with colleges and bootcamps to provide a connection to other women who are in the field, we can provide the much-needed encouragement to help these young women navigate the challenges and isolation that they will face in their journey.

Long-term, introducing computer science to all children in elementary school will provide everyone with an opportunity to be exposed to it and see if it ignites a passion within them. It really comes down to the small things we do every day. If you are a woman in tech, I encourage you to take the time to connect with these future technologists every time an opportunity comes your way.

How is Vertafore promoting diversity?

At Vertafore, we engage in many areas around this issue. We sponsor five young women from college to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, which is the world’s largest gathering of women in technology. Attending this event has provided the young women with a wealth of information around technology and careers, as well as providing them with the opportunity to network with women technologists from across the world.

We take every opportunity to work within our community to partner with the K-12 schools, colleges and coding bootcamps to serve as mentors, appear as guest speakers, and provide job shadowing opportunities for students so they can see what it is like to work in our field.

 

Photos via featured companies. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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