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The tech industry has never been viewed as a particularly female-friendly field, but the reality may be worse than its image.
The already thin ranks of high-profile women leaders in tech was further lessened in recent weeks, with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Meta‘s chief business officer Marne Levine both leaving their respective roles in February.
With the backdrop of Women’s History Month, Tacy Byham, chief executive officer of DDI, an international human resources and leadership development consultancy company, says it’s no surprise the number of women in tech leadership roles is still low.
Her company’s research over the past 20 years shows that while the number of women in technology leadership roles has been rising, it’s only ever reached 33%.
To be clear, Meta and YouTube parent Alphabet both reported higher levels of women in leadership roles year over year in their most annual recent diversity reports — Alphabet at 30.5% and Meta at 36.7%.
But across the entire tech sector, the percentage of women in tech leadership roles is trending down, currently at 28%, according to DDI’s 2023 Global Leadership Forecast, which surveyed 1,827 human resources professionals and 13,695 business leaders from over 1,500 companies around the world.
“Over the past two years, we’ve seen that percentage fall significantly,” Byham added, noting that pandemic-related issues around caregiving responsibilities and the insular nature of the industry are two reasons behind the drop.
On top of that, women experience a disproportionate amount of inequity, stress, and burnout in the workplace that prompts them to leave, Byham said.
Whether it’s an all-boys-club mentality or a lack of mentorship and training, many women often feel that they don’t have the same opportunities for promotions and career advancement as men.
“This is more general data, not specific to tech, but what we’re seeing is that for women, at all leadership levels, the number one reason they’re leaving is because they don’t feel like they’re getting an opportunity to advance,” Byham said.
With clients at DDI, Byham said she’s seen success in growing the number of women in senior roles when companies invest in making people feel like leaders as they move up and change roles. This includes making sure they have the right skills, ensuring they get insight from assessments, and providing all female employees with coaching and mentoring.
Women typically don’t ask for promotions or advancements, Byham says, instead relying on their good work and performance for rewards. But the critical missing component to career advancement is exposure to other colleagues and company opportunities.
In the world of hybrid work, women are more likely to lack exposure to colleagues due to their tendency to choose remote work more often than men, Byham said.
“That lack of exposure is creating this new phenomenon. Instead of a glass ceiling, it’s called the Zoom ceiling,” Byham said. “You’re out of sight. You’re out of mind.”
Mentoring is crucial to combat this, and tech companies need to establish mentorship programs to help women find other female voices within their companies.
“Most women in the tech space are mentored and guided by men,” said Amanda Sanchez, head of user experience and design at BairesDev, a global software solutions company based in Brazil. “But it’s just natural that women would feel more comfortable receiving training and mentorship by other women, so they can see themselves in those positions.”
Among other systemic workplace challenges, including a lack of pay transparency and cut-and-dry HR tools, there’s a lack of adequate training for women when they get hired for roles, and even after they advance into leadership and managerial roles.
“Too many companies basically throw a system at the wall and say, ‘Here, just go find it, and go do it,'” Byham said. “Training is not curated. It’s not specific to the company. It’s not specific to the challenges of that leader, and it doesn’t allow for flexibility.”
The result, said Byham, is that women tend to get left behind to figure out how to be leaders on their own. Compounding the problem is the fact that on average, most companies don’t offer leadership training to employees until nearly four years after they start their role.
“What happens mostly is they’re thrown into the deep end, and nobody teaches them what to do, or how to sit across the table and have a performance discussion,” Byham said. “If somebody is falling short, how do you know how to coach them? What do you do to build trust? These are critical factors.”
Companies need to be more intentional when developing teams or training leaders and managers because if they don’t, they’ll lose this talent, she said.
“If people are leaving, it’s probably because they’re either floundering or they were not set up for success,” Byham added. “They don’t feel confident, or they don’t feel like they’re getting any development. You should be purposeful as a company about prioritizing and planning for meaningful development.”
Another crucial difference for women in tech has to do with the types of tasks they’re assigned to do, or sometimes the tasks they take on willingly, Byham said.
Women often take on “office housekeeping or non-promotable tasks,” Byham said, and these tasks can include planning the company holiday party, or other administrative duties.
“These tasks don’t always give them the points they need to help them move from a mid-level leader to an executive-level leader,” she said. “Women also mentor at a higher percentage than men do. Women do more DE&I work than men do. Women serve on selection committees. Those types of tasks don’t always lead to a promotion.”
Women need to be given the same exposure and clear promotable tasks that men receive to be able to level up their careers, Byham added.
“People assume that women are going to be fine. ‘They’re loyal to the company,'” Byham said. “But if they don’t see the payoff for themselves, now at their current company or even what’s promised to them in the future, they’re going to leave.”