Better Gender Balance is Better for Business, Experts in Denver Say

9/17/13

What can tech companies do to increase diversity in the workplace? Why aren’t more women pursuing computer science careers? And why do so many women leave tech careers?

Those questions have plagued technology companies for years. On Monday, a panel sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology tried to offer some solutions and strategies for breaking down the “stealth barriers” that limit diversity and hold back innovation in the tech industry. The panel was part of Denver Startup Week.

NCWIT is a Boulder-based non-profit organization working to correct the gender imbalance in technology and computing. It has 450 affiliated organizations around the country.

Speakers from NCWIT began by laying out some sobering statistics. While more women are seeking science degrees and working in science careers, the same can’t be said for tech. Girls comprise 19 percent of AP computer science exam takers and earn just 18 percent of computer science degrees. Meanwhile, women leave tech industry careers at twice the rate of men. Only 19 percent of software developers are female. The numbers are worse in the executive suites, with a mere 5 percent of technology leadership jobs held by women.

The likely culprit isn’t anything intentional, but rather societal biases that are often very subtle, the panelists said. As NCWIT Senior Research Scientist Catherine Ashcraft pointed out, we’re biased about many things. We all have shortcuts, or “schemas,” that help us make sense of the world. These schemas help us survive, but they can also cause us to misinterpret things and miss out on valuable opportunities.

Why does any of this matter, not just to women but to everyone? There are three reasons, according to NCWIT. First of all, since females make up half of all customers, it’s beneficial to have women involved in the creation of products. More women in tech could also help fill the gap in finding skilled workers. And diversity can improve the bottom line. One study of more than 20,000 venture-backed companies found that successful startups have twice as many women in senior positions as unsuccessful companies.

Following the presentation, Ashcraft moderated a discussion in which panel members shared how they are working to increase diversity within their own companies, including the steps they are taking and the challenges they face.

The panelists were all from Colorado-based companies: Mollie Rusher, President of On3 Software Development; Jim Franklin, CEO of SendGrid; Cathy Hawley, Senior Director of People at ReturnPath; Andy Sautins, CTO of ReturnPath; and Ben Sullins, VP Engineering at spotXchange.

Hawley said hiring more women helps build a better team in more than one way. “It’s a good business case, and philosophically we believe it’s also the right thing to do,” she said.

Overall, the biggest challenge the panelists mentioned was the dearth of female applicants. Even for those companies proactively focusing on hiring more women, it’s difficult because there simply aren’t enough women applying.

Ashcraft, NCWIT associate director and CTO Terry Morreale, and the panelists offered a number of strategies to help improve the situation and make a difference for future generations:

Actively invite diversity. Get the word out in your community that you’re looking to hire people who are underrepresented in the tech industry.

Examine your job listings and interview questions. Sometimes subtly biased language can scare female candidates away. NCWIT provides some guidelines and tools to help with this process.

Go to where they are. Hint: it might not be the traditional tech meetups, which are often dominated by men and might be off-putting to some women. Get involved with women’s tech groups, and speak at events and universities. Figure out where technical women are interacting online.

Get girls interested in technology from an early age. If boys and girls are working together on teams to solve problems using technology in elementary school, it won’t seem odd for them to do the same thing later in life. Volunteering or speaking at schools can help spark an interest and give girls a glimpse of how technology can be fun and can help solve real problems.

Don’t give up. “This is a long distance race, not a sprint,” Ashcraft said. “In tech we want change to happen quickly, but remember that this kind of shift takes time, and don’t be discouraged.”

Ruth Bremer is a freelance writer, editor and blogger. She lives and works at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. Follow @

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