Large tech companies report their gender diversity statistics annually. That’s a good thing. The reporting facilitates accountability to their board of directors, shareholders, as well as the public. This data, which highlights female representation in the companies over time, clearly demonstrates what progress, if any, is occurring. What we see is discouraging. It seems that very few, if any, of these companies have yet figured out how to keep women from leaving.
A new report from Microsoft reveals that women only represent 28 percent of employees. Amazon leads the pack with 40 percent representation as of July 2017. Google is 31 percent female. Facebook 36 percent and Apple only 32 percent.
There are many theories why women leave and hundreds of programs and initiatives have been designed to address the issue. In fact, companies are spending millions of dollars on diversity programs yet it seems the programs are not giving them the results they desire. Why? Maybe they need to ask the women what they want and need to stay.
Companies are losing women because they don’t fully understand what women want and need to be successful in their organization. In the absence of real input and information directly from the women in their company, they make assumptions about what it takes to keep them on board. These assumptions then lead them to design or choose programs that have little impact on the retention or advancement of women. In order to keep women, they need to know what it takes to do that given the culture and structure of their organization. It’s that simple! What challenges do the women in their company face? Ask them! And armed with this information, find or create a program to address those specific issues. Future female leaders who have the desire and skills to succeed are sitting right there in their company. They leave because they don’t feel the company is truly invested in their long term success.
What can tech companies do to keep women from leaving?
First of all, they need to recognize that women have ambition. Women want to stay in the workforce and succeed. In Lost Leaders in the Pipeline, my co-author Lisa Mainiero, PhD and I, reported that 74 percent of women aged 22 to 50+ in our study of over 600 women identified as very/extremely ambitious and expressed a desire to continue to work even through motherhood. They would, in fact, stay in their company if they felt supported over the course of their career.
Women need to feel acknowledged for their hard work and recognized for the value they contribute to the company. That recognition is critical for the ongoing sustainability of ambition. Companies need to know what in the culture of their organization leads women to doubt their career aspirations and their ability. What in the culture of the organization needs to change in order to provide the missing encouragement and support? What issues are affecting women’s confidence and ambition? Ask them. The first step for any successful gender initiative is to ask the women what they need to sustain their ambition.
In order for women to feel the company is invested in their ongoing success, there also needs to be a clear message from the C-suite that gender diversity is important to the viability of the business as studieshave shown. Leadership needs to walk the walk and not just pay lip service to the advancement of women.
Companies must also track the progress of women from the time they are first employed to determine what barriers might exist that can potentially undermine their career trajectory. Are women getting stuck at a certain level and if so, why? They need to understand and remove the barriers if they truly want women to stay. Is it equal pay or better benefits? Is it the hierarchal structure? Is it an undercurrent of gender bias? What do women feel about the culture and what needs to change in order for them to stay? Ask them. The answers are often unique to each company.
Companies can show their support by identifying high potential women early and working with them to create a long term career path. This demonstrates the company’s commitment over time. Once the career path is identified, it helps to hold both the employee and manager accountable for the ongoing progress toward the goal. Early career pathing should take place before women have children in their thirties/early forties to build leadership experience on the line. Non-linear career paths should be offered where women can ramp on and off to facilitate family issues. This long term commitment to their advancement facilitates loyalty and longevity with the organization. Are career paths offered by the company? What are the career goals of the female employees? Ask them. Are managers asking these questions?
What I’ve learned from my own corporate career as well as over a decade of coaching professional women, is that each work environment is unique and programs that make assumptions about what women need in terms of support often miss the mark because they don’t address the specific concerns in that company, that department, that industry. Off the shelf generic gender initiatives often fail because they don’t address the actual needs of the women who are employed by the company. Why not ask them what they want and need to stay?