Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
November 2, 2016

What Women and Organizations Can Do to Close the Tech Gender Gap

We’re all familiar with the numbers: Women represent just 21% of S&P 500 board directors and only 6% of S&P 500 CEOs. LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2016 study found that more than three times as many men are hired from the outside as SVPs. By the time women reach the SVP level, they hold just 20% of line roles. This scarcity of women in senior management posts is especially stark in tech.

The percentage of women in chief information officer roles at Fortune 500 companies has hovered at less than 20% for more than a decade. According the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), 56% of women leave their technology careers at the critical mid-level stage — more than twice the quit rate for men. As executive search consultants, we have a unique vantage point into the issue and some recommendations for how female candidates should approach opportunities and how companies can encourage the hiring and promotion of women in technology leadership roles.

Women in Technology by the Numbers

Women in Technology by the Numbers

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Women: What you can learn from your male peers

In our experience, men often behave differently in some important ways that help themselves — and other men — advance their careers. To position themselves for more senior posts, women would benefit by taking a few pages from their playbook:

  • Talk to us even when you’re not looking for a job. Men are much more likely to answer and return our calls. Women often assume they should only speak with a recruiter when they are actively looking for a new role. By cultivating relationships with recruiters, you can learn about avenues of advancement that may not be on your radar.
  • Don’t wait until you’re ready. Women are more likely to think they must have all the qualifications to “apply,” but no one checks off every box. If you’re interested in the role and meet 70% of the requirements, go for it.
  • Take a chance. It’s not unusual for a woman to ask, “How do I know if I’ll like it?” More openness to change can help you take steps vital to your career growth.
  • Negotiate for yourself. Women may be great at negotiating for their company or on behalf of someone else, but not always for themselves. Identify your top priorities and don’t hold back in communicating them.
  • Promote yourself and other women. Even if they have no interest in a role, men will often tell us, “I’m not looking, but here are the names of five of my friends.” And these friends typically are other men. Women need to be more vocal about their career aspirations so they are top of mind when new opportunities arise. In addition, develop and mentor up-and-coming women and be willing to suggest qualified women you know for leadership roles.
  • Expand your network. Participate in formal programs and organizations aimed at improving gender diversity, including Women Who Code, Anita Borg Institute and NCWIT. Joining a nonprofit board can also widen your circle of contacts.
  • Don’t overlook informal support mechanisms. Building a personal cabinet of advisers can be critical in helping you navigate your career or reengage after an absence from the industry. In a similar vein, don’t be afraid to ask for help, additional resources or advice.
What about the other side of the equation?

Beyond strategic initiatives, there are a number of steps organizations can take to improve the representation of women in their technology leadership ranks:

  1. Focus on skills first and foremost.
  2. Drive agreement on what the best talent looks like. Rather than “Joe is a good guy and has been with us long time and already knows everyone," ensure each candidate is measured based on the defined and agreed-upon skill-sets like driving results, strategic thinking, leading change, leading people and collaborating and influencing. Organizations also need to be willing to accept candidates who possess the right skills, but may have:

    • “Jumpier” career paths
    • Higher salary expectations if they are in high demand
    • Family considerations and concerns about relocating
    • Lower tolerance for risk, especially if they are the primary bread winner
  3. Eliminate bias in the process.
  4. The best search consultants will challenge biases that arise in the process and can help you move the needle on women in leadership. Our global survey of corporate directors found that female directors are more likely than their male counterparts to have been recruited by an executive search firm. In addition, ensure multiple women are interviewed for each technology role opening — studies have shown that if only one woman is under consideration, statistically she has little to no chance of being hired. Also use gender-neutral language in the specification materials and establish a blind resume-screening process.

  5. Set women up for success once they are hired.
  6. Identify peer mentors in or outside the company. Support their integration through focused onboarding plans, influence networks and cultural navigation tools.

  7. Measure and evaluate female recruitment and retention efforts.
  8. How many women have been interviewed for technology leadership roles in the past five years? What is the average tenure of women in leadership at your organization versus that of men? How do your female senior leaders characterize their experience with the company?

Why it matters

In a fast-moving world that requires agility and fresh thinking, diversity of perspectives is extremely valuable. According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. In an analysis of 500 U.S. companies, NCWIT found that organizations with more diverse teams in terms of race and gender had higher sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and greater profits than their less diverse counterparts. The bottom line is that greater gender diversity isn’t just a “nice to have,” but a force with a tangible impact on the business.

Christie Coplen is a member of Spencer Stuart’s Industrial and Automotive practices, with extensive expertise in digital and technology roles. Reach Christie via email and follow her on Twitter and on LinkedIn. Katie Tucker is a member of the Digital, Information Officer and Technology, Media & Telecommunications practices, and leads the firm’s Atlanta office. Reach Katie via email and follow her on LinkedIn.

About the Authors

About the Authors