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Gender Diversity in Tech: How We Can Work Together to Make a Difference

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This week I attended a Startup Week Chattanooga talk on Gender Diversity in Technology. Check out what I learned.

Do you work in technology? If so, look around you. How many women do you see? Wait, let’s narrow that down—how many female developers do you see?


It’s no shock that technology is a male-dominated industry and has been for a long time. For Emily Maxie, director of marketing at Very—a Chattanooga-based startup that works with fast-growing companies to create digital products that drive results—this imbalance first hit her while attending a major technology tradeshow.


“In between sessions I went to the restroom, and there was a line out of the door for the men’s restroom and not for women. I thought, ‘This may be the only time this happens…’” she said on Wednesday at her Startup Week Chattanooga talk on “Practical Ways Men Can Address Tech’s Gender Imbalance”.


Maxie has spent the last several years of her career working in marketing for technology companies. While the issue of gender inclusion is prevalent in many industries, she’s noticed it more in the tech space and is passionate about finding ways for communities to gather and have tough talks on this topic.



Gender diversity, at its core, is about inclusion. From a business perspective, however, the issue has practical and data-driven reasons behind its need. After all, diversity affects the bottom line. Maxie shared one McKinsey & Company study from 2015 that showed gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform non-diverse companies, and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform. She uncovered more research proving when women are added to a company’s c-suite, a ripple effect occurs that can equal up to a 6% increase in net profit.


Why does diversity make this much of an impact? Because when individuals with unique perspectives come to the executive table—where decisions are made—problems and solutions are evaluated from many vantage points for the betterment of the company and for business, Maxie explained.


But it’s not so easy to achieve this balance. 


“This a multi-faceted problem and there’s no silver bullet to solve it,” Maxie explained.


Her recommendation is for communities to approach this issue by having tough conversations to see how they can make a difference and impact change.


Let’s Break Down the Problem


In some instances, the problem lies in the lack of women entering this line of work. As Experts Exchange course creator, Mark Lasoff told us, the need for tech workers is a widespread problem in general, considering “that in the United States in the next 10 years, we’ll be graduating about 425,000 computer science folks and we’re going to need 1.4 million developers. That leaves us about 1M developers short.”


The solution for getting more women into these technical roles may be to start early. Girls’ exposure to computer science peaks in junior high, which both dries out the pipeline of girls interested in this career path and minimizes collective awareness of these opportunities by the time they reach college.


In other instances, Maxie believes it’s a retention problem, with 56% of women leaving their technical roles halfway through their career. When she dug into this topic to uncover motivations for leaving, she came up short, unable to find solid, well-researched information defining the reasons behind this staggering number. The lack of data showed Maxie that it’s an issue people don’t care to explore, when, in fact, it’s a topic that desperately needs further exploration if companies and communities expect to understand and make change.


What’s the Solution?


To better understand the problem, Maxie took a look at possible solutions and steps for impacting this issue in the Chattanooga tech startup scene.


“It’s a leadership problem,” she said, explaining how leaders with awareness of the lack of gender—or ethnic—diversity can make a difference in company culture to adjust the status quo within their business’ walls.


“At Women in Tech events, I’ve been in rooms full of women who discuss why this is a problem, but few are in leadership positions to make changes,” she said.


Not only is it something that should start with leadership, but with men, Maxie explained. She pulled up a slide that showed all of her tech managers so far in her career—all white men. If these men and managers are not involved in the conversations, she said, the discussions at Women in Tech events will simply turn into echo chambers, where inclusion and diversity are discussed at large, but without leadership individuals present to listen and push for action. It takes leaders like GoDaddy’s Blake Irving, who used his role as CEO to shift the conversation from focusing on what they’ve done wrong to how they can be better.


How Men Can Engage With This Issue


Mentorship and Sponsorship

We all need mentors in our careers; individuals who act as experienced sounding boards for handling changes in career or company. They tend to be empathetic and full of advice. But in order to make real waves in their career, Maxie recommends women search for sponsors.


Sponsors are different from mentors, for they take a vested interest in your success, will help you map out your career path, expect a lot from you in performance and loyalty, and have the power to advocate for you. In these relationships, a sponsor’s success is often linked to the sponsee’s, so there are higher stakes involved than in a mentor relationship. Maxie shared that women with sponsors are 23% more likely to move up in their career than those without.


Honest Conversations

During her interview at Very, Maxie was given a disclaimer about the company—she would be one of three women in the entire company… was she OK with that? That comment alone calmed any hesitation Maxie may have had about another male-saturated tech startup. The partners were—and are—aware of the company’s lack of diversity, but it’s something they’re trying to change. This awareness and the continuing open dialogue surrounding the topic is the first step in the right direction, she said.


“When you’re looking at a company like Very, from the outside looking in it’s hard to know why there are so few women,” Maxie said.


In this divisive culture we live in, Maxie said it can be difficult to have calm, rational discussions with opposing viewpoints, but it’s necessary with issues like diversity. It takes courage to stand up and say something isn’t right, but it also takes courage to go against the grain to share your own, differing perspective. All are pieces of the puzzle needed in this conversation.


Zero Tolerance

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not a new topic, especially in recent days as our social media channels fill with women posting “#metoo”. It’s a conversation for all industries, and tech is no stranger to it, with 63% of women in tech reporting instances of sexual harassment in their career. To combat this, Maxie asked all the men present to stand up with integrity when derogatory or inappropriate things are said about women, and tell individuals such comments and behavior are not tolerated.


Encourage Women to Go into Tech

Maxie believes we can help address the women-in-tech pipeline problem by encouraging girls to explore their interest in technology from an early age. The demand for these positions is high, and as today’s kids grow, it will likely compound into an even greater need. Introducing young girls to video games, coding camps or games, opportunities to flex that side of their brain, and highlight available paths for them can help get more girls interested in this field.


The hope? For the number of women in tech to increase so that this booming industry can experience more success and continued growth when diverse individuals are at the table.


“As a community, we can work together to make solutions so that Chattanooga becomes recognized as a place of inclusion. It can give us a competitive edge as a community that values women and minorities and we can attract top talent,” she said.


Have you noticed the gender diversity gap in tech? If so, how is your company or community working to close the gap? Tell me in the comments below.

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