“Tech moves so quickly that traditional pathways simply can’t keep pace”
We spoke with Zoë Morris about employee retention, how women in tech can find mentors, alternative paths to a career in IT, and more. How can flexible, working from home environments help employees, and what advice does Zoë Morris have for aspiring tech professionals?
JAXenter: According to the report from the Frank Recruitment Group, the percentage of women in tech has stagnated for a decade. Can you elaborate on this? Why has it stagnated?
Zoë Morris: Given the increased focus on diversifying the tech workforce over the past decade, you’d think the needle would have moved a bit more. Still, the reality is that although massive efforts are being made to get more women into the tech space, just as many are leaving it.
There’s excellent work being done to put more women into tech roles, remove barriers, and make tech more appealing to young women and girls still in education. Both long- and short-term initiatives are being undertaken to create more female tech professionals who can fill the ever-growing number of positions being created by digital transformation.
But of course, it’s not just about making these roles more visible to women and making sure they have access to the training they need to break into tech; there’s also a much more challenging issue around culture. Many women are very aware that tech roles are sustainable and financially rewarding—they’re also aware that tech remains a male-dominated industry and have heard countless tales of sexism, misogyny, and toxic ‘tech bro’ environments. There is no shortage of women who have the skills to succeed in a tech job but choose not to put themselves in a place where they may not be valued or supported.
And for those that do decide to make the jump into tech, there’s the issue of retention. Any strides to bring more women into tech fields are being hobbled by high quit rates and a lack of career progress.
Research by Harvard Business Review found that women working in STEM roles in the US were 45% more likely to quit a job within a year of taking it than their male peers. According to another report, half of women in tech roles will leave the industry for good by the time they’re 35. Some of this can be attributed to women leaving to start families or take on other unpaid care work, but it’s still considerably higher than the average across all fields, which is around 20%. We might be making some progress in getting women into tech, but there’s still so much work to be done to keep them there.
JAXenter: More and more, people are taking alternative paths into tech than a standard college degree. What are some different paths that are available?
Zoë Morris: Tech moves so quickly that traditional pathways like college degrees simply can’t keep pace. There’s no guarantee that someone who has taken a years-long tech-related degree will be equipped with the kind of skills that the market wants by the time they graduate. They may learn valuable soft skills, but a college degree certainly isn’t the only valid route into tech, and employers are starting to see that they need to look past that and embrace alternative routes to land the talent they need.
This is great news for women, especially those that may be re-entering the workforce after a break, those that may not have opted for a tech-related degree due to pervasive gender stereotyping found in education, or those that don’t have the option to go back to college due to the need to support a family.
Internal upskilling programs, for example, are becoming more common within larger organizations. Schemes that identify potential talent in other roles or departments and invite them to learn new skills or take on a new role gradually while on the job can be very effective. Women may feel more comfortable doing this kind of training in a familiar environment where they have support and already have a job lined up. Working towards a new role in this way can benefit female professionals, who often find it harder to sell themselves into a role than men, especially when they feel they don’t match the criteria 100%.
AT&T is a good example of how large companies are doing this. After research found that only half of its workforce had the right tech skills to keep up with changing demand and that many had skills that would be soon obsolete, the firm threw itself into internal upskilling. As well as creating an online portal that shows employees available roles and outlines the skills required, AT&T developed a $1bn web-based, long-term upskilling platform including online courses from leading universities and e-learning providers.
Cross-training programs are also an increasingly attractive option for both employers and professionals. Many people have transferable skills that will give them a head-start on a tech career, and there are a growing number of programs out there that offer intensive training to equip candidates with these in-demand skills. Some schemes, like our own skills creation brand Revolent, offer technical training, certification, support, and paid employment. We’ve found that providing both support and a guaranteed role removes some of the barriers that women in particular face when seeking to cross-train into tech, as they don’t have to give up a salary to gain a new skillset.
Similarly, returnships are a great solution to women leaving the workforce to take a career break and finding it difficult to restart their careers. There’s so much talent out there that we can’t afford to waste by letting experienced professional women stagnate later in their careers. Returnships offer opportunities and support for women returning to the workforce to help them sharpen up their skills and set them back on a rewarding career path. This is particularly useful when you consider that women in tech often find it difficult to advance into senior roles.
We’ve previously partnered with Microsoft on a returnship program that took women with previous IT experience who’d taken a career break and upskilled them in Microsoft Dynamics. They retrained on the job with a Microsoft Gold Partner, and within four months, they were permanently employed as consultants. Many participants have gone on to senior management roles within the tech industry. The initiative was also shortlisted for E-Skills Initiative of the Year at 2018’s Women in IT Awards.
JAXenter: This past year and a half has shown that working remotely can open up jobs for so many different people. How can flexible, remote work help women in tech?
Zoë Morris: When some people picture a software developer, they think of some young man somewhere in Silicon Valley, chained to his desk, working all hours of the night to meet a deadline. There’s something of a perception about tech jobs that the hours are long, the culture is intense and involved, and the only places to find tech jobs are in big cities.
And there’s certainly no smoke without fire; there are systemic cultural issues, especially around work-life balance, that need to be addressed in the tech space. But that’s not the reality for all tech jobs. Many tech companies are progressive and are actively trying to bring balance to their employees’ working lives.
After the last year, more companies are going to embrace remote and flexible work. We’ve seen that it can work to a company’s advantage by opening up the talent pool, and that’s invaluable in such a talent-scarce industry.
Offering flexible working options—whether that’s allowing staff to work from home, have control over their schedules, compress their hours, share jobs—eliminates many barriers for women in tech. Focusing on the results rather than when and where the work is carried out means that women can fit their work around responsibilities that might otherwise prevent them from working at all. Embracing and encouraging, not just offering, these options keep women in the workforce, gives them more avenues for progression and growth, and allows them to do quality work because they’re not having to worry about being penalized for having a life outside of their job.
JAXenter: Why are retention rates for women in tech so low? Why do women leave the tech industry?
Zoë Morris: According to research by Accenture, more than a third of women in tech feel their gender has negatively impacted their career progression, and several things could explain this.
The first is just plain sexism. Women in tech are often not seen as being as capable, knowledgeable, or skilled as their male colleagues. Many female tech professionals feel that they’re constantly having to prove themselves and need to work harder than men in the field just to be viewed as competent. That’s an exhausting position to be in. Why would anyone stay in a role or an industry where they didn’t feel valued or supported?
There’s also the inescapable gender pay gap that still exists across a whole range of sectors. We’re beginning to get more visibility into gender pay disparities—some countries have brought in legislation requiring companies to publish salary data—but we haven’t achieved equality in this regard. Again, if a professional is not being paid equally for equal work, based on nothing other than gender, why would they want to continue working in a space that doesn’t respect them enough to pay them what they’re worth?
Many women also cite poor work-life balance as a factor in them leaving the tech sector. A work-first culture exists in a lot of tech organizations, not only putting a lot of stress on female tech professionals who are already expected to go the extra mile just to be able to compete with male colleagues, but making some roles completely untenable for those with domestic responsibilities. There’s not enough support for women who are also parents or carers. Without more flexible working options, they simply leave the workforce entirely or shift to a different sector.
This culture is exacerbated by the fact that most employees in tech are men, who tend to have fewer responsibilities outside of work. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. They’re less likely to be working parents or carers, able to work long hours, and take less time off. This becomes the expectation of all staff, and therefore anyone not fitting in with this workhorse culture struggles to progress.
Lack of progression and development opportunities is another major blocker for women in tech. Our report covers what we’ve called “the missing middle”; an absence of women in leadership roles in technology. All these factors—the sexism, the culture, the lack of support—hold women back from progressing into leadership roles. They don’t feel challenged in the right way, they don’t feel valued, they stagnate, and so they hit a wall and they leave. This then means there are precious few female mentors and role models in the upper levels of the tech space, and that just perpetuates the issue of women not feeling like a tech career is for them because they don’t see themselves represented—yet another vicious cycle.
JAXenter: How can women find mentors in their field?
Zoë Morris: If women are struggling to find support from experienced peers within their own organization or professional network, then there are programs out there that will connect budding mentees with people who can offer advice and guidance based on their shared experiences.
We have recently launched a program to do just that. Our Mentor Me scheme is a new initiative designed to empower the next generation of female leaders to succeed and help grow the number of women in senior management roles in tech. The program matches mentors from our extensive network of senior leaders across the tech industry with professionals ready to take the next step forward in their career. It’s a free program, and all our mentors have at least a decade of experience working in tech.
JAXenter: Do you have any advice you would like to give to aspiring women in tech?
Zoë Morris: It can feel lonely when you’re in the minority in your working life. My advice would be to connect with other women in tech wherever possible. Join communities, user groups, attend networking events—any chance you get to share your experiences with other women and remind yourself you’re not alone will be extremely valuable. You can swap tips, lift each other up, and work together to find new ways of supporting women in tech. That’s how we change things; by coming together and tackling these issues with a united front.