Research shows there are “unconscious biases” against women in the tech industry. Employers like Bank of America are proactively combatting such problems and working to move more women into tech leadership positions, which some claim is critical for the industry to be more innovative.
“Halt and Catch Fire,” is a new television series about the personal computer revolution in the early 1980s. The title refers to the machine code instruction “halt and catch fire,” which would cause the computer’s central processing unit to stop working.
One of the most interesting aspects of the series (besides the bad hair) is the character of Cameron, who generates many references to groundbreaking women in computers. For example, she names her operating system “Lovelace” after Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who wrote an algorithm in the 1800s for how general-purpose computers could calculate numbers. In addition, Cameron is told she could be the next Grace Hopper, referring to the U.S. Navy rear admiral who programmed computers in the 1950s and is credited with the term “debugging.”
But without a television show to reference such female technology pioneers, it’s unlikely most Americans would know anything about them.
Women leaving IT
Women often have struggled to make their names known in technology, and part of that can be attributed to fewer females in tech leadership. (And even if their names are known, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, it can often be a discussion of her maternity leave or work/life balance.)
But that is beginning to change as employers like Bank of America take proactive steps to get more women in technology leadership positions. In addition, organizations like the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) help women gain a greater presence in tech leadership ranks.
Currently, women hold only about one-quarter of all information technology jobs. But even among the women who pursue computer science, 56% leave by midcareer, finds Harvard Business School research.
One of the reasons for that is because women complain of unsupportive and discriminating workplaces. Working in technology is a "thousand tiny paper cuts," says Ashe Dryden, a programmer who now consults on increasing diversity in technology. "I’ve been a programmer for 13 years, and I’ve always been one of the only women and queer people in the room. I’ve been harassed, I’ve had people make suggestive comments to me, I’ve had people basically dismiss my expertise."
That’s why Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of NCWIT, says that while more companies are taking the lack of women in the industry seriously, there is still much to be done. Sanders says her group tries to show how the lack of diversity in the industry leads to homogeneous teams that lack innovative solutions. There is also the bottom-line impact of experienced and talented women departing the industry mid-career, leaving companies “trying to recruit from half the population that doesn’t find the jobs appealing,” she says.
Network of support
This year, Bank of America won the Top Company for Women in Computing ABIE Award, presented by the non-profit Anita Borg Institute. Bank of America was cited for “exceptional representation of women technologists in both its management and team of technical experts.”
Denise Menelly, head of shared service operations for Bank of America, says that she believes the reason that the employer beat out other employers such as Facebook to win the award is because the employer doesn’t focus on only one or two activities to support women in technology, “but tackles it from a holistic angle.”
Bank of America CEO Brian R. Moynihan has delivered a strong mandate for more diversity in the ranks, and that includes women in technology. The employer demands that its managers clearly document the number of women in the development pipeline and how female candidates are being recruited for various roles, Menelly says.
Of the 230,000 Bank of America employees worldwide, more than half are women. About half of employees in the global tech group are women.
“But all this is followed up with real action,” Menelly says.
She explains that the company has different activities where women can tap into a network of support, including the Women in Technology and Operations organization. It provides a series of events, speakers and sponsorship programs for women, she says.
Menelly adds that it’s critical that men are involved in many of these activities as well, not only to serve as sponsors and mentors for women, but “to understand why it’s important to take action,” she says.
Men are also educated about the “unconscious bias” that may form their opinions or decisions. In the past year, Bank of America’s top 450 managers in the global technology and operation organization, which has more than 112,000 employees, participated in unconscious bias training, Menelly says.
Why is unconscious bias training so critical? Because it can crop up in so many situations, from job interviews to performance evaluations to work assignments. For example, research shows that recommendation letters for men use status words like “outstanding” more than letters for women, and women are more than twice as likely as men to have “doubt raisers” in their letters such as stating a woman “appears” to do something.
Sanders, of NCWIT, says that research further shows technology teams often have different cultures than those of other teams in a company, which means that standard human resource practices and measurements may not work. Specifically, she says that HR needs to dig deeper to uncover unconscious biases, because women on tech teams may feel “isolated or stereotyped” and more reluctant to report biases.
“I think you have to take specific metrics on tech teams,” she says. “You’ve got to define it and measure it. That’s the way you build accountability.”
In addition, NCWIT recommends more male advocacy for more women in tech leadership roles by:
“There is a very fundamental need for new and different ideas because we’re all experiencing such rapid growth,” Menelly says. “We are really selling ourselves short if we don’t embrace all the ideas and different ways of thinking.”