Developing Women Leaders in Technology, Part One: The Problem

In the premiere episode of the 2006 British sitcom “The IT Crowd,” Jen starts a new job as the IT manager. She leads a department of two men, got the job because she lied on her resume, and clearly knows nothing about technology. Meanwhile, the two men who work for her have little to no experience working with women.

Fortunately, life isn’t a sitcom. In fact, the first computer programmers were women, and the field was originally stereotyped as a female profession. However, while in 1985, 37 percent of undergraduate computer science students were women, now, the number is only 18 percent. The numbers are even worse after college, and while 80 percent of women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields say they love their work, over half leave 10 to 20 years into their careers.

Women make up 57 percent of all “professional occupations” but only 25 percent of “computing occupations,” according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). The numbers shrink as you move up the ladder; only 21 percent of tech executives are women (this number drops to 11 percent in Silicon Valley).

This is despite the fact that gender-balanced companies perform better financially and have stronger teams. Tech companies and departments in particular with gender diversity stay on schedule and under budget and have improved employee performance. It’s also despite the fact that more women than men use technology like social media and smartphones. “It’s a growing problem and a global problem,” says Patty Burke, strategic business partner for leadership and innovation solutions at the Center for Creative Leadership.


Is it a Training Problem?

Where does the gender gap come from, and can L&D professionals do anything about it? There are several theories. Part of the problem is that the attrition rate for women is higher in STEM fields than for women in other fields and than for men in STEM fields. According to NCWIT, women leave the tech field because of “workplace conditions, a lack of access to key creative roles, and a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career.” This is an area where L&D can help; most technical women want to advance their careers, but they don’t have access to the development opportunities they’re looking for. The Anita Borg Institute’s ranking of top companies for women technologists has found that the top companies “offer more formal programs for leadership development,” especially for mid-level and executive-level leaders.


Another problem is implicit bias, which can create negative environments for women in technical fields, as well as institutional bias, which can create barriers for entry and promotion. Again, training can help; the Anita Borg Institute found that the best companies for women in technology offer formal training on the benefits of – and barriers to achieving – gender diversity.

A 2017 survey by ISACA (formerly the Information Systems Audit and Control Association) found that a lack of mentors and a lack of female role models in the field were the top two barriers faced by women in technology. Stronger mentoring programs are needed to help women in technology, and especially to help leaders, or aspiring leaders, build their networks and identify paths to success.

“Every company wants higher revenue,” says Cydni Tetro, president of the Women Tech Council. “To do that, you have to create high-performing teams that have diverse thoughts.” Boosting the number of women in technical and leadership roles is shown to boost performance, but it will take strategic efforts from L&D organizations to make it happen. The next article in this series will explore how.

Read the rest of the articles in this series:

Developing Women Leaders in Technology, Part Two: Learning and DevelopmentDeveloping Women Leaders in Technology, Part Three: Building an Inclusive CultureDeveloping Women Leaders in Technology, Part Four: Women’s Conferences and Networking

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