It’s no news that women are underrepresented in IT, but it’s truly discouraging that the problem has been so persistent despite being talked about for so long. ‘Awareness’ just doesn’t seem to be the answer. So what kinds of practical steps can women – and the industry – take to increase female participation rates?
In a column on Forbes.com, Juliet de Baubigny, a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, provides some advice on how women already in the sector can increase their numbers.
“Despite years of widespread discussion and a number of high profile female leaders, most Silicon Valley technology companies remain boys’ clubs,” Baubigny writes. “Women remain sparsely represented at venture capital firms, in corporate boardrooms and in executive suites – and they remain a distinct minority among rank-and-file programmers and engineers. Sadly, the situation simply is not improving. But there’s a way forward – and women in tech business can make it happen.”
de Baubigny cites a 2008 report by the Center for Work-Life Policy that found that while a healthy number of women are interested in IT careers, more than half eventually abandoned the profession. An updated version issued this year found little improvement; almost a third of women in IT expect to quit their current jobs within a year.
“If young women and those of us in the industry who support them realized what happens to push women off their career paths, we might be able to forestall some of those departures,” de Baubigny says.
She says women succumb to financial, societal and environmental pressures. Lack of affordable day care for growing families is ine issue. Societal pressures mean that women end up the lower-earning spouse because of family and relationship decisions they make in their 20s, opting for less challenging, lower-paying positions than their partners. And women who don’t have a supportive partner and a work environment that embraces their role as working mothers are more likely to drop out.
de Baubigny says there’s a lot that can be done, however.
“If you have the luxury of choice, opt for more demanding work that will allow you to earn more income and get a better job at a better company,” she says. “If you want to continue working after you have children, you need sufficient growth in your career early, so that you can afford the childcare you want.”
de Baubigny advocates seeking out supportive people and workplaces early on, well before the family arrives. “Can you call in to a meeting? Will the CEO mind if your phone rings during a face-to-face (we all try to avoid this, but it will happen)? What are the maternity policies like?”
The report cited earlier suggests creating a system of coaches or sponsors. “Sponsors help their protégés crack the unwritten code of executive presence, improving their chances of being perceived as leadership material. Most important to the companies employing them, sponsors help women get their ideas heard.”
Be careful about taking on pert-time work. “No one I ever knew who took part-time status actually worked much less. Part-time status cuts your responsibility and pay, but not necessarily the time you spend working.”
It’s risky to take off more than a few months at a time. Women who step aside for longer periods will find that it gets much more difficult to re-enter the work force. “That’s especially true in technology, where so much can change in a matter of months,” de Baubigny says.
“Recognize that your career is valuable, too,” she says. “The years when your children are babies are both fleeting and precious. As a mother, leaving the house in the morning was the hardest part of my day. But this argument cuts both ways. When you’re making your decisions, know that leaving the work force at a critical juncture in your career will cost you more than most people are willing to say.”
When women in tech careers reach a point where they have to decide what their priorities are, many abandon the career without giving it a shot. de Baubigny suggests not getting overwhelmed in long-term thinking; instead, focus on trying to stay the course just for a while.
“I tell the young women in my life, for example, that if you are thinking through the questions about income, day-care costs and whether you can be a mother and a career star, just try to make it work for a couple of months,” de Baubigny says. “You’ve come this far. And we need you. Chances are you’ll be able to be both a great mom and a great career woman. The rewards are immense, and not just in terms of professional success.”
If more examples of successful women in tech can be created, de Baubigny says, “we will create the momentum that is needed to really see substantial numbers of women move up the ranks.”