Getting to ‘enough’: Encouraging women in tech

You’ve probably heard the idea that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them. It’s a compelling argument for why diversity is so crucial for innovation. Solving big, technical problems requires a new point of view—a multiplicity of new points of view, in fact. And we won’t get there unless we expand the universe of engineers from all backgrounds, including women.

Research from Columbia University found that “the more a firm’s strategy is focused on innovation, the more female representation in top management improves firm performance.” In their base case, they determined that a typical firm valued at $2.26 billion, when compared with a firm with female representation in top management, could expect an increase of $42 million in value.

Great Places to Work, the company behind Fortune’s well-known list, published research that concluded, “organizations in the top quartile for an inclusive innovation experience achieve 5.5 times the median year-over-year revenue growth compared to those in the lowest quartile.”

Varied studies (like this one and this one) report the percentage of women in computer and engineering fields. Their results land consistently in the high teens to mid-twenties. In other words, not enough.

The percentage of female college students in those fields is roughly the same. These numbers haven’t changed significantly in years, so past trends don’t lead us to expect a big uptick in the ratio of female engineers in the tech industry. Again, it’s not enough.

Much has been written about what we need to do: Start early to encourage girls to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Change biases and cultural stereotypes that discourage girls and women in STEM fields. Showcase positive role models. Encourage mentorship. Create inclusive corporate cultures, policies, and practices to prevent women from “tracking out” of tech careers, which they do at higher rates than men.

These are all good and important strategies. But it can be difficult for companies to know what specific action to take. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my current role, it’s that the challenges of increasing the number of women in tech are multifaceted; therefore, the solutions must be multifaceted as well.

Does this sound complicated? Daunting? Well, here’s another idea you may have heard before: No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Here are some key areas to consider.

THINK BIG—AND SMALL

The key to a multifaceted approach is that it will take both large, company-led programs as well as employee-initiated, bottom-up activities to move the needle. And the two have to work together. Companies need to sponsor and support both top-down and bottom-up efforts with funding, paid time away from work, equipment and supplies, etc. At the same time, employees need to give themselves permission to seek help from their companies, which may already be poised to help.

Corporate sponsorship and allocated manpower can make big things happen. For example, at Keysight Technologies, we host the 2022 Keysight Innovation Challenge, where female-led teams of university students are addressing the United Nations’ global goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Students worldwide can compete for more than $100,000 in cash and Keysight equipment. This year’s challenge is “to design and secure an IoT device or network of devices to monitor carbon emissions in corporate and community environments.”

At the other end of the spectrum are employee-driven efforts where motivated, caring Keysight employees from Spain to Malaysia and from rural India to our home county of Sonoma, California, have started local programs to encourage girls to learn about STEM subjects. They’re bringing books to underserved regions, making materials and mentors available for hands-on experiments and putting curricula online to make information easier to access (really important during the COVID-19 pandemic!). I expect you can find similar projects happening at any tech company. I’m calling for more of them and for more company support of these efforts.

SET GOALS

I know setting goals sounds obvious to anyone in business, but, as a company, you can’t consider yourself serious unless you measure yourself against specific, corporate-level goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Are you thinking, “I don’t have a say in that?” Then set a personal goal for what you can do. Organize a guest lecturer in a local math or science class. Work with a teacher to put together a field trip to a science center near you. Mentor a female engineer at your company who’s early in her career. Or get involved with company leadership to set broader company-wide goals.

FOLLOW THE LIFECYCLE

I mentioned examples aimed at school-aged girls, but the challenge to increase the numbers of women in tech only starts there. A Microsoft study of girls in 12 European countries found that there is “a narrow, four-year window of opportunity to foster girls’ passion in STEM subjects.” According to the survey, girls become interested in STEM subjects between ages 11 and 12, but their interest drops significantly between 15 and 16. We’ve all heard that the teen years are critical, but so are the college years and the mid-career years—all phases when women opt out of tech in higher numbers than men.

Many organizations support girls and women throughout the lifecycle of education and career—from Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and Girls in Tech to Women in Technology International and the Society of Women Engineers. They all have ways you can get involved—or better yet, get your company involved. You can also simply encourage the girls and women around you through mentorship, support, and even just challenging biases and stereotypes when you encounter them in daily life.

The beauty of finding multifaceted solutions is that you can start just about anywhere, whether you are already in a role with a budget that’s responsible for bolstering women in tech or you are just someone who wants to do something to help. That’s the kind of thinking—and doing—that will get us to “enough.”


Marie Hattar is CMO at Keysight Technologies, responsible for brand and global marketing efforts.