Exploring the Gender Gap: How to Encourage and Retain More Women in Tech

Written by: Kiley Nichols

Progress on diversity in tech has been slow, despite the strong business case for it. We know that companies with greater diversity of employees perform better in good times and in bad than those with low to no diversity.[1] In honor of Women’s History Month, the CloudBees Diversity and Inclusion Committee dug deep into tech’s gender gap. The good news is that things are slowly improving: The number of engineering and computer science bachelor's degrees awarded to women increased 58% between 2012 and 2017.[2] But we still have a long way to go, as only 25% of U.S. computer and mathematical jobs are currently held by women.[3] Why is that?

Our five panelists discussed the obstacles faced by women as well as the solutions that hold the most promise for expanding the role of women in our industry. Our conversation focused on four topics: external obstacles, internal obstacles, the role of male allies and the role of mentors for female tech professionals.

External Obstacles
Societal expectations remain a sticking point, and cultural pressure about what careers are available to women often derail girls who might otherwise be interested in tech, said Zainab Abubakar, software engineer at Interswitch and open source code manager for She Code Africa. “Growing up as females, we have so many scenarios where ladies are tailored to some kind of certain career that they should look out for,” said Abubakar, who resisted going into tech initially because she didn’t believe she fit the mold for success.

Arian Agrawal, co-founder of Riya Collective, also struggled with lack of representation in her undergraduate education at MIT: “Most of the people studying even computer science and engineering were not women. I think that it really starts there: not seeing someone like yourself that you can look up to really, and who can relate to you,” she noted.

Nic Harvey, a director of global technical alliances at CloudBees, took inspiration from her mother, a sales leader, to choose a less traditional women's career path than secretary or teacher. Harvey explained, “As much as those are incredible jobs and they are valued and valuable within every industry and every culture and organization, I knew that there was something else, thankfully, that I could strive for.”

Balancing work with family obligations remains another major obstacle for women wanting to carve out a successful career in tech. The pandemic has exposed many women’s continuing struggle to juggle jobs with childrearing and household responsibilities. In the fall of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, women left the U.S. workforce at more than four times the rate men did.[4] Fatigue from a chronic lack of rest and diverted energy keeps women lower on the company ladder, Abubakar pointed out. Having resources that support their career goals, said Susan Lally, vice president of engineering at CloudBees and our panel moderator, is vital “in order for women to feel like they can show up at work with more time, more energy, more presence.”

Internal Obstacles
Not all their challenges are external, however. Several panelists remarked that they didn’t see real progress in their career until they forced themselves to develop skills to work through their internal issues.

Learning how to advocate for yourself takes a lot of effort, Lally said: “I find even the most talented, the most valuable people on the team still struggle to ask for what they need to make the environment they want. It is extra overhead. You wish you didn't have to do it, but you do.”

Confidence and fear of failure are internal challenges for anyone, and hesitancy to not speak up in meetings or not apply for new opportunities means women often limit themselves. Concerns about being labeled “aggressive” or “emotional” (rather than “assertive” or “passionate”) may not be unfounded, but they can also create a negative feedback loop, said Harvey, when fear of perception leads women to overthink and talk themselves out of opportunities they were initially enthusiastic about.

Being open about such concerns has been a successful strategy for Agrawal. “It helps when you open yourself up and you express kind of the challenges that you're feeling.” But, she says, “It definitely requires a lot more overhead. It's not like my male counterparts. I can see them come into a room and just speak what's on their mind and everyone listens and understands it. Whereas I have to come in and caveat it a little bit more and say, 'this is the perspective that I'm coming out with' so I don't seem too aggressive, and so I don't seem too apologetic.”

Ally Support
Eliminating that sense of vulnerability and being open to talking about perceptions is one of the ways that men can be allies to women in tech. Awareness of and interest in different perspectives is something everyone can bring to the table, said Marcus Grimaldo, who, like Harvey, is a director of global technical alliances at CloudBees: “Everything's a choice, right? So choose to be aware, choose to be intentional, and really create that culture that's going to lead towards the vision that you want to see for your team and for the overall company. We all know that the more ideas you have, the more diverse it is, the better products you'll have.”

The Pivotal Role of Mentors
Although the panelists have had very different life experiences, all agreed that mentorship plays a huge role in encouraging women to enter and stay in tech. Abubakar’s mentor at Interswitch was critical to helping her develop a sense of direction in her career. “One of the major problems we see is that young women are confused—they don’t know where to start,” she said. Her mentor also helped her to overcome a misperception that a career in tech must be all-consuming and incompatible with having a personal life.

Agrawal, too, said that having strong mentors early in her career made all the difference. Having a woman as her first managing director and later a founder who “gifted” her with confidence to run the company’s North American operations empowered her to take the leap and found her own company.

The key, Harvey said of the mentors she has had—both male and female—was their sense of quiet, confident support in her: “It’s ‘Yes, you can go do this, but I'm here. You've got this and I've got you.’ Everybody needs that person in their life.”

Finding a mentor can feel intimidating, but mentors are all around, panelists noted. “Where do you want to be in five to ten years? Look around you, see people who are at that particular position, try to reach out to them, have conversations with them,” said Abubakar.

Learning to talk openly and ask questions of mentors and colleagues is crucial to success, Abubakar noted, because “you never stop facing challenges in tech. The challenges keep getting tougher and tougher.... You get better when you're able to ask people for help.”

Getting better is what the diversity and inclusion committee at CloudBees is all about. We are committed to asking questions and creating relationships that open opportunities for our community and the tech industry.

For more information on joining the CloudBees team, affectionately called "The Hive," visit our Careers page.

[1] Dixon-Fyle et al. (May 19, 2020). "Diversity wins: How inclusion matters." https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters. Accessed April 11, 2021.
[2] SWE.org (November 1, 2019). "SWE Research Update: Women in Engineering by the Numbers (Nov. 2019)." https://alltogether.swe.org/2019/11/swe-research-update-women-in-engineering-by-the-numbers-nov-2019/#_edn11. Accessed April 11, 2021.
[3] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 22, 2021). "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm. Accessed April 11, 2021.
[4] Gogoi, Pallavi (October 28, 2020). " Stuck-At-Home Moms: The Pandemic's Devastating Toll On Women." https://www.npr.org/2020/10/28/928253674/stuck-at-home-moms-the-pandemics-devastating-toll-on-women. Accessed April 11, 2021.

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