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How to make your company more attractive to women in IT

What do women want at work? Women IT workers who like their jobs explain what their employers do differently.

The problem of toxic work cultures, especially in the tech industry, is very much in the news these days. A recent study on job turnover in tech companies found that unfair treatment is "the single largest driver of turnover affecting all groups, and most acutely affects underrepresented professionals.” 

The study, which was conducted by the Kapor Center for Social Impact and the Harris Poll, found that women of all backgrounds "experienced and observed significantly more unfair treatment overall than men.”

As a result, many women with established tech careers are leaving the profession. According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 56 percent of women leave the tech workforce at the midlevel point. These women are not just leaving to raise families or because they lost interest in tech. In fact, the study found that the majority of women who leave specifically technical jobs stay in the workforce and half of them continue to use their technical skills in their new professions.

But how about the 44 percent who stay in tech jobs? What are their employers doing right that many other companies seem to be doing wrong? To understand how tech companies can do a better job of attracting and keeping female employees, we spoke to several women in the tech industry who are satisfied with their current jobs.

Maintaining a reasonable lifestyle

Not surprisingly, a major key to these companies’ success is simply understanding that employees—both men and women—have lives outside the workplace. Rachel Happe is co-founder and principal of the Community Roundtable, a Massachusetts-based firm that promotes social and community engagement. Happe helped found the company when she got tired of working for firms that failed to allow for any kind of personal life.

Happe cites her past experience as an analyst at a management consulting firm, where sometimes she’d work until 1 a.m. “Some of my colleagues were wonderful people, but they put a very hard line between work and home life, and you weren’t supposed to have an issue in your home life that interfered with work,” she says. “There wasn’t any overt discrimination, but there was only one female director, because the lifestyle was impossible to maintain if you wanted a family.”

Things are different at the Community Roundtable, where employees are encouraged to have both work and personal lives, and the “normal” tech culture of working late hours and weekends is discouraged. “Three or four members of my team say it’s taken them a while to trust that nobody was going to punish them for taking their kids to a doctor’s appointment,” she says.

One woman interviewing for a job with Happe’s company had taken a few years off to be with her kids. “There are a lot of organizations that will not hire somebody because of those things,” says Happe. “I think the biggest mistake that young women make is they feel they can’t interview the company, that it’s not an equal power dynamic." 

Flexibility in working hours is one of the things that Dina Golden, a software engineer, likes about her current job. “Some people work 7 to 3, others 11 to 7. Working from home is possible when needed. For example, my boss sometimes comes in late because he has to take his kid to daycare. Sometimes, if the kid is sick, he works from home.”

Golden believes that her company can provide this flexibility because of good planning. “There is a lot of responsibility and challenge, as we put out a new software release every year to millions of customers, with service packs in between," she explains. "But the process is carefully planned out so there are (practically) never last-minute fires that require one to stay late.” 

Golden also praises her employer’s mandatory harassment training, employee perks such as an onsite cafeteria, and new parent leave for both genders, which staff are encouraged to take. “The funny thing is, even though the company is definitely great at keeping women and this is the most woman-friendly place I know of, the company really does nothing special to attract or keep women specifically," she says. "All its policies apply to both genders. Perhaps this is because our parent company is French, where these things are taken for granted.”

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Esra Cansizoglu works at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a research scientist. She echoes the sentiments about flexibility in work hours. “No one is looking on my shoulder about what time I come and what time I leave,” she says. “I have a 4-year-old kid, so this is an important factor for me, as life is unpredictable most of the time as a mom.”

She adds that, when looking for a job, terms like “fast paced” and “start-up-like environment” can be warning signals, causing her to question “whether they would easily offer this flexibility.”

Don’t talk about the right thing—do it

Another important factor for companies is to not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk. Arlene, who works as a performance engineer for mobile products at a major tech firm, says, “There's a fair chunk of common wisdom out there about attracting women. Most of that does not translate into keeping women because it's essentially false advertising.”

More often, Arlene adds, it’s the small things that signal that you’re probably in the right place. “I knew things were likely going to be great when I found out that the department admin—the person who organizes parties, keeps the junk food stocked, deals with facilities, and generally helps with administrivia—was male,” Arlene explains. “He was the first person my mentor introduced me to, and because his job included handing out computer peripherals, my own internalized sexism caused me to originally mistake him for a system administrator.” She was also happy to find out that the company had an active women’s group with regularly scheduled speakers.

“Best of all, nobody tried to sell any of this to me," she says. "I'm sure they'd have happily discussed this if I'd asked during my interviews. But I'd rather have people doing the right thing than talking about It.”

Improving the odds

Many women agree that having more women on staff can make a big difference. For example, at Happe’s company, 80 percent of the employees are women.

Duygu (DJ) Yapar is an interim team leader at Ultimate Software, a Florida company where women comprised 49 percent of the total workforce as of August 2016, 42 percent of them in leadership positions. Yapar credits a company program called Women in Leadership for her current role. “I was encouraged to attend the program,” she says, “and then after I started attending, they encouraged me to take a leadership position, and then they gave me one.”

Jessica Rather works in IT at Edgenuity, an Arizona company that creates supplemental education courses. “I work with a lot of teachers, who are traditionally mostly female, so this office has a much higher ratio of women to men than usual,” she says. “While the tech side still skews male, there are more women in that department than you would usually see. Also, these men have to deal with the content creation side often (mostly teachers and therefore mostly female), so they interact with more women than just found within their teams.”

As a result, says Rather, you’re more likely to be taken seriously when issues arise. “When women complain about a problem, they get more sympathy and attention to the problem rather than the usual brush-off of her being overly sensitive or ‘that's just the way he is.’”

In the end, most of the women we spoke with agreed that keeping women comfortable in the workplace is a matter of treating them—and their male colleagues—as people rather than cogs in an IT machine. Jenny, who works in IT infrastructure for a large Australian government department, explains that she doesn't "have to consider whether I will be ignored simply because I’m a woman (I won’t be, as long as I speak up, like everybody else) or have my achievements downgraded because I’m a woman (they won’t be, although I might have to point out my achievements, just like everybody else), or the like.”

This applies to personal time as well. “If it is expected and accepted that men will equally take time off for family reasons, apart from medical reasons for women getting time off for the actual childbirth, then it's a win-win,” Jenny says. “Fathers get to spend more time with their families (and in my experience, they want to), mothers don't have to do all the family stuff, and young women don't get the bias of ‘but she'll just have kids and spend her time looking after them.’”

Go for the job you want

Companies can always hire more women and adjust their cultures. In the end, though, it’s up to the employees to decide whether the company meets their needs.

The women we interviewed who have found good organizations to work for agree that if you find an organization that feels like a good fit, then go for it. If a company doesn't have an opening for you, keep trying.

For example, Yapar found her current position at Ultimate Software through luck—and resolve. “I had a couple of past co-workers with the last company I was working for, and they had taken jobs [with Ultimate] and were telling me how it was a great place to work,” she says.

Yapar researched the company using resources such as Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Women. “I set a goal to get into Ultimate and started reaching for it," she says. "It was not easy—it took me a year and a half or two years. But once I got in, what I had heard wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It’s been a better experience than I expected.”

Happe advises job seekers to remember that working for a company should be a win-win situation. “I feel that people don’t ask enough questions,” she says. “If they’re not going to support you because of these factors in your life, that’s eventually going to cause you stress. It’s not going to be a great fit for you.”

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.