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The struggle to recruit and retain women in tech marches on

Companies are promoting training, mentorships, and a breadth of job opportunities to ramp up diversity and inclusion efforts and attract more women to high-tech roles.

Francesca Marano was born into tech. Both her parents got their start in programming, and her mom was part of an early cadre of female coders in Italy. Marano grew up In the late '70s drawing on perforated punch cards, and her family was among the first in town to own a PC. 

When it came time for college and a career, Marano didn't follow her parents on the technology track; she identified as a creative type. In fact, Marano was dismissive of tech until the rise of the Internet in the late 1990s, ushering in a new means of visual creativity and community. She took an HTML class and was hooked. Marano eventually began building websites, more as a designer than a coder, and by 2010 or so, she built a career in technology—although it was nothing like the ones her parents had.

"I wouldn't have called myself a woman in tech even 10 years ago because I imagined them as my mom was: a systems analyst or developer," says Marano, today a WordPress core team lead at Yoast, which markets a search engine optimization plug-in for WordPress. Marano also co-led the community of developers behind WordPress 5.3 and 5.4 and served as a core team global representative tasked with recruiting women contributors to the WordPress open source project.

"I came to realize women in tech are not just technical women but are women who push for digital transformation in the organizations they are part of," she says.

Attracting women to tech has been a well-publicized challenge. Sure, tech has a number of high-profile women these days—AMD CEO Lisa Su and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg come to mind—but the numbers overall are still scant. The reasons are varied: Some recruiters cite the still-prevalent male culture as a turnoff to women, along with the false perception that most job demand is for hard-core engineering roles of the type that didn't appeal to Marano.

"They think studying tech means being chained to a computer 14 hours a day doing coding, but a career in tech is much broader," says Biljana Weber, vice president and managing director for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, and Africa at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a member of HPE's Inclusion and Diversity Council. "We need to work on creating more role models and examples of successful women in the tech industry. In addition, parents and teachers need to provide encouragement to girls to study tech."

Despite corporate efforts to lure more women into the field, female representation in the tech sector remains consistently low. While women held 57 percent of the total number of U.S. professional positions in 2019, they comprised a little more than a quarter (26 percent) of the professional computing workforce, according to data compiled by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Women are particularly underrepresented in software engineering (14 percent) and computer science-related jobs (25 percent) as a percentage of the total workforce. Not surprisingly, it's even worse at the very upper echelons: Only 18 percent of CIO positions were held by women in 2019, NCWIT reported, pointing to figures from Korn Ferry.

Yet, the opportunity is great: An April 2020 CompTIA report, citing figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, projects the market for tech jobs to grow by 15 percent from 2018 to 2028, compared with an overall U.S. employment job growth rate of 10.5 percent.

Companies, ever more aware of gender and diversity challenges, have stepped up their efforts in recent years, trying to create more welcoming workplace environments and address ongoing pay inequality.

Despite these efforts, recruiting and retention remain big challenges. A Center for Work-Life Policy study found that half of women in tech leave the industry midway through their careers—more than double the rate of men. A more recent Capital One Women in Technology Survey identified the key reasons for the exodus: weak management support (23 percent), lack of opportunity (20 percent), and lack of work-life balance (22 percent).

"The tech industry is a predominantly male industry, and when people see lower rates of women in the industry, they think maybe it's not a good career choice or that they won't get the right opportunity to be promoted," says Weber.

The elusive seat at the table

The infamous "bro" culture of 20-something men—working hard but playing harder—cultivated by Silicon Valley startups, can be a turn off to some women, who don't see themselves fitting in, let alone having a path to success. Marano said she felt a bit like an outsider when her male colleagues questioned her credentials because she wasn't a formal software developer. "That wouldn't stop me from doing it, but not everyone has the same response to these types of issues," she says.

After leading the deployment of a couple major releases of WordPress, among the first non-developers or designers to do so, Marano was determined to have an all-women WordPress community release—a goal she achieved with the 5.6 version, which came out in December 2020.

"The release team was made up of hundreds of women from all around the world," she says. "The whole release process was designed around mentorship. If you keep seeing white 30-something men with plaid shirts in ads for building software, you don't identify with that. Once you feel represented, you feel safer. And once you feel safer, you are more likely to speak up and take your seat at the table."

Rachel Pedreschi, who built a career in tech as a sales engineer, is navigating that path now that she's become a vice president of community at analytics startup Imply. For more than a decade, Pedreschi decided to play the game and embrace—or at the very least, ignore—the male culture to get ahead and fit in. But in recent years, inspired by millennial female colleagues, she's committed to shifting her attitude and becoming a different kind of role model.

"I had no problem with sexist conversations—in order to be in that world, I had to be OK with that," she says. "The younger generation inspired me to be more vocal about my home. … They made me want to be better for them and less accepting of things I had accepted."

Even so, Pedreschi is still struggling to fit in at the leadership table.

"I'm really struggling to calibrate what my voice should be right now, and I don't think men think that way," Pedreschi says. "They don't worry about whether they're coming off too hard or too this or that. I'm working on advocating for myself and my ideas, while trying to figure out how to make men listen to what I have to say."

Changing the dynamic

As women become more vocal about expectations, companies are doing a better job of listening and taking action. Many companies are aggressively trying to tamp down the boys' club vibe and are putting muscle behind diversity and inclusion policies, including advancing equal pay. HPE, for example, has built out a training curriculum to dig deep into topics like inclusive leadership strategies and unconscious bias. HPE has implemented diversity slate requirements for all positions, is conducting a sustained effort to find and replace bias terms prevalent across coding with inclusive language, and champions a Women in Technology program to celebrate women of all kinds in the sector.

"We have a global parental leave policy that enables men and women to take six months off at the birth or adoption of a child," says Weber. "By being inclusive in our policy, we are 

changing the gender norms around childcare and ensuring that we support a culture that values family."

Building like-minded networks, fostering mentorship programs, and providing access to female tech leaders are also essential ingredients. Just ask Chelsey McKinney, a full-stack developer in the Office of Technology & Communications for the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. To find like-minded peers, she makes it a practice to attend meetups and participate in the city's Indigenous Women of Color Enterprise Resource Group. Working in an IT department with a CIO who is Black and female also serves as a North Star for career guidance and provides comfort and motivation in the face of potential gender or diversity obstacles.Pedreschi has also advocated for changes to hiring practices to ensure greater diversity. For example, when looking to grow its sales engineering team, Imply was seeking candidates with 10 to 15 years of experience— criteria that would significantly shrink the candidate pool, Pedreschi argues. Instead, Pedreschi made the case to the CEO to open up a couple more junior positions and encourage the hiring of female or minority candidates. "We need to lift some of those ridiculous goals that startups and Silicon Valley have and instead focus on mentorships and more junior-level roles," she says.

"Working in a field where there are a lot of men who don't always have soft skills didn't scare me, partly because I had already built a foundation for a personal, professional network," McKinney says. "It eased my mind that I had sounding boards."

Sounding boards that, when widespread, can help many women find their place in the field.

Related stories:

Inclusivity and diversity training for you and your team

Top 7 signs a company doesn't have a glass ceiling

How to know when a company is women-in-tech friendly

How to make your company more attractive to women in IT

Career interventions: When your IT career needs a swift kick

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