It’s well-established by now that there is a significant gender representation problem in the technology industry and in technical roles in other industries. This problem is not only bad for women in the field, but it’s also bad for business. Gender diversity is especially important in light of the growing role technology like artificial intelligence is playing in society. As Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist of Google Cloud, told MIT Technology Review recently, “When you are making a technology this pervasive and this important for humanity, you want it to carry the values of the entire humanity, and serve the needs of the entire humanity. If the developers … do not represent all walks of life, it is very likely that this will be a biased technology.”

L&D professionals can be part of the solution in developing leadership development and training programs for technical women. Along with other business leaders, they can also implement programs that develop a more inclusive organizational culture that supports technical women in their career development.

Cultural Barriers to Gender Diversity

Women and men experience organizational culture differently. “For mid-level women,” according to a report by the Clayman Institute, “high-tech culture is competitive and unfriendly – one that requires significant personal sacrifice as well as concerted effort to be assertive in order to be heard.” The Institute’s research also found that both technical men and technical women in mid-level roles feel that their organizations reward only the type of communication associated with “male” characteristics, which means that “high-tech companies are losing out on the benefits of a diverse human capital base that offers a broader set of skills” – including both men and women with more traditional “feminine” styles of communication.

Patty Burke, strategic business partner for leadership and innovation solutions at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), says that many women in technology “don’t have that built-in network” that men often build through group activities. And research by Catalyst, a research and advisory organization for women at work, has found that women in technology tend to lack mentors, role models and sponsors. Additionally, the Clayman Institute found that mid-level men and women in technology say that “mentoring is one of the least rewarded work behaviors.” McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org’s 2017 “Women in the Workplace” report.

Creating a Strong Network

In light of these difficulties, providing mentoring programs is a great way to help technical women develop their skills.

“Network, network, network,” says Dawn Pratt, managing director of Tech Up Events and Corporate Learning Hub. Provide technical women with the opportunity to share their experiences with others and learn about new technologies. Mentoring, sponsorship programs and learning communities are three ways to do so.

According to CCL, mentoring increases the likelihood of promotion by five times and retention by 25 percent. More anecdotally, Fortune reported in August that participants in Sequoia Capital’s mentoring program for technical women in its portfolio companies say one of the reasons the program is successful is because in addition to mentoring, the program provides “access to peer groups, professional development events and an online component with structured content.” That’s similar to CCL’s Technical Women’s Leadership Journey, which includes e-learning, face-to-face training and mentoring. This mix appears successful; of pilot program participants, Burke says, two have been promoted, one has secured a speaking engagement she’s always wanted, and many have reported improved confidence and “improved ability to work with their superiors and peers.”

In addition to mentoring, sponsorships can be an effective way to teach women leadership skills and help them build their networks. Sponsors are men or women at high levels of an organization who advocate for an employee’s advancement in her career at the organization. “Women in the Workplace” reports that formal sponsorship programs “help women establish senior-level connections that can accelerate careers.” Furthermore, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, “sponsored women report higher satisfaction in their organization than do women without sponsors.”

Learning communities and forums are another great way to develop a supportive organizational culture. In these groups, employees can network and learn together at regular meetings and provide guidance to the organization to develop inclusive strategies and programs. When done right, Cydni Tetro says, these forums can “build ecosystems and platforms for really smart solutions at all fundamental levels of the company.”

Almost one-third of the companies participating in the “Women in the Workplace” report have women employees who participate in Lean In Circles, for example. Participants in the circles “are more aware of the role that gender plays in the workplace, and they are more likely to ask for – and receive – raises and promotions.” Burke adds that many of the participants in the CCL program are now offering women’s groups at their organizations.

Creating Positive, Inclusive Cultures

“Workplace cultures that embrace gender diversity,” write the Clayman Institute report authors, “are open to diverse communication styles, encourage cooperation, and discourage an always-on mentality.” Making sure that a variety of communication styles are represented at all levels of an organization, but especially the executive level, can help in advancing technical women’s careers.

“The change in creating inclusive cultures comes top-down,” Tetro says. Liz Lukas, CEO of North America for Decoded Ltd., agrees, saying that without having diverse voices and perspectives on the leadership team, efforts to build an inclusive culture will “ring a little false.” Educate executives on the benefits of gender diversity and creating an inclusive culture. Once they’re on board, make sure there’s consistent communication from the leadership team that diversity is a business value.

“Technology has always led to social change,” Alex Cruickshank wrote last week for International Data Group. For that social change to be positive, the tech industry must also experience social change. To survive in a world that’s changing and, in fact, to lead that change, technical organizations and innovators must adapt. Building inclusive cultures is the first step.

Read the rest of the articles in this series:

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