Research has revealed the low representation and high attrition rate of women in technology, particularly in leadership positions. This year’s “Women in the Workplace” report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, released this week, found steadily decreasing representation going up the talent pipeline in tech industries (Figure 1), where, according to report co-author Irina Starikova, women are 20 percent less likely to be promoted to manager than men. These numbers are even worse for women of color, especially black women, despite the fact that women of color report more ambition to be a top executive.

Figure 1. Representation of Women in Tech Industries

Representation of Women in Tech Industries

Image courtesy of McKinsey & Company and Lean In

It’s not just engineers at tech companies. Every company has IT departments, “and with big data becoming so important,” every company is a tech company, says Patty Burke, strategic business partner for leadership and innovation solutions at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). “The digital transformation [of American business] is driving the need for more engineers and the need for more female engineers.”

Fortunately, L&D professionals are in a great position to improve representation and support technical women’s development through strategic training and leadership development programs. Dawn Pratt, managing director of Corporate Learning Hub and Tech Up Events, puts it this way: We need to “take the fear factor out of technology and empower women to surf the technology wave.” For example, Tech Up Events is hosting Tech Up for Women next month, a one-day event aimed at helping women in tech learn new skills and build a network.

Women Want – but Don’t Receive – Training.

Recent research by CCL and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University has found that women, especially technical women, are looking for opportunities to develop their leadership skills. The Clayman Institute report, in fact, states that “investing in professional development is the most profitable step high-tech companies can take to advance technical women and retain all technical talent.”

However, research from Europe found that across 32 countries, organizations are 18 percent more likely to sponsor training for male than female employees. The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) has similarly found that while most technical women want to advance in their careers, most don’t receive support for those goals. In addition to training, Burke says, many women would like to take on stretch assignments, but they often don’t receive them.

Liz Lukas, North America CEO of Decoded, points out that continuous learning is important, particularly because of the pace of change in technology. Additionally, while many technical women want to attend conferences as speakers and panelists, those events are still largely dominated by men. Lukas recommends making sure women, including young women, are given the opportunity to attend and speak at conferences.

Effective Leadership Development Programs

The Anita Borg Institute recommends including three components in leadership development programs for technical women: goal clarity, confidence and a strong network. Likewise, NCWIT’s Industry Systemic Change Model recommends helping participants develop a growth mindset so that they believe they can develop leadership abilities. Cydni Tetro, president of the Women Tech Council, adds that it’s important for women to “know that the things they bring to the table are things that will be valued inside of the company.”

Burke adds that developing self-awareness is important, including skills like “understanding your personal brand, your personal identity.” That’s why CCL’s new Technical Women’s Leadership Journey program includes teaching participants “techniques to become your own ‘agent’” and “positive self-promotion.” Decoded’s second most popular course last year was on storytelling. “This ability to speak publicly or be able to confidently pitch your ideas internally is really important and may be overlooked,” Lukas says.

CCL’s program is focused on mid-level technical women, whom Clayman Institute research found “face the greatest barriers to advancement.” At that point, the report authors write, their attrition is most costly to their companies. “No engineers get leadership and management in their core curriculum,” Burke says, so as women advance in their careers, their employers need to make sure they are learning the skills they need to manage people.

Data, Data, Data

Make sure as you plan and implement programs, you measure. This will help not only in proving to stakeholders that you’re improving your diversity, but it will also help make your programs more effective. Ryan Lahti, founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, writes in Forbes that establishing “a baseline for each leader with feedback on needed capabilities and success indicators” will “drive accountability” and track each learner’s progress. NCWIT recommends tracking what types of tech roles women hold, whether it’s leadership, creative, technical or other roles, to know where to focus your development efforts.

When the media is full of news of sexual harassment, hiring and promotion bias, and other dismal stories coming from the tech industry, it’s easy to be discouraged. However, identifying the problem means we can come up with a solution. Ultimately, as Pratt says, “the best way to support women is through education and training.” L&D can lead the charge to make the tech industry more diverse and, therefore, more impactful.

Read the rest of the articles in this series: