I recently attended a parent teacher meeting at my son’s school. There were many girls from my son’s class helping the parents and teachers through the process. I got to talking to the teacher later and asked her why none of the boys were among the helpers. She told me that only the girls volunteered and none of the boys had.
So, at a young age, girls are competitive and signing up for opportunities. Why is then we don’t hire equal number of women at work? Why is that of the fewer women who do join work, quit mid-way? Why are there hardly any women in senior positions? How do companies claim they have the best work force when they have neglected to hire and retain from 51% of the world’s population? Can we really afford to ignore this disparity in the workforce?
Most women who enter and remain in the IT industry do so in tough conditions. Many a time these situations are culturally biased.
Cultural Stereotypes: When I graduated out of school, I was not short listed for a job interview for a position with one of the big companies. I happened to talk to a recruiter on why I was not short listed since I was one of the top students in the class. He told me that if he hired a female and needed to send them on a business trip, he would need to spend on a companion whereas a male hire could travel by himself. At the age of 21, I had travelled to US from India 4 times and 3 of them were by just by myself. The recruiter never asked me about my travel experience and I never told him. For a 21-year old that was looking to join the corporate world, this was a huge shock. This is an example of the cultural stereotypes I have had to fight against throughout my career. Women have to learn to have a thick skin and not quit work due to such attitudes.
Married Women Syndrome: Another widespread assumption is that women cannot fully participate at work. Many a time, women are not considered for top opportunities because they have to take care of the family. Most times, women have to prove and explain to their seniors on how they can do the job even with their family obligation. In fact, women have to spend more energy convincing that they can do the job even with their family obligations than convincing about their skill-set and capability. Sometimes these women are explaining this to their male boss who has younger children and has more family obligations.
The worst part is that many women also do not believe that they can take up the top jobs. What hurts women most is what I call the “Married Women Syndrome”. They do not push themselves during the early years. They end up doing non interesting work and then get bored. Married women usually have a husband who is bringing in the salary for a living. They have kids at home – a kid who looks up to his Mama and thinks the world of her. She is faced with the situation where her boss is not so supportive, kid looks up to her and thinks the world of her, a job that is not so interesting and she really does not need the money to make a living. Given this situation, choice seems easy – women quit work. Instead, women in these positions can take those opportunities that their male counterparts deem too risky to take. These risky opportunities come with huge rewards and also make the job interesting.
I had a female manager who was reporting to me and I believed she had potential. The team was not readily accepting her as a manager and I talked to her about few improvements that she had to work on. Her immediate response was that this job was not so important to her and she would want to quit. I was baffled by her response but asked her to think about it and that I would support her through these tough times. A year later she had been accepted by her team and she and her team are doing very well. We need our leaders to be supportive during the tough times.
Penetrating the Old Boys Club: The main issue of being a minority in any situation is that you are considered different from others. Since we have more men at work than women, women automatically become the black sheep. Very few women are able to penetrate the old boys club. This excludes women from the informal networks (either at coffee or after work while playing tennis, etc.). Many discussions and subsequently decisions are made during these informal meetings and they help in enhancing skills, getting insights into the politics and power balance inside the groups and organizations. So as a senior manager if you are taking a male employee out for an informal drink, make sure you would do the same with your female employee too. Also encourage the teams to be inclusive in their informal get togethers. Women do not bring up issues with their peers and managers until they are ready to quit because managers and managers' manager are perceived to be part of the old boys club.
Performance Measurement: Another stereotype that hurts women is the measurement of their performance. Women are rated lower, leading to lower promotions and lower salary. Performance metrics are set by senior management – mostly men. We do not create a work environment that enables people to be measured and promoted by performance but base it on whether they walk the walk and talk the talk like their senior management.
While communicating a decision and getting a buy in from the team, I usually go and explain the problems, issues and reasons that led to the decision first. I let my team ask their questions and arrive at the same conclusion so they are part of the decision too. While I don't have consensus-based decisions always, I try to do it most times. My male counterpart would probably go with the attitude of "I know best and this is what needs to be followed." Both work, both are effective in different circumstances but the senior leader needs to understand that both methods are effective.
One of the companies tracks indicators of women performance ratings. Every year the performance rating of women is lower than their male counterparts. This is meant to help women, but the ratings are tweaked each year after the performance review, that hurts the credibility of legitimately high performing women. Drawing a design analogy, you put a design together to meet the performance goals. You measure the performance at the end to verify. If the performance goals are not met, you do not tweak the indicator that shows the performance but instead you tweak the design!
Support and Sponsors: Lack of support from senior management is another reason for most women to drop out. Either the women do not realize the need for sponsors or the managers do not believe the need for women in the work place. Management cannot afford to ignore the lack of women in the work place. Companies cannot claim to have the best work force when their work force is from only half the world’s population. Somewhere amongst these women is an uncut diamond that would do wonders for the company.
It takes a change in mindset across companies, management, families and women employees themselves to nurture and grow women in the work place. We will slowly need to change the cultural bias. Women need to see more role models – women who are like them – to emulate and believe that they can strive for bigger roles.
Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders
Where are the Women in Information Technology?
The Tilted Playing Field: Hidden Bias in Information Technology Workplaces
Reference to this blog post in Kannada article in oneindia
Discussion on this article on "Anita Borg Institute for women and Technology"