One of the last events I attended before I switched to working from home was in celebration of International Women’s Day. A young woman approached me as we mingled late over drinks. Divya* was an engineer. In fact, she was the only woman engineer in a team of designers working on some of the fastest, most technically advanced cars in the world. But she had nearly walked away from her dream job after just a few months. She struggled to fit into the all-male team and to imagine her future in an organisation with no senior women in technical roles.

Thinking she had nothing to lose, she finally voiced her concerns to the team. Things began to improve. She’s giving it another try.

A few days later, I met Lucy as we filmed what should have been a live presentation to grocery industry execs. Again, we were discussing inclusion and I told her Divya’s story. Turned out, Lucy, too, had started work in technology. She left the industry after a colleague used a mirror (the kind used to look underneath a car) to look up her skirt.

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The percentage of women working in technology in the U.S. is lower today by three percentage points (at 32%) than in 1984.

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It’s no wonder that 50% of women who take a tech role drop out (PDF) of the industry before the age of 35.

Shortly after those events, the rising infection rate from COVID-19 took us into this ever-changing world where technology matters more than ever. Now, companies and individuals have had to rely on technology from retail websites to contactless payment, from telemedicine to virtual meetings and family celebrations.

As companies continue to adapt to this new decade of the ‘never normal,’ the demand for technology skills is stronger than ever.

Tech can’t be inclusive if it’s developed without women

The tech industry needs women badly:

  • to meet the demand for talent;
  • to ensure that new products and services are designed to work for all of us (for example, the lack of ‘female’ crash test dummies (PDF) contributes to the fact that in car crashes, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die); and
  • to innovate (in more diverse, inclusive workplaces people are 11 times more likely to drive innovation than in less diverse and inclusive workplaces).

But right now, the industry is a long way from being equal. Consider this: The percentage of women working in technology in the U.S. is lower today by three percentage points (at 32%) than in 1984.

So, what’s going wrong? In a word: culture

Our new research Resetting Tech Culture shows that poor company culture is the top reason young women leave tech. It also shows that improving culture is the best way to ensure women in tech stay and thrive there.

Over the past four years, our research has explored and dissected the subject of workplace culture using surveys and modelling to establish the factors that make a culture more inclusive. An inclusive culture is one where, for example, women are four times more likely to advance to senior manager and men twice as likely to.

Our work highlights three elements of inclusive, more equal cultures:

  • Bold leadership: establishing targets, making leaders accountable
  • Comprehensive action: having policies that work for all us, and focusing on parents rather than just mothers
  • Empowering people: respecting employees, treating them as individuals and encouraging individuality while giving them autonomy – some flexibility and control – over where, when and how they work

The problem lies with workplaces, not women

In our new research into women studying and working in technology, we measured the impact of culture on women’s likelihood to study and stay in tech; on their ambition to rise in tech; and even how it affects their love for their subject and work.

Again and again, we saw the startling benefits of a more inclusive culture, where more of the elements above were present. Here are just some of the findings:

In more-inclusive colleges…

  • 89% of young women felt they belonged; in the least inclusive colleges, it’s just 37%
  • 85% planned to look for a role in tech after college, compared to 64% of female students in the least inclusive colleges

In less inclusive workplaces…

  • Women and women of colour do not thrive on a par with men. But in an inclusive culture, the playing field is levelled. Men, women and women of colour are equally likely to remain in tech, be happy with the pace of their advancement, and advance to manager and beyond by 30.
  • The likelihood of advancing increases for everyone in these more inclusive companies, but women get a bigger boost than men do — 4x bigger for women and 5x bigger for women of colour. So more inclusive workplaces eliminate the differences in advancement based on gender or race.

In our report, we set out to detail the key actions colleges and businesses need to take to build these more-equal cultures, and we urge leaders to recognise the power that culture has.

Culture Makers can unleash the power of culture

We know that leaders — or Culture Makers — who drive real culture change run organisations that are growing faster than their peers. Still, they make up just 6% of today’s leaders.

In our survey of 500 senior HR leaders, only 38% identified building a more inclusive culture as an effective way to retain and advance women in tech roles. The same leaders underestimated how difficult their women employees, and in particular, their women of colour employees, found it to thrive in tech:

  • 45% of senior HR leaders said it was ‘easy’ for women to thrive, compared with 21% of women.
  • 22% of senior HR leaders said it was ‘easy’ for women of colour to thrive in tech, compared with 8% of the women themselves.

If leaders grasp the power of culture and senior HR leaders become Culture Makers, the industry can truly change. By resetting its culture, the tech industry would become more-inclusive and innovative.

If every company had a culture like the best 20% in our study, the attrition rate for women could drop by 70%. That means keeping 1.4 million women in technology. Women like Lucy and Divya would be able to stay and thrive in a less biased industry.  

*Names and some details have been changed to ensure anonymity.

Barbara Harvey

Managing Director – Accenture Research

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