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Innovative programs to increase the number of women technology leaders
By Rick King, Executive Vice President of Operations, Thomson Reuters
It’s no secret that the number of women in technology leadership roles is woefully low.
Although women account for 21% of the total technology workforce in the U.S.—in itself nothing to boast about—they hold only 14% of executive-level positions. Clearly, we need to improve those numbers, for reasons of both basic fairness and the distinctive business value that women technology leaders can bring to an organization.
Seven years ago, we created a program to reduce the attrition of mid-career women in technology at Thomson Reuters. The company, a global mass media and information business, already had in place some significant initiatives to encourage diversity and women in the workplace. But I wanted a program that focused on women in technology, given their disproportionately low numbers at companies around the world.
The program has seen some real success. Since the launch in 2010, the number of women in technology roles at Thomson Reuters has risen from 17% to 27%. Promotion and retention rates have improved among the 400 graduates of the program. And although we still have a long way to go, Thomson Reuters was recognized by the Anita Borg Institute in 2016 as one of 25 U.S. companies who are leaders in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in technical roles.
What accounts for these positive results? For one thing, the program was extremely well-designed and had the backing of senior company leaders. In addition, the program has enjoyed sustained commitment, avoiding the all-too-common “corporate ADD,” or attention deficit disorder – enthusiastic support for an initiative that rapidly wanes when another “program of the month” comes along.
Finally, I think the program illustrates the importance of a “gender partnership,” the alliance of women and men in driving the change needed to achieve gender equity in organizations and the business value it creates.
I was a high school teacher and coach before I joined the corporate world. In the days before Title IX, girls’ sports always got the hand-me-down uniforms and other equipment. The unfairness of that bothered me, and I’m glad to see how things have changed since then.
Evolving laws and attitudes have also opened up opportunities for women in business. Still, areas of inequality remain—for example, the lower pay that women on average receive compared to that of men doing the same work. And that also bothers me.
But efforts to increase the number of women technology leaders isn’t just about gender equity. It’s also about gender diversity. When we talk about someone “having a seat at the table,” I think of that table as round—different people sitting at different points of the compass around it, offering a variety of perspectives. Those different people, including women, won’t necessarily come up with different answers to a problem. But they do bring different points of view to the question.
And that’s good for business. Thomson Reuters recently created a new financial tool, the Diversity and Inclusion Index, which reveals that companies with a proactively diverse workforce typically outperform their peers. A company with more women in senior leadership roles will have greater access to diverse perspectives and insights.
There are numerous well-known reasons for the low percentage of women in technology. Not enough girls take so-called STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—in their school years. That results partly from a technology “branding problem.” Too often saying you work in technology conjures up images of a bunch of guys writing code all night long and sleeping in their clothes.
Fewer women in technology obviously means fewer women technology leaders. But some of the shortfall undoubtedly results from an unconscious bias that still can permeate a company’s culture and affect the way women are promoted. And women in technology roles, because of their small numbers, often lack an organizational network of female supporters and mentors who can facilitate their advancement.
Let me say up front that I can’t take credit for designing what has turned out be a very successful program. That was primarily the work of two people, Molly Ganz, a senior talent director here at Thomson Reuters and Susan Davis-Ali, an outside consultant. Together, they helped create and run the initiative.
But in my various roles overseeing the technology group—including CTO, CIO, and COO for technology operations—I was the supporter, promoter, and protector who made sure that the program happened. Technology is a key skill area at Thomson Reuters, and it involves enough people—around 10,000—that I thought we could really make an appreciable difference.
We started out looking at the statistics. They showed that in fact we were recruiting a good proportion of women into entry-level technology roles. The problem was the big drop-off in their number as they became more senior in the organization.
So we made some tactical changes, particularly for lateral hires—for example, developing gender-neutral job descriptions for open positions and ensuring that we had diverse slates of candidates for those positions, as well as diverse teams to interview them.
But the centerpiece of the initiative was “Leadership1,” a six-month program designed to engage and retain rising women technologists in the company. The aim was to help participants achieve greater clarity on their career goals, gain confidence to achieve those goals, and build a network of women in technology who could support them.
We started out the first year with a cohort of 25 women, who met here in our office in Minnesota. The third year we went global, with a group of 84 women connected through video conferencing. When our seventh cohort completes the program this year, nearly 400 mid-level women technology executives will have participated.
The Leadership1 program has been refined over time and today is built around 10 modules, on topics ranging from “Proactive Career Planning” to “Lessons Learned from My Biggest Mistakes.” It also includes 40 one-on-one coaching sessions, a mentoring system, and access to a private online community, where participants can share experiences, best practices, and other resources.
It should go without saying that the program is not about jumping women up the leadership ladder. The women I know from the program don’t want an undeserved advantage. They just don’t want an undeserved disadvantage.
Evidence of the Leadership1 program’s success is both quantitative and anecdotal. Although we still lose too many women technologists as their careers progress, the experience of program participants has been encouraging. The retention rate among them is 4% higher and their promotion rate is 12% higher than among a control group of similarly positioned women at the company.
And graduates of the program report that it has made a significant difference in their careers. When asked at the end of the course about their career objectives, 93% of participants say those goals are clear, compared to 75% of those asked at the beginning of the program. Moreover, 95% of graduates say they are confident they can reach those goals, compared to 56% of those asked as they enter the program.
The positive impact can be seen in more than the numbers. I attend the closing ceremony each year, and I’m struck by people’s personal statements about what they got out of the program. You hear things like, “I was able to address some questions I’d been avoiding, and doing that helped me to see the career path I want to take.” If we can help women get greater clarity about their career goals, retention improves. We’ve already got tomorrow’s women technology leaders. We just need to keep them.
What have we learned from our experience with the Leadership1 program so far? Two things stand out for me.
One is that, for a program like this to succeed, it needs to be a sustained effort. Our seven-year commitment to the program has allowed us not only to continually refine it but also to measure the results over an extended period.
Too often, programs like this simply fade away as they lose their novelty and the organization or the sponsor loses interest. Or they get canceled because they don’t produce immediate results.
Clearly, you should constantly evaluate a program and, if over time it isn’t working, try something else. But if you’ve identified a problem in your organization and pulled together a group of smart people to address it, then launch the program, measure the hell out of it, and stick with it.
Another lesson grows out of the Leadership1 curriculum and involves the responsibility women have for their career in an organization. Work-life balance issues can end up being more complicated for women than for men. For example, you have children or elderly parents and find that work saps the energy needed to care for them. So you go to your manager and say you’re quitting.
But the conversation shouldn’t stop there. The Leadership1 program cautions women about making assumptions that nothing can be done in situations like these. There may be options, such as assuming a less-demanding position for a while, that don’t require taking a permanent off-ramp from your career. Clearly, your manager—male or female—has responsibility for having such a conversation. But so do you.
When these issues have come up during the Leadership1 program, we sometimes have found that options or even formal tools already exist at our company to deal with such situations. But a conversation is usually required in order to identify and utilize them.
We get frequent requests from other companies for advice. What makes our Leadership1 program so successful? How did we manage to get to the point where women represent more than a quarter of our technology workforce? And my first reaction is, “Huh? 27%? That figure may be industry leading, but it’s a long way from gender equality. What’s so great about that?”
But we’ve come a long way. And with a combination of cultural changes and programs like Leadership1, we’ll continue to make gains.
I have a 33-year-old daughter, and I always told her that she should set her sights high, that she could do whatever she set out to do. (Today she is an audit director at an accounting firm—not a coder!) Now she has a daughter. My hope is that someday the current challenges of gender equality will be nothing more than a topic studied in the history books by my one-year-old granddaughter.
How can men help?
Men will ask me, “What can I do to help the cause of gender equality?” Although I sometimes hesitate to give advice to women based on my experience, I don’t feel any qualms about doing so with men.
My starting point is the concept of “gender partnership.” If we are to achieve proportional representation of women in technology leadership roles, men must become strong allies with women in this effort. It’s certainly in men’s own self-interest to do this, given the documented business benefits of greater gender equity in organizations.
Beyond that, I see two steps for men to take, especially those in leadership roles. First, educate yourself. Convene a group of women and ask them what issues they face that are particular to women. Get the data on where your company is on the hiring and promotion of women. Attend a conference like the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, and listen to people’s descriptions of roadblocks to gender equity.
Second, take action. If there are removable roadblocks in your organization, get rid of them. Or be a staunch advocate of women who are trying to do this. If a formal program would help, sponsor it.
Sometimes the action you take occurs one on one. Once, a high-performing woman, the CTO in one of our business units, came to me and said the demands of her job kept her from meeting the demands on her at home. She couldn’t do both, she said, “and I need to choose my kids”. I asked her for some time to think about it.
After asking around, I was able to propose a job for her in HR that was part-time and allowed for some work at home. She decided to take the job—and eventually got back into our technology work.
The outcome was that I was able to help someone balance her life, and she helped me to better understand the situations that people face. People are often reluctant to share this kind of information with their boss, but it worked out well for both of us that she did.
Men and women working together to achieve gender equity in an organization—a “gender partnership”—can increase the chances of success.
Sustained commitment to an initiative allows you to continually refine it and measure the results over an extended period.
Women have a responsibility to initiative conversations with their managers and seek their help in identifying possible solutions to problems related to work-life balance.