Perrine Farque is an award-winning diversity and inclusion author and internationally recognised keynote speaker. She is passionate about building diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces to drive employee engagement. We talk to Perrine about age and gender discrimination issues in the tech industry.
When you search for ‘tech’ or ‘startup founder’ or ‘tech entrepreneurs’ in Google, the main images you see are of young and middle-aged white men. This is further compounded by books and movies, which reinforce the stereotypical image of the tech founder or entrepreneur as young, white and male. Studies show that audiences substitute stereotypes they see on screen for reality when they haven’t had any direct interactions with particular groups. This means that the myth of the young white male tech founder has become a self-perpetuating prophecy and that women and older workers, who constitute a substantial proportion of the population, feel under-represented by the tech industry in general.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 83% of tech executives are white. A Gender Gap study shows that Women represent just 9% of Developers in the tech start-up ecosystem, 4.2% of software architects. It is not only the founders who are white male, but so are their workforces.
"Why don’t we have more women in leadership roles in tech?" This is a question I heard frequently throughout my career in tech.
Researchers at Stanford University point out one reason: the vague feedback that women tend to receive over their careers. By analysing performance reviews from three large tech companies, the research uncovered some big differences in the feedback given to men versus women. Women were less likely than men to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes; this was true both for praise and constructive feedback; by contrast, men were offered a clearer picture of what they were doing well, how their performance was impacting the business and what they needed to do to get promoted.
The study also found other gender differences in performance reviews, specifically in language.
Women were also described as ‘supportive, collaborative and helpful’ twice as often as men and received 76% of the references of being too aggressive. Men’s reviews include words like ‘drive, transform, innovate, tackle’, twice as often as women. The language used to describe men represents highly valued traits in many industries. The language used to describe women is subjective and difficult to interpret.
Other research shows that suggestions for improvement for women focused on personality, emotions and tone, those given to men were more concrete, direct and actionable. These dynamics can disadvantage women at promotion times. Without specific documented accomplishment, it is hard to promote someone.
Another reason for the disparity between the number of men and women in leadership roles in the tech industry is the result of high potential women having children and then either not returning to work or taking a step back in their career to manage both work and family. The tech industry needs to set tangible, measurable gender diversity goals, as well as provide more support for women by allowing them to work flexibly around family commitments, while still being able to accelerate their career. For example, Accenture provides a programme which helps to fast-track careers of high performing women within the company and were listed in the top 50 employers for women in 2021. Accenture leadership set the bold goal to achieve a gender-balanced workforce by 2050. They’ve already made significant progress: 42% of the board of directors and 27% of the global management committee are women.
To keep women from leaving the workplace mid-career due to the challenges balancing family and work presents, IBM has invested in an early intervention programme to ensure women can ask for support. IBM’s global tech re-entry programme is designed for talented technical professionals who took a break from the industry and are looking to restart their careers through a paid returnship. With women representing just 26% of the AI workforce, IBM launched the women leaders in AI programme to help drive gender equality and inclusivity within AI globally.
The most inclusive and diverse organisations are constantly investing time and resources in new, better diversity and inclusion programmes. Unconscious bias training is a starting point but it’s not enough to tick a box and believe that’s enough. Organisations should set diversity and inclusion targets for workforce composition, workforce composition in leadership, professional development, leadership accountability and constantly monitor the progress to assess where they should invest next.
Companies that incentivise leaders by tying a certain percentage of their annual bonus if they meet specific diversity and inclusion goals set themselves up for success. Starbucks, McDonald’s and Nike are examples of organisations tying executive pay to diversity targets. The benefit of setting monetary rewards is that it drives real behaviour in action.
Some tech companies are leveraging Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to improve diversity and involving employees in CSR decision making. A key step to improve diversity is through CSR by empowering their people to steer their own CSR journey. When people feel in charge of the decisions, they are more likely to commit emotionally and to feel personally accountable. Some tech companies give employees a voice in their CSR initiatives to get some initiative coming from their people.
Some tech companies are addressing the image of the young tech worker by communicating both internally and externally about their commitment to age diversity. Effective communication is well-known to increase employee engagement, and when it comes to diversity, good communication is the cornerstone of an engaged and diverse workforce.
The marketing industry is much more gender-balanced than the tech industry, even in leadership. By starting to have a more diverse workforce at the entry-level jobs, tech companies can then work their way up and promote diverse employees into senior and leadership positions, like it is the case in the marketing industry.
I am optimistic about the future. Generation Z is the most culturally aware and socially conscious generation yet and is shifting the conversation on diversity and inclusion. Equally, since #BLM started, more tech organisations have implemented actions to foster more diversity. Hybrid working and more flexibility in working patterns resulting from the global health crisis will help women with children or caring responsibilities to manage their careers around family responsibilities.