How Tech Overlooks Women Leaders

In a highly competitive marketplace in a fast-moving industry, only companies that create a business climate where talented workers can succeed will thrive. So why is the gap so wide between making the business case for unleashing women's potential at the highest levels of high tech and actually making it happen?

While STEM programs can help, it's the culture awaiting women if and when they enter the industry that has to change.From an industry low of 12.5% nationally and 17% globally, which is Microsoft's metric on female employment, to 23%, the high at Facebook and Yahoo, relatively few women make it from the cubicle to the C Suite. That's not because women aren't interested - 30 years ago, 37% of college students earning undergraduate degrees in computer science were women. The rate is 18% today, a decline that coincided with the hackers, nerds and start-ups that established the "Go Bro!" Silicon Valley ethos and rode it to its first big peak in the 90's. Women entering the workforce in the last decade, though, have noticed that technical skills continue to dominate in the competition for leadership and advancement in tech companies, and that their skills in other sectors - strategic planning, finance, organization, design, and customer acquisition and retention - are not only equally necessary to the success of the enterprise, but are unequally noticed and rewarded. So rather than persist in a culture in which they face systemic obstacles to their own success, the most talented women look elsewhere.

"You get to the top in tech by being a maker or a seller, on the product or revenue side, by being someone who can build it and someone who can make it profitable," says Joanna Bloor, CEO of the Amplify Lab, a well known "switch board" for women trying to leverage those equally important skills in the industry. "What's needed now more than ever are not just technology wizards, but tech-proficient people who can bring those skills plus inspiratiion, creativity, experience and deep understanding to the mission of connecting people with technology. Who can take on complex challenges and drive performance to new levels of achievement, if only they got the chance."

A Microsoft middle manager who asked not to be named ("A woman who speaks out without company approval gets the wrong kind of attention here") suggests ways to remedy the gender imbalance at the highest levels of tech: "Equality of process, from starting salaries to negotiating increases and promotions. Equality of visibility, from participation in industry events , thought leadership forums, product launches and senior technology an d p[olicy advisory boards. Equality of access to strategic, high profile projects, which lead to higher salaries, bonuses and perks. Equality in performance evaluations, which is where the least subtle, most obvious bias plays out." She adds, "When women's behavior and demeanor is judged according to outmoded female norms and stereotypes of passivity, acquiescence and agreement in an industry that rewards assertiveness and ambition in men, the can't compete successfully for leadership roles."

Leveling the playing field for women in high tech requires real commitment from the top down, as evidenced by the results of the Women's Initiative established by the CEO of eBay five years ago. A McKinsey report indicated that the company has more than doubled the number of women in leadership roles and improved promotion and retention rates for women across all business functions and key workforce segments, including technology. Those facts are highlighted in regular, reliable, transparent measurement of gender data that tracks WIN goals and reinforces accountability for improvement. Yet at its most senior levels, the company is still almost exclusively male and its board diversity is admittedly a work in progress.

Looking at culture through gender lenses widens the perspective, a necessary prerequisite to change. As Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba said at a Davos Economic Forum, women are the secret sauce of his success. The world's biggest eCommerce service company has a female workforce of 47%; 33% of its managers and 24% of its highest level executives are women. In today's world, said Ma, "We must empower others to be successful in order to be successful ourselves. And women think of others a lot more than they think of themselves."

Gender equality is the key to attracting and retaining qualified women, encouraging them to lead, a d letting them do it. There's a solid business case to be made for unleashing the human potential high tech keeps overlooking and transforming society as well as the culture.