Silicon Valley's Challenge: How to Retain Young Women and Help Them Grow into Leaders

Why is it that more young women than ever before are choosing technology careers, yet many quickly experience burnout and flee?

U.S. women working in science, engineering and technology fields are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year. Young women in tech still face disadvantages, including hostile macho cultures, isolation from "buddy networks" and a lack of effective internal sponsors. Across industries, young women's goals for leadership rapidly deflate as they see how few females reach the C-suite.

And let's not forget the lack of gender pay equity. April 12 was national "Equal Pay Day." That date was selected because it signifies how far into this year women must work to earn as much as their male counterparts did last year.

Especially in Silicon Valley, women still face both overt and unconscious bias. Successful men are celebrated as inspired, driven, naturally talented and hard-working, while women with CEO or VP in their titles are heralded as super-humans or enigmas who have defied all odds.

A report last year on Women in the Workplace by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company revealed that nearly four in 10 women in technology feel their gender will make it difficult for them to advance in the future. A recent study by Bain & Company found that 43 percent of new female employees aspire to the C-suite, yet after two years that percentage plummets to 16 percent. By contrast, male aspiration to top leadership doesn't wane with experience and in fact increases the closer men get to a corner office.

So why have we still not fully removed fundamental roadblocks women face, in the tech sector and elsewhere?

It's patently unacceptable. It is not enough to simply entice women to our companies. We must make a real investment in them so they'll stay to grow, develop, contribute and advance. Here are practical steps companies can take to change behaviors and enable more women to add value to their organizations:

  1. Provide opportunities to make an impact, like rotations and exposure to cool projects
  2. Encourage active sponsorship, the lack of which is a key roadblock
  3. Help to build a diverse pipeline, also critical to innovation
  4. Advocate for equalization, setting expectations for leadership teams

This January, SAP North America became the first tech company in the US to be awarded the World Economic Forum's Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certificate, in recognition of its commitment to gender equality in the workplace. I challenge my counterparts at technology companies to make gender equality a top priority and to strive to make our industry one where young women can build lasting careers as the leaders of our future.

At SAP we are improving many of our processes and working to address unconscious bias, from recruiting and promotion to training and succession planning. We are leveraging our analytics, tools and expertise to better measure and report on areas such as women in leadership. Programs that support helping women to stay engaged and empowered include an internationally award-winning, year-long women's leadership development program called Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program (LEAP); a Women's Professional Growth Webinar Series; and a Women's Leadership Summit.

One of SAP's highest priorities is achieving gender balance throughout our entire 77,000-plus workforce. We have a board-level commitment to raise the number of women globally in people-management roles to 25 percent by the end of 2017: up from 23.6 percent today, which itself is a 5-percent increase from where we stood in 2011. In Silicon Valley that number is currently closer to 30 percent of people managers. Women already make up 32.1 percent of our total workforce, more than at many of today's leading technology companies.

Critical to the existence and success of these initiatives is support from the very top. SAP CEO Bill McDermott signed the UN Global Compact's Women's Empowerment Principles CEO Statement on behalf of SAP last March, and in April in San Jose SAP was a co-chair sponsor of the Watermark Conference for Women Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley leaders have a responsibility to lead, and it's time to honestly appraise our own practices to ensure we are not failing young women. We must promote awareness, equal treatment, leadership programs, mentors and ample growth opportunities.

It is not enough to get women in our doors. We must get them into our corporate suites.