Technology Becomes A Much-Needed Catalyst For Change In Workplace Equity

There’s a running joke among women at technology events: it’s the only place where there is a line for the men’s room and no line for the ladies’ room. GSMA, the organizers of Mobile World Congress 2017 (MWC), are making a concerted effort to change all that. As one of the largest technology conferences in the world, MWC brought 108,000 people, including 6,100 CEOs from over 208 countries around the globe to Barcelona to witness cool innovations and hear from thought leaders and 2,300 exhibiting vendors impacting our daily lives at work and at home with technology.

For the first time at MWC, an entire day was dedicated to increasing awareness about and inspiring change to increase the number of women in tech at the conference’s stellar Women4Tech event. Mats Granryd, Director General at GSMA, kicked off the event noting the conference organizer’s commitment to increase the representation of women at their event. Due to a concerted effort that included group tours of the MWC show floor and a networking and coaching event sponsored by SAP, the Women4Tech event sold out and was moved to a bigger location.

The standing room only crowd heard a mix of keynote speakers and panel discussions in four topic areas: women empowering technology, women encouraging technology, women transforming technology, and women innovating technology. The vibe in the room, a mostly female crowd save a few dozen men, was one of community, excitement, and open and frank dialogue.

Women (and men) are sick of talking about the dearth of women in tech

Throughout the day, it became clear that women are ready to move on from conversations that focus on challenges but not solutions. That’s not to say that women aren’t fully aware that they have major areas of challenge ahead or that they feel the solution to increase the representation of women across tech isn’t still worthy of research and dialogue. After all, the state of women in technology remains a challenge.

The investment in women-founded high-growth startups is getting worse; only 2.7% of venture money was invested in high growth businesses founded by women in 2016. It’s also worth noting that women of color received almost nothing (0.2%). Fewer than 5% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. Due to the “leaky corporate pipeline” women leave technology jobs at twice the rate of men, costing their employers 200% of the costs of annual salaries to replace talent lost.

The entrepreneur ecosystem isn’t the only segment in tech showing blatant challenges with increasing women’s full participation. Adding to the full scope of challenges – the representation of African American women in tech jobs has decreased 2% in last 15 years. And, of course, we cannot talk about women in the workforce without talking about financial worth. Women continue to make less than their male counterparts at every level of the business, in every industry, and in every region around the globe. The difference among these segments is the degree of disparity.

A new message for women in technology

While many speakers shared the abysmal numbers related to women in key positions and in the industry as a whole, the message of redefining empowerment and what it means to be a woman in the workforce hit a nerve. Nicola Mendelsohn, Vice President, EMEA for Facebook carried the message of her boss, Sheryl Sandberg: Do something that frightens you every day. That box is already checked by many at the event. Women in technology jobs work outside of their comfort zone as a norm. Fear did not seem to be a challenge for any woman I met.

I spoke about career equity for women as part of the “Women Empowering Technology: Equality, Human Resources & Career Development” opening keynote theme. The message resonated with attendees: we can keep blaming and shaming about the dearth of women in tech, we can keep doing research studies that justify why women should be better represented at all levels of technology businesses, or we can address the real challenges that have resulted in little-to-no progress by making decisions and taking actions. And, we can scale the impact and accelerate toward results only through solutions that address these challenges with emerging technology.

One small step for technology, one giant leap for humankind

I believe technology is one of the greatest catalysts for change,” says Anka Wittenberg, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at SAP. The technology giant uses technology and programs to accelerate cultural change that reflects the rich talent SAP wants to attract and retain. Wittenberg has a point. The most critical factor in workplace equity is the role of unconscious bias in human reasoning and decision-making.

There are 150 different unconscious biases at work in our brains at any given time. These biases inform and are informed by our values, ethics, and beliefs and do not change without a catalyst. Only by understanding how and where these biases most impact workplace equity can real change be realized. As a result, SAP SuccessFactors has identified the eight key decision-points where unconscious bias can either hinder or harness an organization’s talent. These decision points include:

1) How business is structured and what should be collected for actionable insights

2) Who applies

3) Who is hired

4) How people are managed

5) Who is developed

6) Who is recognized and rewarded

7) Who is promoted

8) Who leaves and when

By using technology to interrupt decision-making in these key areas, users are provided with a catalyst to make decisions differently. People leave companies because of their direct supervisors. Technology can help address the glass ceiling, most prominent at the middle-manager level, to accelerate a level playing field for all talent. When it comes to bringing new talent into an organization, writing job descriptions to issue requisitions for new positions is a common practice for managers. Language plays an important role in attracting or deterring talent. Imagine being able to increase the number of female candidates for technology positions just by using different words.

Or consider what it would be like to get performance feedback that provides both inspiration and pragmatism. Considering the dismal retention rates of women in technology, the importance of having managers who are enabled to do more than reach diversity target numbers and instead cultivate a truly gender equal culture cannot be underestimated. This can only be done when technology is used to disrupt the eight key decision points across the full human capital management function.

In 2017 approximately 23% of MWC attendees were female, with the number of female attendees up 14% year-over-year. In 2018 female attendance should be up at least another 14% and technology will be at the forefront of conversation at Women4Tech in continuing the focus not on the challenges but instead on solutions fostered by innovative technologies.