In 2010, I was 7 months pregnant with my second child, and one morning, I sat through a corporate diversity training session. I was one of only two female executives in the room, and most of the executives were over the age of 50. I remember one of the male executives complaining that whenever he invested in women, they all got pregnant and didn’t come back. He said that in his experience, women were ultimately not that good at math either. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very useful session.
Ten years later, I still hear the same biased concerns echoing around the world. Companies want to invest in the women they employ, but… (there’s always a “but”.) In fact, the numbers show a decade of gender diversity training hasn’t changed the way most executives think. In the Netherlands, only 16% of jobs in the IT sector are filled by women. That may sound like a lot, but when we compare it to other countries such as Australia (28%) and Denmark (20%), it's still relatively low. Though women make up more than half of the world’s population, we remain a small minority in the IT sector.
Personally, I think the time for calmly arguing the case for gender diversity in the IT workforce in mandatory training sessions has come and gone. Plenty of studies that show how organisations with strong female leaders enjoy improved culture, financial results and an increased level of innovation. But nothing changes, and the status quo has been maintained despite the huge shortage of IT personnel. The European tech industry is growing five times faster than the rest of our economy, and the number of jobs that need to be filled is growing along with it. So, it's only logical for companies to increase the involvement of the female half of the population in the sector—they need to increase the workforce by all means necessary. If we continue to employ only men, we simply won't have enough workers in the future.
The thing is, no one has to sacrifice quality for diversity. I have experienced for myself what the “female touch” can bring in an IT environment—and I'm not talking about including just a handful of women in a workforce. I believe that an organisation can only reap the benefits of this female touch when at least 15% of the management team is female. Only then does the dynamic start to change for the better. I've worked in leadership teams where I was the only woman, but I've also worked in teams where more than 15% were women. And the difference was clear: from the capacity to innovate to the financial results. Without a doubt.
It’s clearly not enough to point out that women are great at physics and mathematics. We need to grow the profiles of all the great women who revolutionised science (Hilde Levi, Lisa Meitner, Dorothy Hodgkin, to name a few) and so many great modern day leaders (Diane Greene, co-founder of VMWare; Susan Wojcicki of YouTube; and SAP’s Adaire Fox-Martin). The prominence of these figures in media will help change perception. In movies, literature and our use of pronouns, we need to normalize “she’s the CEO.”
And further still, we must change the model image of the perfect CEO from a dress wearing woman in perfect make-up who speaks with a finer, softer voice. Regardless of an executive gender, we need to move our definition of a formidable leader from one who’s highly-charged, competitive and cut-throat, to a leader whose network-, community building- and sustainability-focused skills matter.
I commend the tactical moves of leaders like the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who announced that he will not officially launch any start-ups until at least one female board member has been appointed. In this instance, I see setting a women's quota as a step in the right direction. It continues to be a rare event in Europe (only 5% of FTSE 250 companies have female CEOs). Of course we have to continue to hire the best candidate, but it is not rational to accept that women make up 50% of the workforce but rarely achieve leadership positions. I don’t believe women “dropping out” of the workforce before they reach CEO is a mystery at all—we need to learn from women who felt coerced into making that move and ensure that it doesn't happen again.
My honest advice to women who want to make a career in the IT sector is not to do it alone. Choose a partner who helps you, regardless of their gender. Seek out mentors and foster your relationships with professionals who can tell you how they did it, and reach out continually for guidance. Create a network of men and women who believe in you and help you take the next step. Then the time will come when the value of your unique point of view will be seen by an organisation and you can take that step up.
Eventually, I hope there will come a time when it's no longer necessary to specifically celebrate women's performance and value—no matter how beautiful and valuable. But the truth is that we have a long way to go.