In my more than three decades working in the software industry, I've had the privilege of watching an industry transform. From the dot-com boom to the rise of cloud computing, major evolutions in technology have had a meaningful impact on our lives, both at work and at home.
What's equally important, though less visible day to day, is how the tech industry is changing behind the scenes, and that includes in the area of diversity and inclusion. As a woman in tech, I can say we've made great strides the last few decades as it relates to D&I, but we still have a long way to go.
In what was formerly a male-dominated industry, women now make up 53% of initial hires. Despite this progress, according to a recent study from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women in tech are abandoning their careers at a steep rate. Today, more than half of women (56%) leave tech at the "midlevel" point – twice the exit rate for men. And many of them aren't leaving for other interests or to build a family. In fact, the vast majority of women who leave tech careers (80%) report staying in the workforce, and half continue to use their technical skills elsewhere, suggesting culture and opportunity are driving departure.
In fact, women ages 25 to 34, a group reporting "greater dissatisfaction" with tech career prospects, specifically point to unsupportive work environments and a lack of inspiring role models as barriers to their workplace satisfaction. This is a huge obstacle not only for individual companies, but also for the larger tech industry and its desire for holistic innovation that appeals to all kinds of people.
While diversity in tech goes far beyond gender, these stats reveal areas for improvement as we look to the future, and inclusivity is just as important as workforce diversity in tech. When people feel supported and included, they thrive. As the managing director of Sage North America, it's my responsibility to ensure that colleagues – regardless of age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation – feel supported and free to bring their authentic selves to work every day.
Over the course of my career in tech, I have found that the keys to success boil down to one basic principle: human connection. Following are three tips for company leaders in tech or any other industry who are looking to build supportive, inclusive work environments for the benefit of underrepresented groups.
1. Commit to diversity and inclusion.
D&I isn't just the percentage of a company that's rooted in a minority – it's a mindset and, more importantly, a value set that needs to be woven into the DNA of a brand. As a first step to fostering a positive work environment, make D&I a pillar of your organization: Publicly commit to ensuring that all members of your organization feel valued, heard and celebrated.
This is an increasingly important part of today's workforce. In fact, a Sage D&I study done across 50 senior executives from Microsoft, Google, UPS, VMware, Amazon and others found that nearly 54% of respondents believe it is necessary to have more internal and external resources to support D&I efforts, as well as increased employee participation and communication of progress. This requires including C-suite executives and employees of all levels in the process, and subsequently providing the opportunity to offer up a variety of initiatives they feel connected to.
To start, I recommend conducting an internal survey to gauge current sentiment. Use the findings as a jumping-off point from which you can benchmark your progress. In my experience, promoting intentional dialogue within your department or team to openly discusses challenges in the workplace becomes a lot easier when it's backed by intel. As a leader, you should do your best to understand your colleagues' unique and diverse perspectives while supporting these initiatives. This kind of initiative also kick-starts a more formalized process that allows employees to understand the overarching D&I direction of the company, setting the stage for upcoming changes.
You could also host casual roundtable lunches where small groups come to talk about their experiences, inviting participants from across the organization who can offer different perspectives – spanning different genders, races, ethnicities and even amounts of experience. This is another excellent way to drive honest, open conversation. It's important that all of these colleagues are aligned in creating workplace opportunity for everyone and in feeling they have a uniquely safe space (outside of the office) to discuss anything they feel can be improved upon.
When mapping out a strategy, don't hesitate to contact others in your network for guidance. There may be outside learnings you can apply as you bring your community together in your own program.
2. Facilitate meaningful employee connections.
Employees seeking support in the workplace can gain a great deal from participating in social activities – not only through face time with role models and mentors, but also by connecting with their peers. Peer connections offer the building blocks of a strong professional network – social capital that will prove invaluable throughout an employee's career growth – while also providing a foundation of support through day-to-day camaraderie.
As a leader, you should advocate for opportunities for your team to meet as many colleagues as possible to broaden and diversify their personal connections. Create company-sponsored events, from structured mentorship programs and formal workshops to casual happy hours and events outside of the office. Team events that foster connections benefit workers through career-building while also promoting a sense of workplace belonging, no matter their gender, age or background. No professional success or milestone can replace that sense of personal happiness in the workplace – an aspect often highlighted and demanded by millennials and younger generations. [Read related article: The Secrets to Building a Winning Team Culture for Your Business]
3. Don't underestimate the importance of mentorship.
When done right, mentor programs benefit everyone involved. Organizations report benefiting from higher employee engagement and retention (50%) and supporting the growth of high-potential employees (46%). Meanwhile, mentees gain professional development (36%) and a better understanding of organizational culture (30%), and mentors benefit from developing new perspectives (59%) and leadership skills (49%).
For underrepresented groups, mentorship presents an important opportunity to promote internal visibility, especially if mentors become sponsors. Mentors start as confidants who provide guidance but can later evolve to act as a sponsor, actively advocating on a colleague's behalf from their seat at the table. Sponsorship has the potential to break the patterns of bias within an organization, helping a greater number of women and other underrepresented groups get to the top.
By committing to diversity and inclusion, encouraging employee connection, and fostering mentorship and sponsorship, leaders can do their part to power inclusive workplaces that leave every member of their organization – no matter their age, gender, religion, economic background, skin color or ethnicity – feeling valued and capable of achieving success at work. As business leaders in tech and beyond, we must make great strides toward inclusivity or risk losing valuable talent – talent that has the potential to speak up, challenge the status quo and spearhead impactful changes within an organization. If organizations put D&I at the top of their agendas, I am confident that we will make great progress.