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How to get more women leaders in tech: It's not just a numbers game

Women leaders in tech are still few and far between. The industry knows it's a problem, but fixing gender inequality in the top ranks won't be easy, according to a recent panel.

As enterprises come to terms with the #MeToo movement, they are finding that cultivating gender equality in the...

executive leadership ranks is not just good ethics; it's good for the bottom line, too.

"There is a pure financial ROI benefit to creating diversity," said Ron Hirson, chief product officer at the e-signature software company DocuSign, based in San Francisco. McKinsey research found that companies in the top quarter of gender diversity were 15% more likely to have higher returns than their peers.

Achieving gender diversity in the tech executive ranks, however, requires more than just adding women to the team. Growing the numbers of women leaders in tech also involves special mentorship, navigating hidden bias, and cultivating new skills around negotiation and self-promotion, panelists said at the inaugural Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) Executive Summit in San Francisco.

AWIP was formed in 2016 to support the career growth of women technology executives. The group is working to help companies ask the right questions to empower female tech executives.

"We want to make sure these conversations happen and the questions get asked and voices are heard," said Nancy Wang, CEO of AWIP and lead product manager at Rubrik, a data management service based in Palo Alto, Calif. 

AWIP has quickly grown to over 3,000 members around the U.S. Enterprise partners include companies like AWS, Facebook, Yelp, Microsoft and venture capital firm Redpoint Ventures.

Tomasz Tunguz, partner at Redpoint Ventures, based in Menlo Park, Calif., said he was excited to be supporting the work of AWIP, because women leaders in tech had bet on him early in his career at Google. When Tunguz first showed up at Google, his great ambition was to work on leading product teams. But a Google policy required product managers to have a 3.5 grade-point average out of college, and Tunguz's GPA was 3.3.

Fortunately, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, then at Google, gave him his first break. Later, Susan Wojcicki, who would become CEO of YouTube, gave him a senior role in managing products for Google AdSense. Tunguz said he feels he owes his successful career to the kind of emotional intelligence that women leaders bring to the tech industry.

Culture critical to increasing women leaders in tech

Hirson said DocuSign thinks differently about gender inequality in tech since he joined two years ago. At that time, DocuSign had one woman on its board; now, four of its 12-person board are female. When the second woman was named to the board, the company received an award for having "great diversity," he noted wryly.

Over time, Hirson said he realized it wasn't enough to simply increase the numbers to have more women leaders in technology; companies needed to cultivate a culture that included them.

"The inclusion piece is more important than the recruiting piece ... although recruiting is important, as well," he said. For women to advance, there needed to be women in the executive ranks who served as models and wielded power in the organization. "If the people onstage don't look like you, it is harder to get where you are going."

Success metrics are important to creating more women leaders in technology. DocuSign started its metrics initiative with the goal of normalizing salaries. As it turned out, salaries were already balanced. But the metrics program inspired the company to look for other ways of ensuring women's voices were included in executive leadership decisions, he said.

Reframing negotiation practices to boost women leaders in tech

Dan Scheinman, angel investor and former senior vice president of corporate development at Cisco, said he worked with one startup that had made great strides in fostering gender equality. But despite these efforts, it turned out that women were still getting paid less on average than men for similar jobs.

The root cause was that women leaders in this tech startup had undernegotiated their salaries when they were hired. Over time, the discrepancy in pay widened, because annual increases were calculated as a percentage of salary, he said, noting the need for companies and mentors to train women how to negotiate for higher pay.

Siobhan Neilland, founder of OneMama, a nonprofit focused on improving maternal care and health services in impoverished rural communities, is also a talent acquisition consultant for large enterprises.  She said when applying for jobs, women tend to undersell themselves. They'll look at the required skills and focus on the ones they don't have, rather than seeing how their aggregate talents, including emotional intelligence, make them a good candidate for the job.

When recruiting for Google and Apple, for example, Neilland often receives applications from men who have maybe five out of the 10 skills listed in the job opportunity. Women job applicants, on the other hand, will apply with eight of the skills, and then lead with what they can't do, she said. Women leaders in technology must learn how to communicate strengths during the hiring process, she said.

"Women applying for executive positions who focus on what they've succeeded at end up doing much better," Neilland added.

Translating resumes

The resume can also be a roadblock for women looking to get into the executive ranks. Men's careers tend be more linear, and that sets the standard for many recruiters, Neilland said.  Women tend to shift to different roles and departments in a company when career advancement gets blocked. This gives them a much wider set of skills that are useful for communicating across teams and making sense of a larger part of the business.

Unfortunately, this tends to be ignored by executive recruiters who often are more focused on skill keyword-matching than identifying how a person's soft skills and broader perspective could make them a better fit. Neilland recalled being part of the pilot program for diversity recruiting at Google. The search giant realized the problem was not the recruiting pipeline, but it was that the hiring team was looking at women's careers through a masculine lens.

In order to bridge this gap, Neilland actually works with executive candidates to translate their diverse careers into the more linear format recruiters and HR managers are expecting. She is also starting to work with hiring managers on how to make sense of the more diverse career paths of women candidates. Emotional and social intelligence are important, but women are not naming that skill set or giving it weight in the interviewing process.

"If I can show candidates how to give that the same weight as an engineering degree, I think this will go a long way," she said.

Women leaders in tech: Balancing work and family

One of the more ironic reasons for the lack of women leaders in technology concerns women who put off having a family in order to keep their careers on an upward trajectory. When they do have a child, midcareer, quite often they never make it back to the enterprise, said Sarah Guo, general partner at Greylock Partners, a venture capitalist firm based in Menlo Park, Calif.

At Google, about 40% of women don't go back to work after having a child. But the loss can be reversed, Guo said, citing early statistics from Cleo, one of her technology startups that develops software aimed at supporting parents who work. Its research has found that women are 10 times more likely to return to their corporate careers with the right support network. Corporations are taking note.

"Most Americans will have a kid while in the workforce," Guo said. "If you take people out of the workforce midcareer, then that is a systemic issue. There are increasing number of organizations that recognize this as an issue."

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