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Bentley’s Center for Women and Business and Research Council Tackle Diversity in Tech

Academics

Bentley’s Center for Women and Business and Research Council Tackle Diversity in Tech

The tech industry faces serious challenges as it seeks to improve the number of women in its ranks. In the U.S., women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees, but only 18 percent of all computer and information science degrees. The drop in women earning undergraduate degrees in computer science has been precipitous: 13,304 women earned these degrees in 1987, a peak year, whereas only 8,619 did so in 2015.

Bentley’s Center for Women and Business and the Bentley Research Council recently co-sponsored the second annual faculty/industry roundtable around these stark facts. The conversation was “Diversity In Tech: Addressing the Talent Pipeline and Workplace Culture.” Moderated by Trish Foster, senior program director of the center, the discussion began with presentations by Wendy Lucas, Bentley professor of computer information systems and director of the Master of Science in Information Technology program, and Danny Best, director of global diversity and inclusion at Dell, Inc.

Pipeline problems

The presentations by Best and Lucas painted a grim picture. Women MBA holders are less likely than men to enter tech-intensive industries for their first post-MBA job, with only 18 percent of women seeking these careers as compared to 24 percent of men. Even more damaging to the pipeline, 53 percent of women leave tech-intensive careers, as compared with 31 percent of men. “The percentages of women working in jobs like computer and information systems managers, computer programmers, and hardware engineers have consistently dropped since the mid-1990s,” said Best.

These downward trends contrast with the overall growth in the computing field, which “is one of the fastest growing industries and among the highest paying,” Lucas said.  

Barriers and disincentives

Lucas and Best cited the same barriers to women’s entry into and success in technology-related industries, and noted these barriers affect persons of color and other minorities as well as women:

  • Lack of visible role models
  • A digital divide that disproportionately affects the poor and people of color
  • Lack of encouragement in computing at a young age, as it is seen as boys’ domain both at home and at school
  • Media stereotypes that portray computer fields as “geeky,” masculine and white
  • Gender biases and hostile workplace environments
  • Unequal advancement opportunities and unequal pay for the same skills

What can be done?

Lucas’ survey of the research in the field shows that early intervention and encouragement can have a positive impact on girls considering careers in computing and other tech fields. Best’s experiences at Dell and elsewhere show that women’s career development programs at all levels can increase retention and promotion rates. Dell sponsors a range of professional development conferences with education and industry partners to encourage women to network with each other, seek mentors and role models, and share best practices about working in a male-dominated field.

Lucas says companies need to evaluate their culture, set diversity goals, and track their progress. “Establish metrics and hold people accountable,” she says. She also argues for clear performance standards, paying and promoting equally for equal work, mentoring and sponsoring women, and providing alternative and flexible working options.

Lucas, Best and members of the audience spoke of the key roles that men can play in partnering with women and advocating for their success. Best shared information on Dell’s Men Advocating Real Change program, which seeks to identify areas of unconscious bias and promote a more collaborative and inclusive leadership style.

Why diversity matters

Best and Lucas stressed the financial incentives for technology workplaces to diversify. Research shows that diverse companies mirror the marketplace and have a competitive advantage entering new markets through greater cultural understanding. Companies with more women on their boards of directors, Best said, experience 42 percent greater return on sales and 66 percent greater return on invested capital.

Fostering diversity at the start of the pipeline will help the tech industry address a looming qualified labor shortage. “At current graduation rates, the U.S. can only fill about 30 percent of the predicted computing-related jobs,” Lucas said. Getting more young women and girls excited about and mentored in tech fields can help address this shortfall.

Diversity should also be important to companies, says Lucas, “because it’s the right thing to do—that’s the other bottom line.” This sentiment was widely echoed by the audience participants at the roundtable, several of whom shared their strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion. From both the industry and academic perspectives, it’s clear that repairing the “leaky pipeline” of women coming into tech fields will be a priority for years to come.

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