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5 ways to help women in IT reach the top, according to these business leaders

Despite all the talk about diversity, women remain underrepresented in the tech sector, particularly in senior positions. Here are five ways we can change that.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Woman at work in an office
Getty Images/10'000 Hours

Executives talk about the benefits that come from having a diverse workforce, yet progress remains woefully slow when it comes to encouraging an equal balance of men and women in IT. 

Research suggests women hold just 28% of computing and mathematical jobs in the U.S., and fewer than 20% of leadership positions in the tech industry.

So, how can we encourage more women to join the IT profession? Five business leaders give us their top tips for boosting diversity.

1. Create a rigorous approach

Lisa Heneghan, global chief digital officer at KPMG, is an advocate for getting more women into technology, including sponsoring the consultancy firm's "IT's Her Future" initiative.

Despite Heneghan's commitment to getting more women into senior positions, she says there's lots more work to do across the IT industry at large.

"I still think diversity is a big issue. We're not where we should be. We're still not doing enough to encourage not just gender diversity, but neurodiversity and more people from a broad range of backgrounds into the sector."

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Heneghan says modern business needs engaged communicators and all senior managers have a responsibility to create initiatives that encourage workforce diversity.

"IT's Her Future has helped us to deliver our aims in the U.K. It's absolutely transformed us over five years, so that we're helping more people from diverse backgrounds to join the firm and to be promoted," she says.

"I'm rolling that initiative out globally, but you have to keep challenging yourself on diversity every day. I just think we all must be ruthless and rigorous."

2. Don't fit people into neat boxes

Clare Lansley, CIO at Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One, says there's a lot more that can be done in terms of diversity in IT.

"Do I think the industry is changing for the better? The answer is 'no'. The last time I looked, female recruitment -- and certainly for more senior roles -- is going backwards, not forwards. So, I don't think it's improving."

Lansley's high-profile role means she receives between 10 and 15 requests a week for interviews and other appearances, such as at conferences.

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So, what's her advice for other female IT professionals who want to get on in IT?

"Don't let the fact that you haven't got a particular technology or an element of experience on your resume hold you back from applying," she says. "Go for it, because it costs nothing to ask the question; what's the worst thing they're going to say?"

And Lansley encourages recruiters to be more open than relying on a wish list of attributes.

"It's a well-known fact that, if you look at a job description, women will decide they have to have about 80% of the information that's listed -- all the essential criteria, etc. -- before they'll apply. For men, that's not the case. They'll take a chance and send in their resume," she says.

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"I think a lot of recruiters go for a wish list -- 'this would be my perfect candidate'. But I would challenge those guys by saying, 'Have you ever hired your perfect candidate?' There are always areas where you're compromising. I'd much rather hire for attitudes and behaviors, because at the end of day, I can teach skills."

3. Encourage people to find their voice

Rajeswari Koppala, senior manager of DevOps at United Airlines, sees herself as an IT professional who deserves respect and attention from her peers.

"I think the very first approach any females should adopt is that they don't differentiate themselves because others are doing it for us anyway," she says.

Koppala encourages women to ensure their voices are heard. If someone isn't paying attention, make sure they do.

"For example, if use a soft voice in a meeting room, oftentimes you're ignored -- that can mean you need to repeat yourself to be heard," she says.

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"And don't feel ashamed or hesitant to repeat yourself until you're heard. If you have a point, speak up."

Koppala advises other managers to ensure all IT professionals embrace their personalities and characteristics. 

Don't let others try to push you down and don't be afraid to grab the mic and take the floor.

"If you're not tall enough to look at something, you would take the help of a tool," she says. "So, you just need to put your effort into being seen or heard and to make a difference in your own way."

4. Show younger candidates the benefits

Adam Warne, CIO at retailer River Island, says a diverse team means fresh perspectives and new ways of solving problems.

However, he also recognizes diversity can't be seen as given. While executives are keen to get hold of talent from a range of backgrounds, they're often trying to source talent from a small pool of candidates.

"One of the challenges we've got as business leaders is that we're trying to solve the problem too late," he says.

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"Everyone's trying desperately to hire more diverse talent. But the journey for that has to start much sooner."

Warne says one answer is to start encouraging more people to think about IT at a much younger age.

"We need to get into the schools. We need to interact with people when they're thinking about what their career might be in 10 years' time, and we need to be talking to them openly and honestly about what a career in tech might look like. Because for me, it's for everybody," he says.

"Technology is not a career that is limited to certain demographics or people who like playing video games. It's a career for anybody, and anybody should be able to get into it. We need to do more to influence younger people before they're making career choices, and demystifying the myths about what a career in tech looks like."

5. Create senior role models

Tulia Plumettaz, director of machine learning at Wayfair, says representation helps a lot, so organizations should ensure they have female role models in senior positions.

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"We have a female CTO and CFO," she says. "It's a gradual process and it comes hand in hand with doing a really good job. It's just someone saying, 'Hey, I'm passing you the baton to actually get an opportunity.'"

Plumettaz says more females in senior positions means more role models for the next generation.

"When someone up there looks like you, it immediately opens your horizon and you think, 'I can dream of being there'," she says.

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