Now more than ever, companies across every industry and country are pausing to reflect on the same topic: women in the workplace. While hot-button issues like eliminating harassment and achieving pay equality are top of mind for many business leaders, these issues are just two of the factors contributing to a quieter, larger issue.
The “leaky bucket” phenomenon refers to fact that while women account for about half of all college graduates and entry level job seekers, their numbers dwindle dramatically as they rise through the ranks in their respective careers. For those of us working in the SET/STEM fields, the problem is particularly concerning. In the U.S., women are twice as likely to quit their jobs in the tech industry than their male peers, and over half of women actually drop out of these industries all together. These figures aren’t much better globally.
On a personal level, I witness the “leaky bucket” phenomenon play out every day. I am one of 1.3 million women working in India’s IT industry. According to the Women and IT Scorecard, “there are fewer women in top positions in IT companies in India.” Where are they? Concentrated at lower career levels and progressing more slowly in their careers, with the majority being single and under 30 years of age. This poor retention rate will become an even more serious issue if it is not addressed, because the number of women entering IT is rising: in India’s 2014-15 academic year, women represented 46.8% of the postgraduates in IT and Computing (more than double the rate seen in the UK!)
After being in the field for 20 years and rising to my current position, I’ve come to realise that real action is needed – and it’s needed now. Here are three strategies for fixing the “leaky bucket” to support the long-term careers of women in IT:
Strategy #1: Eliminating homogenous teams
By now, many people are aware that more diverse teams perform better. At an executive level, for example, a recent study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Yet, unconscious biases can still cloud judgement when managers build out their teams.
What’s the fix? Developing (or investing) in software that builds teams based ONLY on talent (and not personal preferences). To prevent even a twinge of prejudice from effecting one’s thought process when making hiring decisions or compiling a team and assigning roles, companies must create a tracking system to monitor diversity levels in teams. The good news is that many companies are in the early stages of doing this. In fact, I’ve witnessed this idea go from concept to activation within my own company’s hiring process – which leverages the platform Textio – and the initial results are promising.
To take it one step further, organisations can also deploy tools and software that select team members based solely on their skills, areas of expertise, and noted career goals. SAP and Cisco have already launched similar tools that help reduce unconscious bias from affecting hiring and performance review processes and empower teams to perform better. Using the same technology to build diverse teams would be the natural next step.
Strategy #2: Establishing parent-friendly policies
It’s no secret that women are still taking on a significant portion of childcare duties. The number of women in the U.S. who take maternity leave hasn’t changed in over 22 years, and the number of women who become stay-at-home moms has actually increased over the past few decades. But as these women leave the workforce – even temporarily – companies are losing talent. According to the IT Scorecard study I quoted earlier, IT Companies in India are concerned about the number of women who aren’t returning to work after maternity leave.
What’s the fix? Adding flexibility to work schedules and re-evaluating childcare benefits. Of course, parental and caretaker leave policies are already improving at many companies. But many women who take maternity leave find it difficult to return to the workforce. A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 61% of non-working women cited family responsibilities as a key barrier to returning to work. And, according to Care.com’s annual “Cost of Care” survey, the cost of childcare alone is a major barrier to a parent’s ability to work, with 63% reporting that childcare costs influence their career decisions.
Flexible work policies such as telecommuting capabilities and flexi-time schemes certainly help parents return to work and balance their professional and parental duties. But when it comes to empowering working mothers to reach their full professional potential, the real secret could be to offer employees childcare benefits. In fact, 85 percent of working parents wish their employer offered benefits like in-house daycare centres, which Wipro is piloting in India. These benefits could also include discounted care and access to back up care, which would not only allow parents to save money, but also reduce the amount of work missed when a parent is forced to take PTO or leave to care for a child.
Strategy #3: Facilitating female mentorship
It’s a chicken-and-egg effect: if we can reduce the number of women dropping out of the workforce, the number of women who ascend to leadership positions will also rise. But to plug up the leaky bucket, we need more women in leadership roles to act as role models. 82% of millenial women report that it was extremely important for them to see women in leadership positions that can act as role models. Moreover, having women in leadership roles is simply good for business – research shows that companies with at least 30% of leadership positions filled by women fare demonstrably better than those with no female leaders.
What’s the fix? Establishing an official mentorship program. This one is somewhat of a no-brainer, but extremely effective nonetheless. Wipro had already established a ‘Women in Leadership’ program providing a forum for high-potential women in middle management to connect with the senior leadership team and address concerns, develop perspectives and share their aspirations. But Wipro has now gone one step further by developing a mentorship initiative specifically for moms that brings together experienced working mothers with new mothers, encouraging the women to share experiences, provide support, and act as each others’ champions. Because of these programs and the company’s larger ‘Women of Wipro’ initiative, our organisation has experienced higher engagement levels from women.
Plugging “leaky bucket holes” is certainly not going to be a quick, permanent solution to the unconscious biases and gender discrimination found in most workplaces. But investing in programs, policies, and management practices that take on the most glaring gender-related issues will help to foster a more equitable and supportive company culture. After all, without women in the workforce, companies would be missing out on half the talent.