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Women in Tech: Visibility Is Key

The underrepresentation of women in technical fields like engineering and computer science is well-documented. Just over a quarter of computer science jobs are held by women. The pipeline to engineering and computer science jobs also underrepresents women. In 2012, only 20% of computer sciences majors in college were women. In other majors, women constitute 60% of majors.

As a result, solutions to rectify the imbalance often focus on funneling more women into that pipeline. A Forbes article, for example, suggests three solutions:

1) Programs for women, including beginner college courses

2) Making the K-12 science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula more inclusive for women

3) Specific measures to eliminate the perception that women don’t do tech, including inviting women computer scientists, engineers, and scientists to speak to groups of students

Moving to the Next Level

Laudable as these goals are, they are not sufficient to ensure that tech leadership development includes women. A study highlighted in a recent Harvard Business Review suggests that these measures are not all that is needed to move women toward either equal representation in tech or to the higher levels of management within the field.

In fact, women who make it to tech employment burn out much faster than women in other fields. The authors note that 50% of engineers and computer scientists have switched fields after 12 years in business, versus just 20% of women in other occupations.

The study focused on elements needed to advance women to higher management levels. They found that women need visibility to move to these levels, and often do not receive it.

Visibility of already employed women affects the pipeline and representation issues, simply because being able to identify with women already in the field is considered key to attracting more young women to STEM – and relative low levels of women already in it are believed to send a message that it is not a hospitable field of young women.

What Constitutes Visibility?

The HBR authors acknowledge that visibility in corporations is complex. It is combined of 1) perceived leadership and technical skills, 2) work on stretch assignments, and 3) being known and liked by upper management.

Women are often not perceived as managerial leaders because their style tends to be collaborative. In addition, they tend to be criticized for aggressive styles, while men are praised for them. And, women aren’t perceived as technical leaders because they seldom get the very stretch assignments required to become technical skill leaders.

And the third criteria? Women were 50% less likely to be viewed as known to the company’s upper leadership team and twice as likely to be advised that they needed to work on raising their visibility as men.

Toward Parity

Given that gaps in corporate visibility are just as significant as pipeline issues in attaining any goal of gender parity in computer science and engineering, what can be done to increase women’s visibility?

First, the authors suggest that more transparency be given to all assignments, including stretch assignments.

Second, they advise that networking be more inclusive.

Third, it’s suggested that companies explore how they define leadership and its criteria. Might collaboration and aggression be given equal place? Does aggressive behavior define the management styles considered promotable too narrowly? More fine-grained attention may allow different management styles to flourish.

At the end of the day, when it comes to STEM fields, women are just as capable as men. Encouragement and support can be key to overcoming the gender gap in these fields. As technology plays an increasingly important role in business and in everyday life, women are poised to become leaders in tech innovations.