Why women matter in digital transformation

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Gianni Giacomelli

Business Leader, Digital Solutions

March 8, 2018 - For the most part, the digital space has been male-centric. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg – all men. With reports of sexism and large pay gaps as well as declining numbers of women on staff, the news surrounding women in tech hasn’t been all that positive. According to a Pew Research study, nearly 75 percent of Americans say discrimination against women is a problem in the tech industry.

In truth, female tech titans do exist. As CEO, Ginni Rometty has made IBM a success in a climate that would have swallowed up most male CEOs. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina were both former heads of Hewlett Packard. And, of course there’s Sheryl Sandberg, current COO of Facebook, whose 2013 best-seller Lean In explores the subject of women in leadership. With these leading ladies as examples, why are there still so few women in the digital space?

The declining number of female computer science graduates

Part of the problem is the number of women that pursue careers in computer science. The pipeline of female graduates in computer science has dropped approximately 20% since the mid 1980s. But, the quit rate for women in high-tech jobs is more than twice as high as it is for men. So, pipeline can't be the only cause. If anything, it might be a reaction to the poor reception of women in tech jobs.

Diversity is viewed as a handicap

The underlying issue is a matter of bias. When someone is different from the status quo — be it skin color, accent, or gender — there is often prejudices about what he/she is or isn't good at. Generally, people who are different from the dominant class get stereotyped as “lower in potential." It is a cognitive and emotional bias, possibly derived from our tribal and patriarchal origins, where collaboration within small and homogenous groups thrived and success though brute force was the best strategy. That is not the case anymore.

The empirical advantage of diversity

As it turns out, diversity is key to adapting to complex, uncertain, or volatile environments. Many cite diversity as the secret behind the United States' economic dominance over the last century. You can see this play out in the startup scene today, where research shows approximately 50% of leading startups, valued at a billion dollars or more, have at least one immigrant founder.

There's no reason to believe gender diversity wouldn't drive similar successes. In fact, group intelligence studies conducted at MIT have shown that groups with a higher percentage of women are able to complete complex tasks faster and better. What's more, empirical studies by McKinsey have demonstrated that diverse enterprises outperform those dominated by homogenous, white, male teams.

The surprising, final argument for gender diversity in digital

Even if you agree that there's a strong point for gender diversity in high-tech leadership roles, you may ask if that translates well with the actual “tech" part, such as the hard coding of programs. Isn't coding typically what geeky males like? That's actually the wrong question. Digital technology isn't just about tech and coding. It is equally about people and change.

For instance, the reason why Apple's iPhone is the single most valuable product on earth isn't because it is the most technically advanced smartphone on the market, but because it's designed around how people do things, around how people feel. There's nothing intrinsically male about that.

Moreover, consider a joint study by Harvard Business Review's analytics services arm and Genpact that found change management to be one of the top roadblocks to digital transformation. This goes to show that digital transformation isn't just about tech acumen; it is also about getting people to embrace change. That's why IBM's Ginni Rometty, who has been a huge proponent for change, could transform the company far beyond the typical alpha male who is largely set in his ways. And clearly, that's why HR should “lean in" the digital conversation more — and indeed, the proportion of women in HR is higher than anywhere else in business besides marketing (another core digital area).

Computer engineering and data science aren't the core challenges holding women back. Rather, the problem is that we only equate digital with technology. It's up to both men and women to debunk this idea.

Four things you can do

Now that it's clear that women matter in the digital age. What should you do to cultivate a gender diverse organization?

  1. Understand holistically what skills are needed. Is STEM the only thing? Or, is it STEAM, with "A" being arts? Steve Jobs famously believed technology was not enough, you need art as well. How much social and behavioral science do you need to build new, human-centered products? Lots, if you judge from the amount of press design thinking has received in the last years.
  2.  Watch your language. List jobs so that the hard coding aspect isn't inadvertently emphasized more than other necessary skills (such as group facilitation, UI design, etc.) to maximize the availability of female candidates with all those skills. Word the job descriptions carefully to avoid dissuading women from applying.
  3. Think logistics. Experiment with hybrid in-person and remote collaboration work. Tech has advanced radically and remote workshops with whiteboard, video, and note-taking capabilities are feasible. This will help women who are parents be more flexible with logistics after hours.
  4. Finally, control group dynamics. The wrong behaviors (typically those of over-assertive alpha males, irrespective of how individually clever they are) can kill the quality of group work, which is particularly damaging when attempting to drive breakthroughs and radical transformations. Train your workforce on the appropriate group dynamics and avoid unconscious bias.

In a world that so badly needs strong professionals, placing every single talented woman in the right digital job is not anymore a matter of preference. It is about survival. The companies that will succeed are the ones with a diverse team of genders, colors, and skills. It's time for schools, companies, and the industry as a whole to welcome change and do their part to nurture the next gender-diverse digital champions.