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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Employers can grow the talent pool by focusing on women technologists

The competition for talent is strong in the technology industry today, particularly in and around government. Smart employers seek to attract new talent while nurturing their current employees to prevent attrition. It is no secret that the majority of professionals working in the technology field today are men. On top of this, research shows that women are more likely to leave the tech industry within a year compared to their male counterparts, and more than half of women leave their organizations at mid-career. In the face of this situation, employers realize that they must pay attention to the work environment and career advancement opportunities for women in order to gain access to, and retain, this critical portion of the talent pool.

Recognizing the importance of women as an under-tapped part of the technology talent pool, we led a series of case studies focused on the careers of women technologists at our employer, REI Systems. We intentionally selected women at different stages of their career (early, mid and senior) and women with different technical roles (e.g., software developer, business analyst, consultant, manager and executive). These case studies uncovered three common elements among successful women technologists. We have paired each insight with a recommendation for how employers can attract and retain women technologists:

Women’s careers are not always linear/Employers should provide opportunities to pivot

A common theme that arose in our case studies was that the seven successful women we studied followed non-linear career paths. A lack of opportunity to switch directions and find new challenges may inhibit an employer’s ability to retain talented women.

Sometimes decisions were driven by the need to step back due to childbirth or adoption or to meet other family needs. Following the birth of her child, co-author Indunil Ranaviraja said she reviewed how she spent her time -- both at home and at work. She wanted to focus energy where she could create the most value. As a result, she cut back program management roles to focus on directly consulting with just a few clients, and to make time to lead the company’s Advisory Services Practice.

For others, the pivot away from a linear path arose from recognition of new strengths and interests or because of changing interests. Co-author Samidha Manu's passion was addressing customer needs and user pain points, so after serving in primarily technical roles, she switched to program management to make a broader impact and eventually to lead a major business unit.  After 20+ years in IT, she recently focused on her interest in people, transitioning to become Chief People Officer. Even in this role, Manu's self-identification as a technologist is still present -- she has upgraded HR software, recruited technologists and used data to drive decisions about the company’s pool of technology talent.

Women must recognize their own strengths, and seek related training and growth opportunities/Employers should support continuous learning both formally and informally

Each of the seven women pointed to her own decisive interests and strengths, but also to managers and leaders who encouraged trying new roles and offered training and opportunities needed to chart an interesting and fulfilling career path.  One respondent's manager noticed her strong interest in IT policy and proposed an assignment to support the General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget to develop new IT policies for federal governmentwide implementation.

Supporting employees with informal on-the-job training and mentoring as well as formal educational and certification opportunities is critical, particularly given how fast the IT field changes.

Women need to speak out/Employers must ensure that women’s voices are heard

A frequent refrain among women in the workplace today is that it is difficult to be heard in meetings or   recognized for their contributions.  The most challenging time for a woman is when she joins a new team. It is hard to be heard right away and harder still to be seen as authoritative or as a leader.  Once team members get to know each other and work better together, that problem tends to go away.  However, a company’s managers and leaders must ensure voices are heard and ideas are given attention. An environment where employees are encouraged/expected to win and grow as a team is important.

Senior women managers can play an instrumental role by modeling these behaviors and helping pave a smoother path for those who follow.  A company may also want to encourage women to create an interest group or forum where they can meet, discuss their challenges and how to address them, support other women, and work with senior leadership to make any needed changes.

Finally, while these were key success factors for the women in our case studies, they seem likely to benefit male employees, too.

More details on the referenced case studies can be found here.

About the Authors

Samidha Manu is a senior director and is chief people officer at REI Systems.

Indunil Ranaviraja is a principal and leads advisory services at REI Systems.

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