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Houston expert: Increasing women in tech comes down to improving culture

According to a new study, women are switching away from tech majors during college at a higher rate than any other areas of study, and it comes down to culture. Photo via Getty Images

Like anyone pursuing a technical career, I had to overcome certain hurdles on my way to graduating with a degree in aerospace engineering. When one of my professors suggested that women should not be engineers and I would be better served pursuing a career like nursing or teaching, I realized that my hurdles might be a little different than others.

Luckily, I was raised to view this as a challenge and opportunity rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

Unfortunately, not everyone maintains my positive outlook on situations like this, and too often, young women are ultimately dissuaded from pursuing engineering and other similar technical degrees.

In fact, according to the research by Accenture and Girls Who Code, women are switching away from tech majors during college at a higher rate than any other areas of study. What's more, 50 percent of women pursuing a career in technology after graduation change paths by age 35, compared to 20 percent in other jobs. Female workers also leave tech jobs at a 45 percent higher rate than men.

Even more alarming, the same study found that in the last 35 years, the proportion of women in tech careers has actually declined despite the increase in the absolute number of female technology workers.

What's going on? Our research shows women in tech often don't feel at home or comfortable during college or at the workplace.

While there are many reasons women abandon a career in technology, the highest percentage of respondents cite culture as the leading cause. Although 45 percent of senior human resources leaders say that it is easy for women to thrive in tech, only 21 percent of women agree, and that number falls to just 8 percent for women of color. Conversely, women in college who find themselves in inclusive learning environments tend to enjoy their majors, network more and are more likely to stay in their STEM degrees.

The current labor market is struggling to keep pace with the explosive demand for tech talent, and I can attest — having met many of these amazing ladies — that women are willing, able and ready to help meet this demand.

Here are some ideas to create a culture that encourages more women to stay with STEM degrees and thrive in technology careers.

In college, having strong mentoring programs for female students in technology is key. Being part of study groups and student organizations, like the Society of Women Engineers, encourages learning and teaming and drives collaboration, innovation and inclusion. Based on our analysis, inclusive colleges are those that have at least 35 percent women in their STEM faculty. Publicizing faculty and student diversity data is a courageous way for colleges to ensure accountability and show their commitment to a culture of equality.

In business, we all know that what's measured gets managed. Applying this principle, it's both bold and important for companies to set targets for diversity in the leadership teams and publish those goals, as well as create clear KPIs governing compensation to the accountable leaders.

Furthermore, workplace support such as mentors, sponsors and employee resource networks can go a long way in creating the right culture and boost women in tech. Remember that many women enter tech careers because they want to make a difference in the world. Fostering collaborative environments where workers are rewarded for creativity and innovation does much more than — but certainly helps — to retain women.

Organizations that have diverse talent and a welcoming culture of equality help enable success and unleash human ingenuity. Rewarding excellence with the right innovative, supportive culture is a winning philosophy not only for women but for companies overall.

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Sondra Ruhman is a Houston-based managing director at Accenture Operations. She helps North American and Global clients embark on major technology and operational transformation projects.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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