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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

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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