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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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Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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