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.
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.