Diversity & Inclusion In Tech

It feels life-changing to finally hear advice on how to be successful in the tech sector – not from white male management gurus but from other non-white women engineers who’ve overcome the kinds of challenges that I’m facing

Cheryl, a Latinx junior engineer working on a small build team.

Cheryl had just heard me talk at one of the women in tech events organized by my co-author Reva Seth. In that talk, I shared my story of growing up in India and studying computer science, and how I worked to put together a patchwork of scholarships to pay for school and then wrote code by hand since I didn’t have a computer at home.  

I also talked about how it was my manager at Microsoft that became a career catalyst for me, leading to roles at some of the top tech companies such as Coinbase, Facebook, and Paypal.  I had answered numerous questions on how I navigated the daily challenges of being the only woman in the room often, addressed the microaggressions unique to product and engineering teams, and how I had achieved some of my professional success – in spite of the odds stacked against me. 

My story, the resonance and reaction that our research working group had to it is a powerful example of why this cohort — “Women and URM engineers in Tech” should have their experiences more closely studied, their insights shared more broadly and their personal and professional stories amplified. It’s a powerful and underleveraged niche group. 

We need to amplify the voices and experiences of Women and URM engineers. To do this, my co-author Reva and I are currently doing interviews with successful women engineers & leaders in tech. Our findings suggest that their candid and raw feedback on what’s not working and what is, their advice on how to build inclusive teams and their own tactical strategies for tackling day to day challenges, can help accelerate the current dire state of diversity in tech.

Today, women make up only 20% of engineering graduates. And an even smaller number — 16% — of the engineering workforce is made up of women.  And just 3% of computing-related jobs are held by African-American women.6% held by Asian women and 2% held by Hispanic women.

How to actually shift these numbers is where the tech sector is clearly stuck. 

As one headline put it we’ve had, “Five years of diversity reports and little progress”. and a growing number of voices are pointing out that, the actions and tools that companies deploy to tackle the issue of diversity are exhaustingly familiar – and clearly aren’t actually working.  

It’s time for a new playbook, that’s informed by different voices and built on shared lived experience.

As part of our book research, we’ve also spoken with numerous tech CEOs and founders for their perspective on this issue. They are all young white males and looking to do the right thing.   But they were also all overwhelmed about where to start, uncertain on how to actually navigate forward and where to focus their attention for maximum impact.   

While big tech companies dominate the headlines with slick diversity reports that show little change, the future is being built in the next wave of startups that are just being funded, are starting to build a recruiting function, and want to build diverse teams and inclusive culture.   And are looking for feedback to do it effectively.

It’s one of the reasons why we’ve launched a project focused on interviewing successful women engineers in the tech sector and especially focused on the experiences of women engineers & women engineering leaders from URM backgrounds.

This group is small but we believe that their insights and experiences can be a powerful accelerator on moving the dial on the current sad and stuck state of women in tech.

Here’s why: 

A Genuine Feedback Loop On What Works

By providing a space for women engineers to share their actual experiences and without self censorship, we are creating a body of data and insights for teams, managers and leaders to clearly understand how to  be more effective as an ally – by helping them understand what their end users say actually works and what doesn’t.   

Many teams don’t have access to this kind of feedback.  Recently funded startups and newly launched ventures, just don’t have the team size or processes in place to do this – and helping them understand how to do it right earlier on in their journey, is one of the most effective ways to build a more diverse tech workforce.  

Similarly, helping newer management teams and mentors have unfettered direct feedback from  women  and URM engineers, can help them become better leaders by being more aware of what’s needed from them on a very tactical and day to day level.   What they should do and what they shouldn’t.   How to address common challenges in a way that is inclusive and strikes the right balance.  

Getting this right is difficult and we think this can help.

It’s also notoriously difficult to gather genuine and honest feedback especially from employees who might be single digit visible minorities on their teams.  The inclination is to temper down the reality of what they are experiencing so not to be identified and face team retributions or management backlash.   

Our hope is that this playbook of advice for the 80% will help them better understand what’s needed to make the real changes the tech sector has been talking about – but doesn’t seem able to deliver. 

Recognize The Unique Need

Just as one size fits all management is not the way to optimize team performance, generic leadership resources or materials won’t achieve the best possible outcomes.

It became clear to us that there’s a lack of career resources and materials designed for the unique needs of this group – no one has looked at the success stories of these women and looked to share their lessons and experiences.   

Being a female engineer in the tech industry is a different experience than being a female director of marketing in the tech sector.  Each role comes with its own unique challenges and the best way to address and solve them is to provide more individual and targeted advice for each group. 

Helping move the number of women engineers tech matters, and one of the most direct ways to help women engineers in tech is to build more career products, processes, and management research designed for them instead of applying the dominant experience or theory to their needs and asking them to make do.

Seeing Is Believing:

People are inspired to do something when they see others like them being successful at it.  It’s why relatable role models and near to peer mentors are so powerful and effective.

They make opportunities more attainable by showing the road map of what they did and creating an emotional connection to what is possible.  For women already in the industry, these stories will hopefully help them feel less alone in the sector and create a community of change that can help with the current attrition rates. 

The turnover rate is more than twice as high for women than it is for men in tech industry jobs — 41% versus 17%, speaking to the toll that the team culture takes on them.

And seeing is also believing when it comes to colleagues and senior leaders who need to address their own internal biases and shift how they see talent, high performers, and professional expertise.   

The more people see successful engineering leads that look different than what they might be used to, the more women and URM engineering leads are normalized, paving the way for more to come.  It’s a virtuous cycle.  

Creating more focus in public and professional settings on the success stories of women engineers in tech is also how we shift internal frames and biases on what a successful engineering lead and tech team look like.   Right now the tech industry is just not providing sufficient forums or platforms to hear from female engineers in tech – the exact people that could help them address the issue.   The situation is so skewed that Deloitte released an entire report on the need to close the tech conference gap after finding that 78 percent of tech event speakers are male and that all-male panels are frequently the norm (even when discussing gender equality).  

We’re now at a place where there is a substantial body of research showing that diverse teams are more profitable, creative, and have stronger governance and better problem-solving skills.

So it’s actually in the interest of tech companies to get this right.

And it’s in all our interests to make sure they do. Changing the gender diversity on tech teams is also about making sure that broader perspectives are built into the tech products and systems that shape our world.

Namrata GanatraReva Seth are co-authors of the upcoming, “TechWisdom:  
Tech’s Top Women Engineers On Overcoming Challenges – And Changing The Industry.