Choosing a career in engineering is one of Stacy Bender’s proudest achievements, a career path her father inspired through his work in construction.
“Working alongside him, I discovered a passion for designing and bringing visions to life,” Bender, professional services application engineer at Context Labs, said in an email. “Despite the underrepresentation of women in my industry and engineering classes, I saw it as an opportunity to break stereotypes and forge my own path.”
June 23 marks International Women in Engineering Day, a time to look back at why engineers were drawn to the field, what made them stay and what they hope for the future. It’s also a day to recognize just how essential diverse teams are when building and designing technology.
“When you can build an organization as diverse as the world we live in and an internal culture that embraces different perspectives and experiences, the entire company benefits,” Cisco COO Maria Martinez said in an email.
IT teams are frequently imbalanced in terms of gender representation. More than one-third of women in tech said men outnumber them at work at least 4 to 1, data from Skillsoft’s annual Women in Tech report shows. That margin is an increase of 23 percentage points since last year.
In cases where teams are building and designing advanced technology such as AI systems, diverse teams are mission critical, according to Brittany Gregory, engagement manager in the data, analytics and AI practice at Heidrick & Struggles. If teams lack diversity when designing training data, it can result in an underrepresentation of a particular group, Gregory said.
“But it's also about the diversity of the teams that are developing and evaluating the models, just so that they can make sure that those models are representative of multiple perspectives and experiences,” Gregory said.
Gregory recommended leaders take a proactive approach to engaging diverse talent pools, ensuring that the panel of interviewers include people of different backgrounds and the candidate pool is diverse.
Decide what support strategies will work best
Hollow initiatives and sentiments will not go far. The top reasons women cite for wanting to switch companies or roles were compensation, lack of equity in opportunities and ineffective leadership, according to a Skillsoft survey of more than 600 women technologists.
Business leaders have to take intentional steps or risk losing talent they desperately need. There is not a magic solution, but there are ways leaders can support women in predominantly male dominated industries.
One way leaders can start is by talking to women in these roles to find out what they value, what they need and what they want in the future, such as mentoring opportunities or upskilling.
However, if women in these roles are experiencing toxicity from colleagues, other initiatives won’t have an impact. Nearly half of women in tech said they had seen an increase in workplace sexual harassment over the last five years, according to Ensono data.
“I think what’s important for organizations to remember is that they need to show their commitment to diversity and not just talk about it,” Gregory said.
While an inclusive culture is an important differentiator for organizations, it can also help businesses embrace different perspectives and experiences, which contribute to innovation and decision-making, Martinez said.
A brighter future lies ahead
While women in tech and in engineering positions can face uphill battles, there are signs of improvement and increased awareness.
NASA is working on gathering best practices to support women in STEM fields by awarding more than $5 million in funding to seven women’s colleges and universities to research and develop strategies that increase retention of women in STEM degree programs and careers, the organization announced earlier this month.
Allyship has also become more prevalent. More than half of women in tech surveyed felt the number of male allies had increased in the workplace over the past five years, according to data from Ensono.
Martinez, who is in a leadership role outside of the traditional STEM path, said her love of engineering is a vital part of the fabric of her life and how she identifies professionally.
“As a female U.S. immigrant, a career in STEM was certainly not the easiest or most conventional path to take, but I love being an engineer because it’s all about problem solving,” Martinez said. “In fact, the only reason I pivoted from a traditional engineering role was because I realized humans have the most complex problems to solve.”
Cisco has several programs to support women in STEM and help build a stronger pipeline of women in technology leadership positions. One of those initiatives is the Women Rock-IT program. Since its launch in 2014, the program has had two million participants, Martinez said.
The company also has employee resource organizations that bring women in tech together, including Women in Science and Engineering, Women of Cisco and the Women’s Inventor Network.
“We can all agree that we have work to do, but a more inclusive future is taking shape,” Martinez said. “We can’t stop paving the way for women — and all underrepresented groups — in STEM because I am living proof that it can change lives.”