In 2011, after the Great Recession had come and gone, Sophia Baik left her job in the financial industry lured by the call of tech.
"I saw that there was a lot of future and expansion in the industry," said Baik, now co-founder and VP of operations at CodeSignal, a digital skills assessment platform. "Being a financial advisor you don't actually get to build the product that changes the world."
After earning her MBA and taking an internship at online game developer Zynga, in 2014 Baik took a senior management role within the tech team at Wayfair, seeking more direct experience with digital products.
"A lot of times I kinda created my own role because I'm a career changer," Baik said. "I had a skill set that let me work on different things and Wayfair really allowed me to run with it."
Baik's story of access into the tech industry isn't common, with women occupying just 25% of technical roles, and an even smaller slice holding leadership roles in tech.
But recent data from Capital One found a number of policies that can help companies attract and retain more women.
According to the study — a survey of 450 women in tech — companies need to take action in these areas in order to become equitable workplaces:
- Offer women "challenging and rewarding work" that provide opportunities for advancement.
- Ensure training is available at the right stage in women's careers.
- Pay attention to work-life balance and equal compensation.
- Encourage social connections like mentorship and peer networks.
- Support women in finding their sense of purpose.
Signs of a healthy corporate culture, one that encourages equality among its ranks, is a high retention rate among staffers.
Women who chose to leave careers in tech said three factors were to blame:
- Weak management support (23%)
- Lack of opportunity (20%)
- Not enough work-life balance (22%)
"Unfortunately, it is the external environmental factors, like not having management support or fair pay that end up being the cause of so many women leaving the industry," said Julie Elberfeld, SVP, card and small business tech / tech diversity and inclusion executive at Capital One.
For women who occupy senior roles in tech, more internal motivators come into play. Challenging work was tied with good and fair pay and benefits (39%) as the top reason why women stayed.
Flexibility in work-life balance (31%), the ability to participate in meaningful work (30%), as well as their grit and determination (30%) were determining factors to long-term success.
"It is a common misconception that women are somehow not wired for technical fields."
SVP, card and small business tech / tech D&I executive at Capital One.
For Ramona Pierson, managing director and head of product and Innovation at PwC, grit is part of the retention equation.
"Throughout my career, I always heard a gazillion noes, but I always believed that I could get past those noes and get to a yes," said Pierson, who founded two education technology companies, retired and then re-entered the workforce to join Amazon and later PwC. "As a woman and entrepreneur you have to always have grit."
But grit alone won't go far. Pierson recommends to leaders who want to create equitable workplaces to ensure they are offering opportunity for advancement to their whole staff. One way she got there: promoting women to positions of leadership.
"That sends a signal that you're creating a work environment that's intentional," said Pierson. "And women can see there's opportunity to scale in their careers."
As for Elberfeld, the key finding in the study for her was that women who have stayed in the technology industry cite the work as the driving factor for retention. It debunks long held myths about women in the workforce.
"It is a common misconception that women are somehow not wired for technical fields or do not have the skills to take on these careers, but our survey proves otherwise," Elberfeld said.
Before retention strategies can start to take hold, women have to make their way through the hiring process, which must be designed with them in mind.
And while targeted hiring efforts signal a positive intention, they may have an adverse effect if handled without transparency, according to Baik.
"What that kind of a campaign creates internally is the perception that they're lowering the bar," said Baik. "I think that's a very toxic sentiment that gets planted unintentionally and can harm the entire culture."
Targeted hiring strategies should be coupled with a culture of corporate transparency, with clearly defined job descriptions for hires and promotions, as well as technical skills assessment tools such as CodeSignal.
Ultimately, bringing gender equity into tech spaces requires a combination of intentionality and action.
"The most important thing companies can do when trying to recruit women to their tech teams is to demonstrate that there is a fundamental commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion at the highest levels of management," said Elberfeld.
"Throughout my career, I always heard a gazillion noes, but I always believed that I could get past those noes and get to a yes."
Managing director, head of product and innovation at PwC
To get there, decision makers can offer a lineup of capabilities to attract staffers.
Robust peer groups and mentorship networks, dedicated opportunities for meaningful assignments, ongoing learning and professional development, good compensation and benefits and openness to work-life balance and flexibility let women envision a long-term trajectory in any company, according to Elberfeld.