For women in IT, resiliency is a required skill, said Monica Caldas, Liberty Mutual Insurance CIO, global retail markets.
Caldas immigrated to the United States from Portugal when she was eight years old. "Watching my parents have to have different creative ideas and solving problems without the resources that maybe others would have gave me that sense of nothing's impossible," Caldas said.
So, when Caldas took a coding class in college and her male group mates said, "you can do all the presentation and the documentation. Don't worry, we got the coding handled," Caldas corrected them.
"Leaning into how I grew up I was like, 'Oh no, I'm not gonna let you talk to me like that No. 1, and No. 2, I'm going to show you, there's no way that you're going to assign me a task because you don't think I'm good enough,'" Caldas said.
Many women in IT have similar stories of being outcast or doubted in the field. At tech conferences, for example, 59% of women of color and 43% of white women said they experienced discrimination, according to Ensono's Speak Up 2020 report.
"Hopefully we're changing that so you don't need to be as resilient," said Caldas, but the modern landscape for women in tech is still relatively bleak. To bring more women into the field, CIOs and IT leadership can work on removing structural barriers to entry and shifting the workplace culture toward inclusivity.
IT departments are "one of the worst business units for gender representation," said Christie Struckman, VP analyst at Gartner. Women represent only 31% of IT employees, according to research from Gartner.
At senior levels, the numbers are even slimmer. About 18% of chief information and technology officers in 2019 were women, according to a Korn Ferry analysis. Numbers slowly rise — about 1% each year — but equity and inclusion, not just diversity, are what build workplace parity for women.
How IT leadership can change to support women
Lasting change for women in IT departments starts from the top down with CIOs and other members of IT leadership.
Modern job hunting, especially at senior levels, largely relies on professional networking, according to Struckman. Networking tends to occur outside of business hours, excluding those with responsibilities after work and hurting their chances to connect with others.
Encouraging employees to foster professional networks through conferences, webinars and other opportunities during working hours provides more equal opportunities to build those relationships, according to Struckman.
CIOs and members of IT leadership are also responsible for considering women for more visible opportunities. When only men are considered to be on a panel or get a promotion, "we should be comfortable saying, is there a woman that we would add into the mix," Struckman said. "I'm not saying give it to the woman, I'm saying, put them in the mix."
Whether or not a woman is selected for the opportunity, it encourages members of leadership to thoroughly consider women on the team looking beyond any initial unconscious bias.
Employers sometimes fear investing in employees and encouraging them to network will push them toward taking a new job. If that's the case, Struckman recommends simply making the workplace an environment where women will want to stay. And when, inevitably, employees do leave, creating an alumni-style network to keep in touch on future opportunities.
Measuring performance by outcome, not time spent in the office, can also help create a more inclusive way of thinking. For example, taking two months of leave shouldn't be a mark against an employee if they have otherwise stellar performance, according to Struckman.
"If you were able to deliver more than people who were there for more time," it's impressive, not something to be looked down upon, said Struckman.
Making way for women in IT
Businesses and the IT departments within them have a responsibility to create an inclusive environment, but women are also banding together for common prosperity.
"One of the most critical jobs is growing other leaders," Caldas said. As a leader, growing others involves understanding where they are in their career journey and where they're looking to go.
"If you tailor it to the person and you really understand where they're going, you can help them grow in ways that maybe they didn't anticipate," said Caldas. For example, Caldas shows support by working to support girls in STEM and connecting with employees on their career goals.
But leaders and colleagues have to be genuinely invested in and passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion for these efforts to work, according to Caldas.
"It can't be superficial, it can't be because everyone's talking about it," Caldas said. "For us to really put a bold change into motion, we need commitment. And I would say, dig deep into it and learn about it in a way that makes you passionate about solving it and participating in it."
Employees and allies can also lean on each other to push back against cultural flaws hindering employees from thriving.
"Very uncomfortably, we also need to pay attention to our managers, and statistically there's a chance that organizations have men that are sexist," said Struckman. Ninety-one percent of men and 86% of women show at least one clear bias against gender equality, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations.
HR has processes in place to combat systemic discrimination, but if a male manager hasn't promoted a female employee in several years, it's worth exploring the manager's performance and the possibility of bias, Struckman said.
Many marginalized employees also face microaggressions in the workplace. From being interrupted in meetings to being called too emotional, "there are things that happen day in and day out that don't quite get to the level of me wanting to complain about it and go to HR, but progressively and successively, teach me that I'm not valued," Struckman said speaking hypothetically.
Struckman recommends confronting the behaviors that marginalize women in the moment. Whether standing up for oneself or for a colleague as an ally, calling out the behavior brings it from the unconscious to the conscious here it can be mitigated, according to Struckman.