The 2019 RSA conference, coinciding with International Women’s Day, features dozens of female cybersecurity speakers. That’s a promising sign for tech, an industry in which women still occupy no more than one in four jobs.
It’s also a good time to remember that women were not always under-represented in tech. The workforce of the 1940s through 60s included UNIVAC mainframe developer Grace Hopper and Apollo mission engineer Evelyn Boyd Granville, amongst many others. But things began to change in the 1970s, as home computers hit the market, and tech became more about “toys for boys.” Tinkering with computers was just no “pink” enough for girls, it seems, who were raised to be good wives, not engineers, let alone Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (For his ‘failure’ in this respect, my father kindly apologized to my husband on our wedding day).
I was actually one of the lucky ones; I grew up literally a child of the Information Revolution, with vacuum tubes and transistors—My father led the largest semiconductor operations in Taiwan. Later I was one of just a few females in the electrical engineering department at the University of Florida, before landing at HP, which is legendary even today for its contribution of women to the tech world.
But the fact is, stories like mine are the exception, not the rule. Until joining Unisys, I was always the sole female in the C-suite throughout my career. The dearth of women in tech today is a real issue. But it’s not just a problem of gender equality; as tech has permeated all aspects of our personal and professional lives, women in key product development, marketing, and leadership roles has become nothing short of mission critical for tech companies in the competitive world of technology. And unfortunately, most of them are still failing at it.
1. The key to selling to women is— women!
If historically there was some logic to Silicon Valley’s disinterest in half of the consumer population, that reasoning has left the building. And as tech becomes more consumerized, designing, marketing and selling products for “the other half of consumers” requires a broader set of skills and perspectives than in the past.
Statistics demonstrate that it is now women who make most of the purchases of mobile phones, tablets, home computers, wearables, and virtual assistants. That brings tech into line with the commonly accepted marketing principle that women influence 70 to 80 percent of all consumer spending.
But the purchasing power of women is not limited to the consumer space. In the B2B domain, women hold about half of all managerial jobs, and are the principal decision makers for more than 40 percent of corporate purchase orders. Here, too, what influences buyers can be markedly different between men and women.
Given the outsized influence of female buyers in both these spaces, you would imagine that fast-moving, data-savvy Silicon Valley tech companies would be stacked with at least an equal ratio of women to men. After all, who better to understand what women want in consumer technology products or B2B offerings than women? But the fact is that women fill no more than 26 percent of technology jobs, 14 percent of computer engineering roles, 5 percent of Fortune 500 C-level positions and just 15 percent of board seats.
That’s flat out irrational! As an engineer, product manager, strategist, marketer, CMO, and woman, I’ve observed that women care about usability above functionality, and about collaboration over propriety. We are more likely to value the problem-solving ability of tech, rather than “tech for tech’s sake.” And in B2B, women tend to make decisions in a more collaborative manner, considering the interests of multiple parties and potential outcomes before deciding.
Similarly, technologies work best when they interoperate with an ecosystem of adjacent technologies to collectively address user requirements. As such, designing with collaboration in mind not only creates better user experiences but may also leads to fundamental breakthroughs.
These are all business challenges that female tech professionals are best equipped to address. Tech companies with more women in these roles would be well-positioned to take advantage of gaps in their competitors’ strategies.
2. Companies with female leadership perform better
But this is about more than just selling widgets. Having greater gender diversity is good for business. A 2018 McKinsey study of 1000 companies in 12 countries demonstrated that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to achieve higher EBIT margin than their peers, and 27 percent more likely to achieve longer-term value creation.
Those results echo previous studies by Ernst & Young, Carnegie Mellon and the London Business School, which showed a 40 to 70 percent increase in ROI for companies with at least three female directors on their boards. One study of Fortune 1000 companies with female CEOs demonstrated equity returns that were 226 percent better than those of the S&P 500 over 12 years.
While the scientific community is still split over the significance of structural and neurological differences between male and female brains, it’s clear that men and women think in different and complementary ways. According to The Athena Doctrine, the feminine attributes of flexibility and nurturing are leadership traits needed for the future. It’s not that having women in the boardroom automatically makes for better decisions, it’s that not having women there tends to make for worse ones.
3. Women are key for solving the tech talent shortage
If for no other reason, tech companies should employ more women simply to ease the talent shortage. The number of unfilled positions in the USA labor market surpassed 7 million in 2019, including hundreds of thousands of unfilled Cyber Security openings. Making matters worse, research claims that women leave tech at a rate 45% higher than their male peers, citing pay disparity, lack of advancement opportunities, and a “macho” culture as contributing factors.
Corporations and individual women need to keep going
Tech companies that want to remain competitive need to look at how to achieve true gender diversity in their executive leadership now. Even investors like BlackRock and State Street have come out strongly on this issue, advising the boards of their companies to diversify, or step aside.
So to my fellow Athenians on this International Women’s Day, here’s to your courage and compassion. Always keep in mind that while the business world may feel unfriendly to us at times, deep down it knows that it really needs us. Stick with tech—it’s a wonderful place to grow, and you can make a big difference! Never suppress your feminine instincts; You are fine, just the way you are.
And to my colleagues in C-suites and on boards and in HR departments across the world of tech, and in security in particular, keep going! It isn’t easy changing decades of practice, nor easy finding the right talent for a particular organization. But it’s getting better, the business results are worth the effort needed to enlarge women’s role in tech, and we have only brighter days ahead!