It seems like an obvious statement: a top priority of technical employees is to develop their technical skills; technical men and women highly value such opportunities being offered by their company. Yet, many companies have moved to a model where technical employees are expected to update their technical skills “on their own time.”
If you are a technical woman, happen to have children and are in a dual career household where work-life balance challenges abound, your “own time” is an oxymoron. And in recessionary times, whatever opportunities were left to go to technical conferences tend to be cut.
The top two challenges to updating technical skills cited by the respondents to our study (www.anitaborg.org/research) were lack of time due to work commitments (79% of women and 81% of men), followed by lack of time due to family and personal commitments (58% of both men and women).
The top strategy for technical employees to update their technical skills is interaction with peers (82% of both men and women). However, not surprisingly, technical men were significantly more likely than technical women to say that they update their technical skills “on their own time” (82% of men versus 62% of women). The technical men we surveyed were also four times more likely than women to have a spouse or partner who has the main responsibility of the household and children. Only 37% of technical men in our Silicon Valley sample, compared to 79% of technical women, have a partner who works full time.
In high-tech companies, where one’s technical expertise is the ticket to advancement, opportunities to develop one’s technical skills, given fast-paced technological change, is paramount to the retention and advancement of technical women.
When asked about the importance of company practices, 84% of technical women and 82% of technical men at the mid-level said that opportunities to develop their technical skills are very or extremely important. Only the basics of healthcare benefits and financial rewards come in slightly higher, among a list of 24 benefits and practices we asked them about. Yet, when asked to rate how good the existing professional development for technical skills are at their company, only 36% of women and 34% of men rate those as good or excellent.
Given how important this issue is to technical employees, companies can do better in providing such opportunities – not only will they benefit from increased employee engagement and thus increase retention, but it will start addressing the gender inequality in advancement.
Is this an unreasonable recommendation in a recession? I don’t think so. In periods of layoffs, the remaining employees are asked to do more with less and take on new areas of responsibilities – offering them opportunities to update their technical skills to meet the current demands of the company is beneficial to the organization. Also, companies know that the laid-off of today are also the hires of tomorrow – when the demand for their skills becomes high again, male and female top technical talent will gravitate toward the companies that support their professional growth.