How To Move The Women In Technology Conversation To The Mainstream
Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

How To Move The Women In Technology Conversation To The Mainstream

Claiming to want diversity in the workplace and actually having it are two very different things. Here's how to achieve the latter.

While most companies recognize that gender diversity is needed to build a stronger workforce and more innovative organizations, they mostly do not include it as a core business priority.

Tech companies and executives generally believe that gender diversity is good for business, and that teams that bring together people with different backgrounds, skills, and perspectives, are better at solving problems.

There is a growing body of research that supports this. In his book The Difference, University of Michigan Economics Professor Scott Page showed that diversity of thought trumps individual ability for problems at the cutting-edge. Pepperdine University Professor Roy Adler demonstrated, through 18 different measures, greater profitability in Fortune 500 companies with a strong record of promoting women to the executive suite. And sociologist Cedric Herring studied 251 companies and found that gender diversity is associated with greater relative revenues and profits.

So why isn’t gender diversity more often considered a core strategy for organizational success?

Change must come from both individuals and institutions. While many initiatives have focused on providing women the skills to more successfully navigate organizational environments, organizations must also hold themselves accountable to prioritize the support and development of a more diverse workforce.

What if gender diversity was mainstreamed in the same way as other top business concerns? In particular, what if diversity was placed with other things that really matter: in the core business strategy.

Executives know that what gets measured gets done; yet, this is not a commonplace approach to promoting gender diversity and women in leadership in technology organizations.

Measurement and accountability are the critical missing elements for many organizations seeking to realize return on investment for their diversity efforts. To address this, organizations must take three concrete steps:

1. Set specific, achievable goals based on the organization’s current status and business objectives.

IBM did this when it tied its diversity objectives to stated goals of expansion into new markets.

2. Have the right people accountable for the results.

Research shows that the presence of an executive-level diversity taskforce is a predictor of increasing diversity at the top. Executive-level diversity taskforces, for example, have been a critical part of IBM’s diversity strategy. Deloitte’s women’s initiative has similarly established a CEO-driven accountability structure—leading to a 10% increase in the representation of women at every level over time.

3. Have clear accountability mechanisms that link diversity to organizational success, including performance evaluations and compensation.

Keep accountability on the right people’s radars to protect against the priority du jour. Companies such as Telstra and Merck foster accountability by tying manager performance evaluation to the achievement of diversity objectives.

By mainstreaming gender diversity as a core business priority, organizations can raise their return on investment for core business priorities. And executives can match their desire to have a diverse workforce with the right rewards—both at a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Caroline Simard, PhD, is Associate Director of Diversity and Leadership at Stanford University School of Medicine and Leader of Diversity and Organizational Transformation at Exponential Talent LLC.

Sabina Nawaz is an executive coach and leadership consultant with a global practice.

Dr. Francine Berman is the Edward P. Hamilton Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Vice-Chair of the Anita Borg Institute Board of Trustees.

[Image: Flickr user Espen Sundve]

Add New Comment


  • Stephanie White Hager

    It's helpful (and encouraging!) that you cited a variety of organizations putting gender diversity into practice (IBM, Deloitte, Telstra, Merck). Would love to read "Part II" of your article with examples of goals and metrics used that have helped change/improve industry practices. I have a 7th grade daughter interested in technology, and am excited to learn about the opportunities that await her and her friends.

  • Vasanthi Chandra

    Eloquently put, thank you Sabina, Caroline and Francine! In my experience, I have found tying compensation metrics and MBOs to a specific achievable goal is the most effective way to get one’s managers achieve these goals. It’s a clear way to motivate when its a measurable and rewardable goal. E.g. I have always mandated that my engineering managers and product managers spend a certain amount of time with their customer base on a quarterly basis. During review time, we examine this in depth and put a grading on it which results in increased compensation or some award. This has proven to be very effective to create product excellence and customer focus. Then, why not use the same tactic for increasing diversity? Brialliant! Absolutely agree! Now that I am mother of twin toddlers, I wonder will it get harder for a woman exec to advance when she can no longer do those late nights or weekends in the board room or in an organization. Vasanthi Chandra (Entrepreneur, Product Exec, Mom)

  • I like the balanced perspective on the article that individuals need to be supported to grow but institutions also need to be accountable. In particular I like the reference of keeping focused rather than the distraction of 'priority du jour' - so true how organizations put things like this on their accountability list for a season before moving to another bright shiny object.

  • Thank you for reading and commenting. The shiny object syndrome (and the associated investment) holds true with so many corporate initiatives.

  • Steve Tait

    This article offers great insight, I especially value the reference to 'real-life' examples. Language around "inclusivity" in the workplace has been around for a long time but it's seemingly been easier to articulate concepts about this than it has been to actually implement actions to implement a more diverse workforce. The practical examples here can act like a beacon for others to follow.

  • Jane Stroebel Gregg

    Great to see something positive and practical about diversity!! Makes sense that when businesses truly see a correlation between diversity and the success of their business over all, they are motivated to take diversity seriously. Then diversity initiatives are truly about business results, not public image or just "being good citizens." Love that the trend is seeing the value in tying diversity in the top ranks to measurements and subsequent accountability.

    Great article!

  • Georgette Dorn Verdin

    This is such a timely piece. In short shrift the authors capture the steps that organizations can take to both demonstrate their commitment to a far more diverse and inclusive workforce, and, build that commitment into the DNA of the organization by tying results to strategy and performance.

  • Diversity is a critical business metric that is a key indicator for a company's ability to innovate and sustain growth. But, measuring diversity is the second step. The first step is to understand your organization's diversity capability. You can measure and never see improvement if you don't understand your organization's ability to accept, embrace & leverage diversity of innovation and corporate gain. Launching a diversity initiative without understanding the landscape in which you launch it is like launching a new product in an untested market. You could get lucky but the chances are slim. Center for Gender Economics & Innovation can help -- it's what we do. Susanne Moore and Jennifer Gilhool are booking for assessment starting in the 4Q. Find us Twitter: @gendereconomics & @JG_Ink

  • Tim Dawes

    It's good to see examples of companies putting their incentives where their wishes are. I'll be very interested to hear how this progresses.

  • Caron MacLane

    I am excited to read these numbers and facts and I still look forward to other companies implementing these concepts. I appreciate your clear statement of the current status report.