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If the women in your company aren’t thriving, your business isn’t either

A high-ranking tech executive explains how to build a culture where women can excel, and why that’s good for everyone.

If the women in your company aren’t thriving, your business isn’t either
[Photo: jacoblund/iStock]
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Jackie Molina, a tech leader who helps businesses upgrade their digital payments capabilities, was a rising star at her company, where she led an agile team of developers. She strung together one career success after another rising from auditing technology projects to advising business owners on tech products in just six years. She embraced every opportunity to deepen her skills, taking advantage of corporate leadership training programs in public speaking, people management, and business topics.

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Then Molina suffered a series of personal tragedies. In the space of nine months, she had a miscarriage and lost her grandfather, father-in-law, and a close family member. With a toddler at home, Molina felt she needed to focus on her family and couldn’t take on any new responsibilities at work for a while.

It’s at a time like this that many high-potential women fall off the career track. As primary caregivers and nurturers, they are forced to choose between work and family. If they choose family, the career opportunities often disappear—a phenomenon that the pandemic has hastened. An often-cited McKinsey & Company study suggests that the COVID-19 crisis could set women back a decade professionally.

The issues are even more acute for women in tech like Molina. According to a study by Accenture and Girls Who Code, almost 50% of women in tech who are under the age of 35 will leave within five years.

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Why are they going? Nearly 40% of the study’s respondents cited company culture. Just as concerning, only 8% of women of color said it’s easy to thrive in technology jobs. Tech has long been infamous for a “bro culture” that is often not inclusive of— and sometimes actively hostile to—women.

As chief information officer at Synchrony, a financial services company with 16,500 employees, I’ve championed policies and practices that have supported our female team members. Not surprisingly, initiatives that prioritize inclusivity, flexibility, and wellness aren’t just great for working women, they’re good for all employees. Here’s a closer look at our approach:

Invest in benefits that support permanent work flexibility, childcare support, and mental-health resources.

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Instead of leaving us, Jackie Molina was able to focus on her personal life by taking bereavement leaves when her loved ones died and by taking four months of maternity leave when her daughter was born. She also used Synchrony’s emergency backup care benefit to find childcare and got reimbursed for a portion of the expenses.

When she was ready for her next opportunity, the company was ready for her—even providing mentors to ease her back onto the fast track during the pandemic.

Today, Molina taps into the company’s workplace flexibility that allows her to manage her schedule so she can succeed in both her home and work lives. Working from home, she uses flextime hours to prepare meals for her two young children and help teach them their letters, numbers, and colors.

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Molina also takes advantage of weekly Flex Fridays, when employees are encouraged to sign off at noon to recharge and catch up on things personally or professionally. She often devotes these afternoons caring for her elderly family member and her children.

Build opportunities for inclusive sponsorship, leadership development, and skills training.

Preparing women for jobs of the future means supporting them at every career stage by advocating for them and including them in leadership development programs. Companies can do this by establishing pathways for upward mobility, offering skills training, and creating an environment where anyone can apply for new opportunities.

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Molina is a fellow in Synchrony’s Advancing Diverse Talent program, which provides executive sponsors and coaches to high-potential, diverse leaders at the vice-president level. Her executive coach is also a wellness coach and has helped her find ways to manage stress. Another vice president in technology, Lina Walton, recalls learning that she made less money than her male counterparts during an internship at a small company early in her career. She participated in a program that helps women navigate difficult tasks like asking for a raise or a promotion. After taking the training, Walton made her case for a promotion—and got it. She now participates in our Strategic Pathways program that assists minority leaders in advancing their careers by pairing them with sponsors.

Establish a welcoming culture that values diversity and inclusion at all levels, starting at the top.

Technology has made it easier than ever to use analytics to identify gaps in hiring and to build strategies for developing and advancing diverse talent. Data show that creating a more inclusive workplace, where everyone feels comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, makes employees—especially women—less likely to leave. This means cultivating a safe environment for honest conversations and creating new channels to make listening a more consistent part of how companies work and providing women and people of color with senior role models who look like them.

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Synchrony senior vice president Cindy Miranda is one of those role models. Committed to advancing diverse talent, Miranda has benefitted from the company’s flexible, progressive culture herself and wants to see it continue. She was one of our first remote employees, living for 15 years in Puerto Rico for family reasons and visiting company headquarters during business trips. Despite the novel work arrangement, her career flourished because her managers supported her and valued her work.

Cindy Miranda is exactly the kind of executive I want evaluating future leaders. She is part of the team that identifies up-and-coming talent and is helping to create a new program that provides high-potential employees with executive sponsors.

Leaders who empower women see the benefits all around them—in higher-performing, more innovative teams, better decision-making, and more satisfied customers.

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Carol Juel is executive vice president and chief information officer of Synchrony.