Dating back to the 18th century, women have played an important role in advancing computing. Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer in 1842, developing the first algorithm intended to be executed by the first modern computer. Contributions by women followed, with women working as computers to predict astrological insights, ballistic calculations, and developing the first compiler for a programming language (Grace Hopper). The proportion of women graduating with a computer science degree peaked around 1984 (37%) and then steadily declined. Today in the UK, women make up only 31% of all tech jobs – which means the percentage of those specifically in computing roles is even smaller than that.
While opportunities within cloud computing continue to grow, a majority of females in the workforce are struggling to achieve lasting advances. Not only does this have immediate effects on the workforce and IT labour shortage, but this also leads to fewer women holding top leadership positions in the future. Why is this the case? In my experience, the problem is twofold – first, not enough women are considering careers in cloud computing, and second, for those who do, many ultimately leave.
Research from Northwest Center for Women in IT shows that there are five structural barriers to women remaining in the IT workforce—unconscious bias, isolation, supervisory relationships, promotion processes, and competing life responsibilities. In order to solve this problem, organisations must pursue initiatives that create an inclusive and equitable culture.
How to build a more inclusive environment for women on your team
I’ve spent my career in technology, designing broad training programmes and mentoring women, and have seen the positive corporate impact of encouraging women and underrepresented individuals to grow into IT leaders. Here are some of the key learnings I’ve seen along the way:
1. Accept biases and actively work with your teams to combat it. Every human has unconscious biases; they’re our mental shortcuts to help us process information. Our brain categorises people based on stereotypes we learned from our upbringing, media, culture, and more, so it’s important to invest in helping your teams understand their own biases and how to actively interrupt them before they become a barrier. We need to create mechanisms to reduce implicit prejudices, such as requiring training for combatting bias, both in formal situations such as addressing employee performance issues, and informal situations such as developing professional mentoring relationships. These mechanisms should include setting goals for hiring and promoting talent by rethinking how your organisation sources job applicants and ensuring that promotion-related training opportunities are available to a wide array of individuals.
2. Nurture communities that build employee confidence. Ensure allyship exists for women and other underrepresented employees. Isolation can lead to imposter syndrome—an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you—and can cause individuals to leave their roles. This can affect anyone no matter their social status, skill level, or background. Having communities—or even just someone else to talk to who has a similar experience—helps employees support one another, move past irrational beliefs about self-and professional-worth, and creates a more inclusive culture. Set the tone for inclusivity from the very top of the organisation and encourage executive sponsorship of formalised employee communities.
3. Improve opportunities for career growth. There’s ample research that shows an employee’s relationship with their manager is the leading cause of retention—or attrition—in the workplace. A manager’s key responsibility is to create an environment where employees can do their best work and continue to grow professionally—perhaps even outside the traditional bounds of the employee’s role. For example, I met a young woman at an IT consulting firm who wanted to build cloud skills among women in non-technical roles at her organisation. Together, we built a solution that helped these women learn cloud fundamentals. We hoped for 300 participants, but to date, almost 900 women have signed up for the programme, which has support from the company’s CEO and senior leadership. These women are now better equipped to understand their business and support their customers, and we’re thrilled to help them increase their value to the company and broaden their career opportunities. This type of employee growth opportunity is a win-win for the company and its employees. It reinforces inclusivity, commitment to employee development, and in this case, builds equity between those in IT and non-IT roles in their ability to speak a common language around the cloud. Employees need to feel included, valued, and rewarded for their contributions. Managers and leaders can design growth and development programs, and create mechanisms to help improve employees’ commitments to their employers.
4. Reward risk-taking and continuous feedback. There can be a tendency for employees to not speak up or propose a new idea unless they think they know the right answer or have done all the necessary research. This can lead to inefficiencies, lost productivity, decreased morale, and an imbalance in decision-making within organisations. Facilitate and encourage a culture that rewards risk-taking of all types. At AWS, we invite all employees to put their ideas down on paper in what we call a “narrative,” in order to encourage big thinking and feedback from across the organisation. This practice allows our employees, regardless of their tenure, level, or role to bring ideas forward and get feedback from the highest levels of the organisation. Encourage your people to take risks by voicing their points of view and big ideas, even if the ideas are rough. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you hear.
5. Acknowledge the need for a work-life balance. While women are now more educated and employed than ever before, statistically they continue to take on more of the household and familial responsibilities than men. If the COVID-19 pandemic has showed employers anything, it’s that empowering a remote workforce benefits not only the business, but also employees. Encouraging a balanced approach towards non-work obligations boosts overall job satisfaction and appreciation among employees as well as long-term loyalty and productivity. Managers should have regular, open conversations about non-work obligations with their employees and work with them to find opportunities for balance between work responsibilities and home responsibilities. We’ve learned a lot during this last year, and one thing we’ve taken away is that employees value employers who understand and honour the fullness of their lives.
What comes next
Throughout my life, I’ve seen the power of women helping women and watched as more and more women climb the ladder into leadership positions, including the inauguration of the first female US vice president earlier this year, who is also woman of colour. As organisations work to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment, those of us with industry experience should not only find opportunities to learn as much as we can, but to use that knowledge—and our positions—to advance opportunities for women and underrepresented individuals.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. By removing the barriers standing in their way, we can create a diverse community of leaders and builders of all skillsets to drive inclusivity, equity, and innovation around the world.
Maureen Lonergan is the Director of Training and Certification for Amazon Web Services (AWS), where she leads a team of builders committed to training the next generation of cloud talent. AWS is working to make the future of tech more diverse—to build an inclusive environment that attracts and develops remarkably bright, driven, and inventive builders of all backgrounds.