PMI: How to de-bias tech to support women in STEM

Michael Voegele, Chief Technology Officer at Philip Morris International comes out in support of the UN Day for Women and Girls in STEM

It’s abundantly clear that the pandemic accelerated society’s reliance on technology. That acceleration makes it even more critical to ensure that these systems are built to be consumer-centric. The best way to achieve this is by ensuring gender-balanced, inclusive and diverse workforces representing society at large, says PMI’s CTO Michael Voegele as he marks the UN Day for Women and Girls in STEM.

What is tech’s role in creating a more equitable future for everyone?

With its power to shape our world, technology can be a key tool —if IT and tech leaders commit to prioritising inclusion and diversity. After all, tech can only reflect and return what is input by its creators and engineers—and it is still largely a male-dominated field. To address this, we need teams who develop and update technologies to be as diverse as possible so they can drive innovation and be truly consumer-centric, ensuring that stereotypes and bias are not reinforced at scale.

How does gender inclusivity drive societal value in technology?

The world has an underrepresentation of girls who study STEM fields, which translates to a limited female talent pool. It is no surprise, then, that women represent just over 34% of the workforce at the five largest global tech companies, which corresponds to numbers of female university graduates in the field.

A new report from Accenture and Girls Who Code also shows that the ratio of women to men in tech roles has declined over the past 35 years. This data reveals a critical mission for society. Although many organisations are focused on creating more opportunities for women in STEM, the problem goes deeper.

We need parents and educators to inspire more girls to get interested in these fields (that’s why organisations like Girls Who Code are invaluable), broadening their range of possibilities and preventing gender-specific labels for STEM roles. And, IT and tech leaders in companies must work to build an inclusive environment that empowers women in tech with the skills they need to be successful, celebrates female role models, and encourages women to speak up, share their ideas and unleash their creativity.

The study from Accenture and Girls Who Code also found that women often join the tech industry to help create a better world. That’s good news for organisations with a strong purpose. We have seen this at PMI, with our vision to replace cigarettes with smoke-free alternatives for the benefit of hundreds of millions of adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, those who love them, and public health overall. Applicants who may not have considered us as a potential employer before—particularly women—see how PMI is leveraging science and technology to drive positive change. They are starting to think differently about our company, and want to contribute to achieving a smoke-free future.

What role can businesses play in levelling the playing field to encourage more women in tech?

This work starts at the top. With leadership support, organisations must focus on attracting top female talent in tech and retaining the female talent. Leaders must be intentional, also, in their efforts to create and maintain an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued and heard. This means seeking out diverse points of view and acknowledging that the task at hand is not an easy one—but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.

Of course, hiring diverse talent is just the beginning. It’s also crucial to ensure retention is a winning proposition for everyone. One way is to offer learning opportunities so individuals can upskill and prepare to take on new or greater responsibilities. Other important programmes include more inclusive parental leave, flexible working arrangements, networking and mentoring opportunities, and ensuring performance reviews recognise and work to address bias.

And last but not least, we must set measurable goals and track progress transparently. PMI’s addition to the 2021 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index demonstrates that we are doing just that. Though we know we have more work to do, advancing gender equity is a strategic business priority and one that we know is well worth the effort.

Why are you so passionate about the subject?

Because this is simply the right thing to do, and we know that more diverse teams, supported by an inclusive culture, helps drive better business results. And there is no doubt that living through the pandemic has increased our reliance on technology –so we must ensure that these technologies serve everyone. This is also part of how we build a more equitable and just society.
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