As Women’s History Month comes to an end and we celebrate the vital role of women in American history, we also reflect on the important role diversity plays in the workplace when it comes to impacting company cultures and profitability.
In a 2017 report, McKinsey found a direct correlation between profitability and diversity. Companies in the top 25th percentile for gender diversity on the executive level were 21% more likely to experience above-average profits.
In understanding that diversity plays in a company’s favor, tech leaders must ask themselves why is there still such a huge disparity between the number of women and men in tech? And what can we do to narrow that gap?
Earlier this month, we hosted the CEO of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani, for a chat with Salesforce’s Chief Philanthropy Officer, Ebony Beckwith, to discuss closing the gender gap and Reshma’s new book, “Brave Not Perfect”, which empowers women and girls to stop letting perfectionism hold them back.
Reshma doesn’t have a background in programming nor does she know how to code. Her parents came to the U.S. as refugees in 1973. “No matter how tired my father was, he would always sit me on his lap at night and he would read to me about Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. So, from the time I was little, I really knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to change the world, I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to give back to the country that had saved my parents’ life.”
After graduating from college and law school with a mountain of debt, she became a lawyer at a financial services firm, and woke up one day at the age of 33, absolutely miserable. So she quit and decided to run for Congress in New York City against a Democratic incumbent in the primary “before it was cool.” “It was the most incredible ten months of my life, and I failed spectacularly,” she recalls.
That failure didn’t break her. In fact, it led to her biggest success: a nonprofit specializing in early education for programming and computer skills for girls called Girls Who Code.
While campaigning, Reshma visited a few schools in NYC — stepping into robotics and computer sciences classes. “I would just see a ton of boys. And I said, where are the women? Where are the people of color?” After losing her race for Congress, Reshma decided to create opportunity and help others achieve the American Dream. “In 2010 technology was where the future is. And that’s what inspired me to create Girls Who Code.”
Girls Who Code focuses on teaching the hard skills needed to be successful today, but also soft skills such as resilience, bravery, and the ability to stand up and raise your voice. “We have created this myth in this country that to be a coder you’ve got to be a genius. You gotta be super smart, super tactical, and super math- and science-oriented. As women, we will talk ourselves out of that and say ‘Oh, that’s hard for me. I’m dumb or I’m stupid; I’m not capable of this.’ I saw this played out at Girls Who Code. Students would call the teacher over and say, ‘I don’t know what code to write.’ And the teacher would see a blank text editor on her screen. But, if the teacher pressed ‘undo’ a few times, she saw that her student actually wrote code, but then deleted it. So, instead of showing the progress that she made, she would rather show the teacher nothing at all. It’s this idea of perfection or bust.”
The strive for perfection, Reshma believes, is the main reason women drop out of fields like programming and computer science — it’s their perceived ability that’s in their head. “We talk ourselves out of things,” she says.
We can all help narrow the gender gap in tech and Reshma has solid advice for everyone.
For women: Be advocates
“The key for us is sisterhood. We need to create an environment where — when that self-doubt creeps in — girls have a supportive community around them saying: you got this. It’s so important that girls don’t feel like the only one as they are learning.”
Additionally, women need to be mentors for each other — champions for one another in their careers. When women become successful in their careers, they need to help another woman do the same.
“We need to advocate for other women, and it’s an opportunity for men to do the same.”
For men: Be supportive
“Courage needs to be contagious for men, too.”
Men need to support their female colleagues, which means they need to speak up, but they also need to listen and that means sharing the floor with women when it comes to meetings. Don’t be the guy talking for 80% of the meeting.
For parents: Encourage imperfection and resilience
If Reshma had it her way, we would just throw all the parenting books in the garbage. We’re taught to build up our girls’ confidence, but there are unintended outcomes. “If we put them into soccer practice and they don’t do well, we’ll put them into gymnastics to make them feel like they’re great at something. But, in building girls confidence, we’ve killed their resilience. If we keep raising our girls this way then we’re never — as we get older — going to be able to achieve anything that we don’t already 100% think can happen for us..”
Don’t let your girls run from a challenge; instead, teach them how to be comfortable with confronting a challenge.
And, as the mother of a boy, she stresses that we also need to think about how we’re raising our boys. “We screw up raising our boys too. We don’t let them be compassionate, be empathetic. We want them to be tough and strong.” She remembers a story about a fight she and her husband got in about a year ago over her son’s nightlight. Her husband didn’t want her son to have the nightlight because he wanted him to be strong. But, Reshma asked him, “would we be having this conversation if Shaan was a girl?” And her husband bowed his head and said, “Yeah. You’re right.”
Finally, one of the most important things parents need to remember is to watch our words because our kids are listening. “All of that judgment that we do with ourselves, they start internalizing and they start doing it to themselves. We need to watch the way we treat ourselves because they will replicate that.”
For tech companies: We need to change our practices
“We need to be honest about what the interview process is in some tech companies.” In saying this, Reshma is referring to the all-male interview panels or women who have had their intelligence questioned or been asked out on a date during the interview. All three examples are patterns Reshma and her staff found after conducting a survey with more than 1,000 Girls Who Code graduates about their interview experience with companies where they were turned down.
She urges tech companies not only to take a look at the people we hire but the people we don’t hire — and why we didn’t hire them.
Secondly, we need to check our elitism. “My father told me I could take out a $300,000 student loan and it would be okay. But, when you look at our economy today, I don’t know if I can say that to my girls.”
Often times Girls Who Code graduates get into the best schools, but attend the one that gives them the most financial aid. But, often tech companies aren’t looking for applicants from schools outside of the Ivy League or the top ten schools. So, we need to find girls and people of color where they are at.
“If we’re serious about this — if we’re really serious about this — then, we need to change our practices. Because I just don’t believe tech companies anymore. ‘Well, I can’t find them’ they say. We’re here. We’re everywhere.”
To get more business advice from amazing entrepreneurs read our blog post on International Women’s Day.