5 Ways to Build an Inclusive Culture to Encourage Women in IT
By Maureen Lonergan, Director of AWS Training and Certification
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 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) region, women’s engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) remains limited. Thai women make up only 15 percent of the female graduates obtained their degrees in STEM areas. Of this group, Bruneian women account for 33.8 percent, while Malaysian and Singaporean women account for 26.2 percent and 22.6 percent, respectively.
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 labor 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.
A report from APEC shows that there are a few key structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment in Thailand — gender discrimination reflected through different wage rates for men and women, the exclusion of women from some occupations, harassment in the workplace, and low rates of women executives. In order to solve this problem, organizations 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 programs 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:
- 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 categorizes 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 also include setting goals for hiring and promoting talent, by rethinking how your organization sources job applicants and ensuring that promotion-related training opportunities are available to a wide array of individuals.
- 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 organization and encourage executive sponsorship of formalized employee communities.
- 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 organization. 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 program, 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.
- 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 organizations. 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 organization. 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 organization. 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.
- 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 honor 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 recent inauguration of the first female US vice president, who is also woman of color. As organizations 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. Across AWS, we are 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.
About Amazon Web Services
For over 15 years, Amazon Web Services has been the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud offering. AWS has been continually expanding its services to support virtually any cloud workload, and it now has more than 200 fully featured services for compute, storage, databases, networking, analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), mobile, security, hybrid, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), media, and application development, deployment, and management from 81 Availability Zones within 25 geographic regions, with announced plans for 21 more Availability Zones and seven more AWS Regions in Australia, India, Indonesia, Israel, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. Millions of customers—including the fastest-growing startups, largest enterprises, and leading government agencies—trust AWS to power their infrastructure, become more agile, and lower costs. To learn more about AWS, visit aws.amazon.com.
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