By Sangreetha Rai, Northwestern Mutual

Sangreetha Rai, Northwestern Mutual

In this digital era, technology is at the center of everything. Women must be, too – and as organizational leaders, we need to do more to ensure they have a seat at the table and opportunities to grow their careers. Gender equity is critically important for our teams, our businesses and our society to thrive. Women comprise 47% of America’s workforce, but just 25% of its tech roles careersAmong the top 100 tech companies, women represent just 16% of the digital designer roles, 23% of leadership roles, and only 6% of the chief executives. This gap is problematic in many ways, and here’s why:

Too few women are designing the technology future, and that can yield unintended consequences. For example, one company’s early speech recognition application programming interface (API) didn’t recognize a woman’s voice, and consistently referred to individuals as “he,” even if the individual was a woman. While the company committed to address the issue, Stanford History of Science Professor Londa Schiebinger noted the bigger issue at-hand: “Fixing it is great,” she said, “but constantly retrofitting for women is not the best road forward. To avoid such problems in the future, it is crucial that computer scientists design with an awareness of gender from the very beginning.” In this era of experience, we must deliver exceptional service to women customers in every iteration, too.

Too few women are participating in this economic boom. The Internet sector delivers $2.1 trillion to the U.S. economy, representing about 10 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product. It’s the fourth largest sector, trailing real estate and government while rapidly closing in on manufacturing. These six million jobs are high-paying, family-supporting careers, too. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that the average digital economy employee earned $132,223 in 2017, 93% more than the U.S. average worker (who earned $68,506). A gender gap in technology can exacerbate income and wealth gaps overall.

Too few women in technology have mentors. Growing up, I went to all-girls schools. In fact, the first time I interacted with men who were not my family was when I was getting my MBA. When I entered the workforce, suddenly, I was often the only woman on that technology team. I had to figure things out on my own, and there were a lot of questions that I struggled with:

  • How should I interact and influence people with different views than my own?
  • What obstacles might I face and how can I proactively overcome them?
  • Where can I turn for advice and moral support?

Individuals and organizations can create the change we need 

The gender gap in technology can be daunting – but my advice to my peers is to always remember the power of the butterfly effect. It’s said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a ravaging storm halfway around the world. The point is this: even seemingly small contributions can have significant and long‐lasting impact on our world. We, as leaders in technology, must acknowledge the power we have in our role as the proverbial butterfly. The greatest gift we can give is to champion women in technology and support their professional growth.

The first essential step leaders must take is to build support and real opportunities for women’s empowerment and advancement within the C-suite. At Northwestern Mutual, our senior leaders are fully committed to closing the gender gap in technology – and our teams are taking action. I am so thankful to work for an organization that is so committed – from top-to-bottom – to empowering, developing and promoting women leaders.

The second step is to build close relationships with your colleagues in Human Resources to look at building inclusive practices including hiring, pay equity, performance review, supporting development and be open to being challenged on any unconscious biases. It’s critical to work with partners who can provide diverse slates of applicants and provide best practices to teams conducting interviews to ensure they are mindful of explicit and implicit bias they may bring to the table.

When your organization is ready to spread its butterfly wings, the next step is to scan the environment for opportunities to support best-in-class ally organizations. For years, we’ve supported organizations and events like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology – built to instill mentorship, leadership and relationships among aspiring women technologists. Effective partnerships and sponsorships can be like a rising tide that lifts all vessels. Both organizations can benefit from the collaboration, and the women attendees win with new insights and professional contacts.

Given our focus on attracting and empowering women in technology, we wanted to do more so we are launching two other exciting initiatives.

The first is our Women in Tech Conference. On December 3, we’re hosting our first-ever full-day virtual event featuring exciting keynote speakers, Chief Technology Officers from top organizations, and breakout sessions where attendees can advance their skills, hear diverse perspectives from participants from Northwestern Mutual and other companies, and network with others in the field – a critically-important opportunity amidst today’s COVID-19 environment. To learn more about our speakers and to sign up, please visit our event website.

In addition to the conference, we’re committed to driving development and mentorship all year long. That’s why we launched our Women in Technology Squad program for our employees at all levels. We regularly pair participants with professional development coaches and bring in experts to speak on topics ranging from “growing your personal brand” to “taking career risks” to “strategies to influence your world.” As a result, we’ve created a space where women at different levels can champion each other and promote their success, learn from leaders, and develop better teams. In the months to come, we plan to expend this initiative by adding college interns and others to this network of professional women.

It’s time for leaders in technology to close this gender gap in tech, trust, talent and treasure. How are you ensuring that women are at the center of technology in your organization? What will be your butterfly effect? Let me know.

Rai is the vice president of Technology Customer Success at Northwestern Mutual. Connect with her on LinkedIn.