The technology industry—or at least its largest players—will likely continue to close the gender gap in the year ahead. Deloitte Global predicts that large global technology firms, on average, will reach nearly 33% overall female representation in their workforces in 2022, up slightly more than 2 percentage points from 2019 (figure 1).1 The proportion of women in technical roles will also nudge up, though it has tended to lag the overall proportion of women by about 8 percentage points.
A 2-percentage-point increase, though small, actually represents notable progress. Moving the needle is difficult and even aggressive campaigns to recruit, hire, retain and promote women have been found to work slowly. But while this progress is a step in the right direction, going forward, tech companies may need to work even harder to improve these numbers.
With research showing that diverse teams perform better and are more innovative, leaders across industries recognise that a diverse workforce—by gender, race, age and other social factors—is good for business.2 As the tech industry seeks to shape a prosperous future for themselves, it is aiming to be more representative of that future.
Our analysis of 20 large technology companies that provide annual workforce diversity reports shows that they have maintained their momentum on the gender front in the past two years.3 Despite women being disproportionately affected by pandemic-driven spikes in global unemployment and reductions in labor force participation,4 many of these organisations have managed to keep female representation on an upward trajectory. In part, this may have been because the technology sector was better prepared than most to pivot quickly to remote work and flexible work models when the pandemic began, relying on already familiar connectivity and collaboration tools. Moreover, many large enterprises have had workforce diversity pledges and programmes in place for several years, and this prior commitment to diversity (gender and otherwise) may have helped them weather the crisis. Further, employment in the tech sector, including for women, began to recover earlier than many other industries, possibly making it easier to maintain progress in gender equity.5
While high-profile tech players will likely continue to make and report gains in gender diversity, smaller tech companies with fewer resources and less stature to attract and keep women may find it harder.6 It’s difficult to pinpoint how these smaller companies are faring, since they don’t typically report diversity data, but a late 2019 study of global tech startup executives found that only 43% had established companywide hiring and promotion goals to increase diversity.7 Without targets and transparency, smaller tech organisations may well be underperforming on gender diversity compared to their larger peers—and they may have fallen even further behind during the pandemic.8
Continued progress will likely require renewed commitment and greater effort. Well-known challenges to equitable female representation persist, including factors related to the educational pipeline, recruitment and hiring, retention, pay and promotion.9 Adding to these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on workers’ well-being and professional prospects. Deloitte’s 2021 Women @ Workstudy, which polled 500 women in the global technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) workforce, found that, compared with how they felt prior to the crisis, TMT women have experienced dramatic drops in motivation and productivity at work, job satisfaction, work/life balance and feelings of loyalty to their employers (figure 2).10 Eighty-three percent of the TMT women surveyed reported that their workload had increased and a majority said that they were spending more time on household chores and dependent care as well.11 Boundaries between life and work collapsed: Satisfaction with work/life balance dropped by 38 points and the ability to “switch off” work dropped by 19 points. Perhaps more alarmingly, only 38% of women in the TMT industry feel their organisation’s commitment to supporting them has been sufficient.12 Just 30% say their employer increased their access to flexible work (such as the freedom to work around caregiving responsibilities or other commitments) and only 22% say that their employers made it clear they’re not expected to be “always on.”13
Racially and ethnically diverse TMT women appear to be even more negatively affected by the pandemic than their peers. Compared to other women working in TMT, they are more likely to report spending increased time on work and home responsibilities. They’re more likely to report poor or extremely poor satisfaction with their mental and physical well-being, as well as their motivation and productivity at work and ability to switch off. Startlingly, over half of racially and ethnically diverse TMT women (52%) rate their work/life balance as poor or extremely poor versus 43% of other TMT women and 59% feel less optimistic about their career prospects today than before the pandemic versus 48% of other TMT women. Since few tech companies report in detail on the composition of their female workforces (that is, race, age, or other social identities), it’s difficult to gauge if representation is improving in other dimensions, but it’s plausible that the pandemic’s differential impacts on racially and ethnically diverse women may be complicating diversity efforts.
These pandemic-driven pressures may result in job churn among women and may even prompt some to leave the workforce entirely. A majority of TMT women (51%) feel less optimistic about their career prospects now than before the crisis broke and 57% expect to leave their current employer for a new role within two years, citing lack of work/life balance as the biggest reason. What’s more, a startling 22% are considering leaving the workforce altogether, motivated chiefly by workload increases that are affecting their well-being.
But these are factors organisations can mitigate. Some tech companies, including Google, Salesforce and IBM, have responded to the pandemic by expanding programmes for backup child care and paid family caregiver leave.14 Some have created new flexible-work and well-being programmes, such as job sharing, free mental health counselling, collective disconnect days and video programmes with child-focussed educational content.15 Tech companies that proactively craft programmes and policies to help workers balance their caregiving and well-being needs with work responsibilities may be able to avoid burnout, build greater loyalty and retain diverse talent through the crisis and beyond.
Looking past the pandemic, organisations should consider how their future work model could help them reach a wider and more diverse talent pool. Drawing on lessons learned during the pandemic, several major tech companies are embracing a remote-first work model, while others are settling on a hybrid of office- and home-based work, and some are even experimenting with smaller distributed offices.16 Beyond increasing work/life flexibility, “work from anywhere” models expand the available pool of exceptional, diverse talent to nationwide and even worldwide, not just within commuting distance of the office.17
Having a larger talent pool to choose from can be especially important for an industry that doesn’t have enough qualified women to go around. Building up the next generation of tech talent by diversifying the STEM pipeline is a laudable goal, but one that will likely take many years of sustained effort. In the meantime, some tech companies are aiming to attract and recruit women from overlooked worker segments such as those returning to work or transitioning from other industries. Some are partnering with organisations that run “returnship” programmes, providing training and mentorship to women resuming their careers after a pause.18 Others have established apprenticeships that aim to recruit and upskill “unconventional talent” such as career-switchers who lack a traditional tech background.
Beyond hiring more women, closing the gender gap will likely require solving challenges of retention and equitable promotion. Research indicates that about half of the industry’s female workers drop out of technology employment by mid-career and women hold less than a quarter of the industry’s senior leadership roles.19 According to a 2020 Deloitte report, gender bias is the top obstacle preventing tech women from moving into leadership positions.20 Yet diverse leadership can be critical for enabling more creative thinking and better business outcomes, as well as for providing role models.21 Formal mentorship programmes and development opportunities for women, along with gender targets for promotions, could go a long way toward improving retention among women and enabling them to progress to senior executive levels. But less than a quarter of TMT companies have established these measures, according to Deloitte’s Women @ Work research.22
When all is said and done, improving women’s representation in technology calls for the same kind of leadership commitment and strategic focus that underlies other critical organisational initiatives. Companies should identify a responsible executive and commit to a holistic diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy that cultivates an inclusive culture. Accountability and transparency—identifying metrics, reporting results and tracking progress—are essential. Only then can companies take stock of what is and isn’t working, revise their approach and improve.
When reimagined, work can be more than a process. It can be an outcome that drives productivity, value and impact by unlocking human potential and creating an organisation that is resilient to risk, fit for the future and grounded in meaning for workers whose identity will drive sustained results.