Aniyah enjoyed her role as a divisional technology executive within a large financial banking enterprise, but she frequently grappled with the cultural expectation of long work hours, few advancement opportunities, and lack of women role models. So, when her spouse received a job offer in another state, Aniyah reflected on her 12-year career and realised it was time to consider all her options. Family planning had become a serious topic in her partnership, and while she wasn't prepared to write off all future work in technology, she decided to pause her own career to focus on what mattered most at this life stage.
Unfortunately, Aniyah is not alone. A 2008 study featured in Harvard Business Review reported that the attrition rate for women in technology is more than twice the rate for men.1 Women leave for a variety of destinations—some choose to start their own tech-related business or move to jobs outside of tech. But many leave the workforce entirely, at least temporarily, to attend to family responsibilities, further their education, or pursue personal interests (figure 1). Unfortunately, little is truly known on current attrition rates within the tech profession as a whole and where these women end up, but it’s likely safe to say that this data continues to remain relatively unchanged.2
As we explored in our article titled Repairing the pipeline, women make up only about 25% of technology workers, with even fewer Black (9%) and Latinx (7%) workers holding tech jobs.3 Even when companies do a better job of recruiting women and other underrepresented groups into entry-level positions, a higher percentage of women than men leave tech roles before they reach leadership ranks.
So how can technology executives reverse this trend? No one has all the answers, but our research and interviews with CIOs and tech leaders reveal a wide range of approaches that, when combined, can lead to comprehensive strategies designed to recruit and retain talented experienced women and other underrepresented groups. An objective of these strategies is to advance more women into senior leadership roles so they may inspire, mentor, and serve as role models for those coming up behind them. Over time, these strategies and behaviours can contribute to an inclusive, diverse workforce that supports enterprise innovation and growth as we explored in Paving diverse paths to technology leadership and Innovating for all.
In this article, the seventh in Deloitte’s DEI for Tech Leaders series, we take a closer look at how technology organizations (the technology function within an organisation) can help close gender, race, and ethnicity gaps with holistic strategies to specifically recruit and retain experienced women technologists. While our focus is primarily on women in technology, many of the approaches may also apply to other underrepresented groups.
Loss of valuable mid-career tech talent can often be attributed to unsupportive working environments, widespread bias (conscious and/or unconscious), undermining behaviour from management, and competing priorities.4
In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 74% of women in technology jobs experienced gender discrimination at work.5 Further, a 2020 survey of Deloitte’s workforce and technology clients confirmed that gender bias remains an ongoing concern. When asked to reflect on their cumulative technical and career experiences, respondents collectively identified gender bias as the top barrier preventing women in technology roles from moving into leadership positions, followed by work/life integration and lack of sponsorship (figure 2).
For women with access to secondary resources and opportunities, leaving their jobs may be a viable solution to ending immediate discrimination or unrealistic expectations. Some, like our main character Aniyah, leave the workforce to focus on family due to the lack of work/life integration options. Others may continue in stagnant, often disappointing, careers because exiting their role is not a viable option due to economic, health, or support network limitations. This often results in the need to “mask” their authentic selves, or downplay their identity, in order to adapt to the workplace environment.6 Either way, the company often loses valuable, productive talent that may be hard to replace with less experienced people.
Even companies that are recognized among the best workplaces for women face stiff competition for acquiring women technologists. There are not enough qualified women candidates to fill today’s high demand for technology talent, especially in a booming tech environment where gender parity and diversity are strategic imperatives. As a result, tech leaders are becoming increasingly focused on devising and enhancing recruiting methods to attract and recruit women from often overlooked talent pools.
It may seem obvious, but to find diverse candidates and reverse cultural trends, companies need to look in places besides the traditional, well-known sources. A trailblazer in this space is Microsoft, whose mission is inherently inclusive: to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. Microsoft takes a holistic, multifaceted approach to diversity and inclusion by diversifying the pipeline, forging new paths to tech careers, engaging their employees’ perspectives, and supporting diversity in the broader tech community. Priya Priyadarshini, general manager of employee career and development at Microsoft, says, “That means coming at diversity and inclusion approaches from a variety of places within our company and at different points in the talent life cycle where there could be a positive impact on a person’s career choice, path, trajectory, and life.”
One way they do this is by starting early. Priyadarshini says, “Our work to diversify the STEM pipeline into colleges and universities starts with generating excitement for tech as early as possible. Through a range of initiatives and partnerships, we’re trying to reach the future generation of talent (K-12, high schoolers) as early as possible. Our goal is to help them grow their skills, discover a passion for tech, and envision a future filled with possibility.” Microsoft is also forging new paths into technology. Through a variety of programmes, they are rethinking where they look for talent and how they can reach people from previously untapped talent pools—talent from outside of the traditional academic path such as veterans, workers transitioning from other industries or life phases, and people with autism.
Partnerships are key to forging new pathways. Many companies may lack adequate in-house resources or specialised knowledge required to quash adverse cultural trends that have been years in the making, especially when looking for tech talent with in-demand skills. Developing partnership programmes and building relationships with external entities can offer companies access to a virtual rolodex, expanding their recruiting network. Sometimes companies need help to enhance their recruiting strategies. Entities such as iRelaunch and Path Forward help companies with their return-to-work initiatives. As external partners, they collaborate with enterprises as well as candidates looking to return and provide the specialised expertise that’s needed to support recruiting efforts.
Other companies possess a ready-made, yet often overlooked, source of potential diverse technologists. Cody Sanford, CIO and chief product officer at T-Mobile, shared, “We have an amazing pool of people who want to become part of Product and Technology but have no clear path. Our team created a development programme for customer-facing employees—putting them in product technology groups for six-months rotations. Many of them have moved into full-time tech roles. These employees bring a valuable understanding of what the company’s customers want and need—and the company invests in developing their technical skills.”
By hiring technologists who reflect the makeup of their markets, T-Mobile believes it can deliver the best product experience to their customers. Of course, there are challenges. Sanford finds recruiting diverse technologists is easier in some geographies than others. Given the massive shift to remote work, CIOs, such as Sanford, may also be able recruit untapped technology talent independent of geographical boundaries.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shifted a substantial percentage of the US workforce to remote work overnight, executives found that worker effectiveness and productivity remained stable, if not increased.7 Of course, meeting the company’s mission is a top priority, but nontraditional work arrangements, such as remote work that offers caregivers and others more flexibility, may be more viable than previously assumed. In this sense, the pandemic has been a proof of concept of sorts. This new way of working offers a tremendous opportunity for companies to reimagine their strategies and policies to recruit and retain women technologists.
Niki Allen, senior vice president of technology at Kohl’s, reiterates the opportunity, “There is a problem across the tech space in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and you have to admit where improvements can be made. Take a step back, be honest, and remove ego.” She points out that her goal for the technology team at Kohl’s is to be a microcosm of the societies in which it does business; they work to be representative of the communities they serve. She’s optimistic as she partners with HR to bring forth opportunities to rethink traditional work models to appeal to a broader range of candidates.
Additionally, relationships between employers and employees may continue despite career pauses or organisational exits. Former employees can be brand ambassadors, potential clients or vendors for future work, referral sources for additional recruits, or even future talent, if they opt to return. Those who do return may have refreshed career goals or even want to pursue a new career path; programmes such as apprenticeships and returnships can provide the care and attention needed by diverse, experienced women reentering the workforce.
Many high-caliber women who leave technology careers or make a career change may face obstacles getting back into the workforce. Some lack confidence, current skills, or a professional network needed to reenter today’s tech job market on their own. Many encounter biases over gaps on their resumes, especially as technology evolves at a rapid pace.8 Our fellow technologist Aniyah will likely face similar obstacles when she is ready to join the workforce again. How leaders and hiring managers for technology organisations embrace the different variables will determine if women such as Aniyah can find a foothold to return to technology again.
A growing number of companies are actively pursuing this pool of diverse talent by offering returnship programs, which is a career reentry program designed for those who took pause of a year or more from the workforce. These programmes usually last 12–16 weeks and offer pay that is commensurate with an individual’s market value. The sponsoring company offers training and mentorship to “returners,” as well as hands-on work experience. At the end of a returnship, employers have the option to hire returners as full-time employees.
T-Mobile partnered with reacHIRE to develop and implement their TechX Returnship Program. The pilot ran from November 2019 to May 2020, with the hope of filling six engineering, project management, and analyst roles. The company selected six returners from more than 400 applicants, prioritising problem-solving and critical-thinking capabilities, rather than existing technical skills or platform proficiencies. After a week-long onboarding and training experience, T-Mobile’s hiring managers provided their returners with challenging projects and opportunities to build their professional network and build relevant technical skills and confidence. At the end of the programme, all six returners successfully landed full-time technology roles within Sanford’s IT function. Based on the success of the first cohort, T-Mobile expanded the returnship programme to accommodate 20 returners for another six-month program that began in November 2020.9
To better understand the prevalence of returnship programs, Deloitte’s DEI in Tech survey asked technology executives and technologists if their companies had a returnship program in place. Unfortunately, most responded “no” (figure 3). While this may paint a disappointing picture, we see the glass half full—we believe this indicates that returnship programs could provide a significant opportunity for CIOs and technology executives to recruit experienced women technologists. Of course, technology organisations should consider connecting with experienced return-to-work partners.
Launched in 2016, Deloitte’s Encore program has helped more than 51 experienced women relaunch their technology career after being out of the workforce for at least two years. In addition to career development, participants are provided opportunities to learn from each other and network with other Deloitte professionals.
Maria Wright, today a senior consultant with Deloitte, is an Encore alumna. She emphasises the importance of having a peer cohort: “That’s one of the great things about Encore—to have this group to bond with and know that we were all going through some variation of the same challenges. None of us had to go through it alone.”
Anjali Sinha, leader of Deloitte’s Encore program, is now launching the firm’s fifth cohort. She shared key lessons learned and best practices gathered over the years.
• Involve leaders. One of the critical success factors for converting Encore participants into Deloitte professionals is the active involvement of senior business leaders. They ensure that the participants have meaningful hands-on projects and training that provide the skills and confidence that participants need to be successful.
• Look for capabilities, not just technical skills. Some of the most successful Encore women have possessed strong soft skills, such as effective communication and learning agility, that are critical to successful leadership. With these foundational capabilities, participants typically pick up new technical skills quickly.
• Foster connections. Informal networking events, ideally in-person, provide opportunities for the cohort participants to get to know each other and create their own support group, which can last long after the program ends. Encore’s “buddy” system provides additional support by pairing participants with an alumna who can share their candid advice and insights.
• Don’t go it alone. Deloitte relies on strong relationships with both internal and external partners to promote the program and recruit Encore participants. These partners also provide insights on leading practices to keep the Encore program current and effective.
Apprenticeships offer another recruiting strategy. While returnship programs support reentry into the workforce, apprenticeship programs focus on training and developing talent for technology roles.
In our interviews, Microsoft and Slack Technologies outlined how they’ve established successful apprenticeship models. Through their Leap apprenticeship program, Microsoft looks for unconventional talent, such as career-transformers, who may not have a computer science background but do have a passion for technology. Priyadarshini says, “We recruit and upskill hundreds of unconventional talent from all walks of life globally. We are grateful and proud of our strong partnership with over 100 coding academies and bootcamps nationwide.”
According to Priyadarshini, they considered a few key metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of Microsoft Leap: 1) Employability in tech industry: Ninety-eight percent of Leap graduates land full-time engineering roles at Microsoft and other technology companies; 2) Variety of pathways available to develop the talent for today and the future: Roles include software engineer, technical program manager, support engineer, UX designer, business program manager, cleared software engineer, data analyst; and 3) Scalability: Microsoft Leap started its first cohort of eight women engineers (including returning moms) in 2015—now its footprint includes Vancouver in Canada, multiple cities in the United States, Latin America, and Africa.
Similarly, Slack is on a mission to increase the number of underrepresented individuals within its company—as well as the entire tech industry. Slack’s marquee DEI initiative is Next Chapter, an apprenticeship program that hires and mentors formerly incarcerated men and women sourced through The Last Mile, a software engineering training program located within several state prisons.10
At Slack, we understand talent is evenly distributed—opportunity is not. —Deepti Rohatgi, head of Slack for Good & Public Affairs
Deepti Rohatgi, head of Slack for Good & Public Affairs, says, “We aren’t experts in racial inequality nor working with formerly incarcerated individuals. So, my number one priority was ensuring we had partners who are experts in all the different aspects the programme needed to be successful. The second priority was to think about how a programme like this will be perceived by our employees. Most tech sector employees have never spent time in prison or even know anybody who is incarcerated; their impressions of this population are based on what they have seen in movies and TV. To bridge this gap, we held numerous all-hands meetings to talk about the United States criminal justice system and why a programme like this can be metamorphic for the millions of justice-involved individuals. We also took hundreds of our employees and executives to San Quentin State Prison to meet the incarcerated folks who are working to change their lives. I've heard from numerous people at Slack that it’s been one of the most transformative days of their life.”
This was by no means an easy feat. While the program did align apprentices to roles, Slack also needed to work with partners to address and navigate legal complexities and sensitivities since many companies do not allow people with felony conviction to access customer data. In addition, Slack’s external partners—W. K. Kellogg Foundation and FREEAMERICA—led change management programs within the company that helped Slack employees become comfortable working with the apprentices and prepared managers to support the apprentices during their transition to work life.
The Next Chapter pilot was successful; three formerly incarcerated individuals completed the eight-month paid engineering apprenticeship program and were hired by Slack as full-time engineers. The second cohort at Slack, Zoom, and Dropbox also included a mother of a young toddler. As evidence of its success, the Next Chapter program now has a waitlist of technology sector companies that want to participate.
While returnship and apprenticeship programs may result in phenomenal talent from nontraditional channels, these recruiting strategies are only a few of the many opportunities to discover and invest in talented people who can strengthen teams and enrich communities. When recruits are supported by development and advancement, watching them bloom can become a fulfilling reward resulting from an inclusive workplace.
Recruiting experienced, diverse technology candidates is only half the battle. Retaining them requires leadership commitment to a holistic DEI strategy that cultivates an inclusive culture (figure 4).
Diversity thrives in an inclusive culture; it’s a foundational element in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. A 2020 global employee study conducted by Lenovo and Intel reveals that more than half of respondents across markets believe a company’s DEI policies and performance are significant factors in a candidate’s decision to apply for or accept a job.11
An inclusive culture is built from the top of the organisation—and it can’t stop there. The good news is that even amid hiring freezes and layoffs, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a June 2020 Fortune/Deloitte study showed that 96% of CEOs consider DEI to be a strategic priority, with 90% of CEOs stating talent recruitment, development, advancement, and retention as their top priority (figure 5).
Our interviews with CIOs and technology leaders reinforced this statistic. After 18 years in aerospace, Allen was looking to broaden her industry experience in preparation for a future CIO or CTO role. She was attracted to Kohl’s as a fast-moving retail company that provides everyday value to diverse communities. “When I left my previous IT organisation, I had an extremely diverse, inclusive team, and Kohl’s gave me the platform to build one here, too. The opportunity to make a difference in DEI was the No. 1 reason I came to Kohl’s; No. 2 was the technology work.”
The approach to diversity and inclusion must be holistic, Priyadarshini shared. “We know that all the strategies and efforts to seek out and bring on people with a diverse range of backgrounds won’t matter if employees don’t feel valued for what they bring or aren’t respected for who they are. We believe it’s our responsibility to create an environment where people can do their best work—a place where they can proudly be their authentic selves, and where they know their needs can be met. Without inclusion, the power of diversity remains untapped.”
A recent study of senior women technologists who had remained in their careers for at least eight years showed that beyond loving the work itself, fair and good compensation (41%) and the flexibility to achieve work/life integration (39%) were top drivers for staying in the job.12 Had Aniyah been given the flexibility to achieve work/life integration, she might have not left her technology role.
Not surprisingly, equitable compensation is a key factor in recruiting and retaining top-caliber women. But achieving pay parity is easier said than done. In 2020, AnitaB.org collected remuneration data from 51 companies—71% reported pay equity in 2020, up from 66% in 2018. However, there is a significant pay difference between genders as women advance toward leadership roles. Across 17 companies that provided career-level salary data, pay parity was seen at the intern and executive levels. In between, men earn more than women: Two percent more at the entry level, 6% in mid-management, and 7% in senior management.13 Even among companies that openly share pay data, significant work is needed to achieve pay equity to help recruit and retain women at middle- and senior-management levels.
Work/life integration is nearly as important as compensation. With caregiving responsibilities falling primarily on women, having flexible work schedules is another key to retaining and attracting women technologists in mid-career. “Perhaps not everyone has to come in 9 to 5,” Allen explains. “Perhaps we have some split schedules. Others may return to work with a phased-in schedule, starting part-time and eventually transitioning to full-time. When companies release all the traditional boundaries of what a workday looks like, they really open themselves up to attracting and retaining top talent.”
Some companies have found that even when a technologist decided to leave full-time employment, perhaps to care for a child or elderly parent, the technology organisation could maintain a connection with her by assigning remote, part-time, or contract project work, allowing her to maintain her skills, confidence, and workplace relationships and network.14 Upon returning to full-time work, the transition would be much easier for such individuals.
In addition to offering fair and competitive compensation, many companies also offer benefits to make work/life integration easier, such as providing financial support to employees for daycare services or even offering subsidised daycare onsite.
The most effective way to retain high-potential women is for leaders to demonstrate personal interest in moving them forward. —Molly Greek, CIO, University of California, Office of the President
Having a role model and supportive peers can make a big difference for women looking to start or advance in a technology career. A Women in Technology Survey conducted by Capital One showed that 75% of women who stayed in tech careers had role models at their companies, compared to a lower percentage (56%) who left. Similarly, women who stayed and succeeded in tech are twice as likely to say that peer groups of other women, both within and outside their companies, is very important for work success (45%) compared to women who left (23%).15
For insights into how mentorship for girls and women can help build your talent pipeline, read our publication, Cracking the code: How CIOs are redefining mentorship to advance diversity and inclusion.
The tech leaders we spoke with reinforce the importance of personal attention and support for women and underrepresented groups. Molly Greek, CIO at the University of California Office of the President, says, “I have a mentoring relationship with several women who do not report directly to me because I am personally interested in them and see their possibility for success.” During monthly mentoring meetings, Greek often encourages her mentees to make presentations at department meetings to practice and refine their leadership skills.
Effective role models and mentors also may contribute to building the quiet confidence and self-assurance that’s essential to successful careers. Women who stayed in their tech career attributed their long-term success to their own grit and determination (30%) and nearly all (94%) said they are confident or very confident in their ability to find a solution to difficult tech problems.16
Perhaps Rohatgi said it best: “I could not have been successful in my career without the support of like-minded, strong, ambitious women.”
Kristi Lamar, US women in tech leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP, and Jim Rowan, chief talent & operations officer, Analytics & Cognitive, Deloitte Consulting LLP
Like many of our clients, Deloitte is focusing on embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into every aspect of our enterprise. Our DEI journey began more than two decades ago to retain women in our workforce and increase women’s representation at leadership levels.
Today, our commitment to gender equity is stronger than ever; our goal is to increase our US workforce women representation to 45% by 2025.17 We now offer our people the option to self-identify their race, ethnicity, and gender so that we can craft programs to better serve their needs and evolve the DNA of our organisation to where equity is inherently part of our daily lives. As part of that commitment, we launched a strategic initiative focused on gender equity in technology led by Kristi Lamar.
Deloitte’s Women in Tech programme is informed by data insights, which drive our actions. Lamar says, “This year we’re launching a host of recruiting and retention approaches targeted to women in tech—from expanding Encore and other hire-to-train or train-to-hire programs, to launching innovative mentorship programs and other strategies that have been proven to work.”
There is no silver bullet, and no one has all the answers, so leadership in action, internal collaboration, and external partnerships are fundamental to developing effective approaches. She also collaborates with HR, Learning & Development, and practice talent leaders, such as Jim Rowan, who leads talent and operations for Deloitte Consulting’s Analytics & Cognitive (A&C) practice.
Lamar and Rowan are tackling gender bias from different angles, but they share a belief that a personalised approach is key to recruiting, developing, and retaining women in technology roles. When interviewing women for technology roles, Rowan explores the candidate’s wants and needs in relation to opportunities Deloitte can provide. Data can help talent leaders understand candidate personas and potential gaps, but it cannot end there. Rowan says, “While data informs, you have to get to know people to make a difference.” He emphasises the importance of not microsegmenting people based on a few data points, which may unintentionally exclude individuals from career opportunities.
Lamar is keen on asking “why not” more often than “why” when developing the women in tech strategy. She points out, “We need to question existing practises and think outside Deloitte’s traditional models to provide a more customised experience for women.” Also, by asking potential leaders what they are doing to advance DEI, she can help determine the level of their commitment to helping build an inclusive culture.
Lamar and Rowan are confident that by making changes—big and small—technology disciplines will become more inclusive for women and other underrepresented groups, creating a more equitable environment for all.
Our research and interviews with CIOs and technology leaders showcased some of the ways they are pushing the envelope beyond traditional approaches for recruiting and retaining women and other underrepresented groups. But this is just the beginning—more work lies ahead.
Opportunities for reassessing talent models and practices abound, especially when clearly laid out against objectives, to address current gaps. As the tech culture continues to shed its reputation for gender-bias and lack of diversity at all levels, CIOs and their teams are well positioned to initiate meaningful steps toward cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion within tech—providing women such as Aniyah the pathway to rejoin and thrive in a technology career.
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