20 ways to empower women in tech

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By Melanie Ewan, Espresso

If you are a woman in tech, you’ve likely experienced the isolating effect of being the only woman in a room rife with bro culture, and you’re no doubt aware of the low number of women entering and staying in the industry. This isn’t a new problem; globally, women consistently make up less than 20 per cent of tech leadership roles. While statistics like this may be discouraging, the only sure-fire way to ensure nothing changes is to stop trying.

Encourage a life-cycle approach

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While there has been an uptick in funds and programs to support women in tech, many of these opportunities are aimed at executives and founders. In its recent research, Women in Tech World exposed key gaps along the entire tech career life cycle in Canada, starting from the time girls are first introduced to gender roles and continuing throughout their education, first job, and all the way up the ladder. This research shows that in addition to executive support, there needs to be a concerted effort to support entry-level and middle management women in tech.

Audit your images

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The images that you choose to represent a story, brand, product, or service shape how people view the make-up of that space and story. If all the images are of one particular gender, ethnicity, or ability, those who don’t identify with that group will feel excluded. This is one of the core reasons that tech is still seen as a field for Caucasian and Asian men and “nerds.” While it’s time-consuming to source stock images that reflect diverse teams and communities, they do exist. Better yet, create your own images that depict diversity, and contribute them to stock image banks.

Assess your approach

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Diversity and inclusion initiatives shouldn’t be checkboxes on a to-do list. As stated in a recent report by Women in Tech World, “unconscious bias training seems to be at the top of every company list; however, [this] is only effective if leadership is willing to create real actionable change and challenge their own biases.“ Before you initiate a new program or policy, assess how it will impact your company’s culture and create lasting change. Talk to your community about what the current gaps really are and consider bringing in an expert or facilitator to guide your team through the process.

Nominate a woman in your life

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Nominating a woman in your life for an award or some form of recognition not only showcases that woman’s achievements and empowers her to talk about them, but also garners visibility and provides a new role model for the next generation of women in tech. Not sure where to start? Simply Google “women in tech awards.”

Celebrate International Women’s Day

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Every year during the week of March 8, marches, events, and programs take place around the globe that are specifically designed to advance women and girls. While these aren’t just about tech, and each group and initiative has its own focus or theme, this is a great time of year to ask questions and start conversations about systemic barriers women are experiencing in your life and community.

Sponsor a woman in your network

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While mentorship gets a lot of attention for its potential to support and empower, research has shown that an even more impactful route for women and minorities is sponsorship. An article published on Glassdoor likens sponsors to your “career champions”; those who will not only provide advice, as a mentor would, but will also actively elevate your career by recommending you for key opportunities.

Tell true stories

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As activist Marian Wright Edelman once said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This still rings true for many women in tech who are faced with a male-dominated (and predominantly Caucasian) industry. While it’s great that we’re seeing more women in empowered roles in movies and TV, the value of real-life, relatable role models is even more profound. In an interview with the Guardian, Stemettes co-founder Anne-Marie Imafidon spoke of her own experience as the only young black woman in the room and her desire for more role models for young women in tech.

Hire from outside your network

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While it’s tempting to hire from within your network, this practice bakes bias into the hiring process. One way to empower more women in tech is to open the playing field and dedicate at least a portion of interview slots to those from outside internal networks, particularly if the executive or hiring team isn’t diverse itself. Not sure where to start? As reported in the Guardian, there are crowdsourcing tools available that are built to address this issue, and these can be used strategically as one method to offset network bias.

Model inclusive behaviour

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As covered by BizWomen, research shows that a key element to building a diverse and inclusive culture is to get buy-in from executives. Those at the top need to start conversations, approach with curiosity, and be willing to audit themselves and their company to assess where things needs to change. One great way to foster this process is to provide coaching opportunities for executives to identify their weak spots and ask questions.

Back it up

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It sometimes feels like every second article is about diversity and inclusion, but in reality, there is a lack of qualitative and intersectional research that is action-oriented and considers a lifetime approach (i.e., is not just focused on leaders). There are a number of organizations working on this, however, such as Progress Data, GenderScan, and #ShesGotThis. If you’re a woman in tech, you can add your voice to this kind of research and encourage those in your circles to do so as well.

Take an intersectional approach

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Intersectionality is the concept that identities (such as gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and so on) don’t exist in isolation and in fact create compounded barriers. This means that in order to build truly inclusive communities and teams, we need to acknowledge that gender is just one layer of the conversation, and invite and support continued conversations, research, and initiatives that address a comprehensive approach to diversity in tech.

Build or join a women’s network

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It’s surprising how often the value of women’s networks is still questioned and even considered a contentious subject. As evidenced by research from the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University, women are strongly impacted in their careers by the gender make-up of their network, with those who maintain a woman-dominated inner circle faring better than those who do not. Luckily, there are myriad women’s tech groups, including GeekGirlMeetup, Digital Nomad Girls, Women Who Code, and Locelle.

Bring her along

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Looking for one easy step to empower a woman in your network? Bring her to the next tech training, conference, or networking event that you attend. A fantastic phenomenon has been the trend of making conference attendance more accessible through special ticket pricing for women in tech. Web Summit, Collision conference, and MoneyConf, for instance, have all issued a limited number of discounted tickets for women in tech.

Promote inclusive mentorship

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Providing mentorship opportunities for women and girls across age groups, sectors, and career levels is important for knowledge transfer and support for women in tech. Inclusive mentorship, however, means creating accessible programs outside of paid memberships and exclusive clubs. Consider setting up peer mentorship programs and inviting women in tech to speak in grade schools and universities in both metropolitan and rural communities.

Deliver accessible, consistent programming

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This can range from networking events and mastermind groups to skills training and certification, and will depend on your target audience. For instance, while your marketing and sales experts might want to learn more about coding, your programmers might be asking for leadership training. The key is to deliver the programming that your audience actually wants on a consistent basis and ensure that it’s financially accessible.

Define the first step

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In its qualitative report, Women in Tech World found that one of the barriers that keeps women in Canada from sticking it out in the industry is not knowing the first step to take to find programming, resources, training, networks, and jobs. Take a look at your community or company and consider conducting a quick audit to assess how soft the landing truly is for new members or employees. Is there a defined path to opportunities, networks, mentors, and career growth? If not, invest some time in developing this resource.

Provide resources for victims of harassment

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Knowing that you can report assault or harassment without fear of backlash is incredibly empowering, particularly when you work in a community where blackballing is pervasive or has occurred in the past. Speaking up can be especially difficult in small companies or towns where everyone knows each other and opportunities are scarce. Consider implementing an anonymous helpline or other resource to address this problem and ensure that everyone knows how to access it.

Speak up

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It’s easier said than done, but using your voice to advocate for women in tech is an incredibly powerful tool that’s too often neglected. Speaking up means creating more opportunities for women in tech—and not just for the famous and beloved ones—to have their voices heard on panels, in interviews, and in the media.

Be language aware

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Language is important, and it does have a negative impact when women are constantly referred to as “girls,” are talked down to or interrupted, and when messaging is overly gendered. In an interview with the Guardian, Jane Frankland, managing director of Cyber Security Capital and author, spoke of militaristic and aggressive language being a key reason why so many women leave the cybersecurity sector. The tricky part is that we often don’t realize we are using gendered or inappropriate language, so approach this one with curiosity and ask for guidance.

Acknowledge the barriers through action

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Perhaps one of the most valuable things you can do to advance women and girls in tech is to acknowledge that external barriers do exist—not just the oft-cited internal ones such as confidence and dedication—and that individuals, companies, and institutions must take steps to address these barriers. The first step is to start having conversations with women in tech, listen to what they have to say about their experiences, and begin testing out one initiative at a time.

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