How to attract more women in tech (and get them to stay)

Lekha George, Head of People and Communities for ASEAN and Korea, Cisco, says the first step is to provide exposure to the next generation to experience what it’s like to work in tech. 

The world is celebrating the 10th anniversary of International Girls in ICT Day on 22 April 2021. While people and organisations take this chance to celebrate the role that women play in the tech industry, it is also worth taking a moment to reflect on both the progress we have made in advancing gender diversity as well as the issues that still need to be addressed.

In Southeast Asia, the proportion of women working in tech is higher than the global average and ahead of more mature countries such as the US and UK. Women account for 32% of Southeast Asia’s tech workforce compared to the global average of 28%, according to a report by BCG and Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority in October last year.

At Cisco, our workforce is the most diverse it has been since we began tracking diversity in 1998. Globally, women make up 27% of our workforce today, up from 23% in 2015.

While these figures show progress, there is still plenty of room for improvement. In particular, we still see fewer women than men in leadership. It is heartening to see that at Cisco, women account for 24% of our employees in Vice President positions and higher in 2020, up from 19% in 2015.

While having systems and measurements in place to attract more women into the tech industry, the question we need to ask ourselves is, how do we make women stay and empower them to become tomorrow’s leaders?

Start them young

Firstly, we can provide exposure to the next generation to experience what it’s like to work in tech. Younger generations these days are no strangers to tech; we can ignite passion for the industry by allowing them to catch a glimpse of how technology innovations they see every day are developed and brought to market or, better yet, let them participate in the process.

Tech companies can collaborate with schools and non-government organisations to target girls, including those from underprivileged groups, and encourage them to explore the world of tech and pursue an education in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

As a part of our efforts to celebrate women in tech, Cisco is celebrating International Girls in ICT Day by holding a series of free virtual events from 1 April. These include a Cybersecurity Learn-A-Thon which helps girls and women see the opportunities STEM skills can bring to their futures, and allows them to hear from women who have created a successful career in tech.

Culture and advocacy

Getting more women to take up a career in tech is the next step. Despite the progress over the past decade, women are still the minority in the tech industry. Male-dominant or even misogynistic work cultures in some companies can deter women. It is therefore critical for companies to foster cultures that promote diversity and inclusion, in addition to policies that guarantee equitable recruitment and pay.

One way to help amplify the voice of women in tech is by finding champions who are willing to speak for and advance the cause.

Since 2014, we have been running Women Rock IT programme in the Asia Pacific region, motivating young people to consider STEM subjects through inspiring live online broadcasts and blogs from women IT professionals and entrepreneur role models who have made a career in tech.

By the end of 2020, the programme, featuring 89 female speakers, had reached an audience of 1.5mn people. As a result of this programme, more than 690,000 girls have enrolled in technology courses with Cisco Networking Academy, a skills-to-job programme providing people with the opportunity to learn tech skills, at their own pace and even at home. In 2020, 26% of our Networking Academy students globally were female.

An inclusive culture also contributes to the retention and upward movement of women. Companies need to have policies and practices in place that encourage employees, regardless of gender, to have open conversations with their supervisors about their needs, concerns and aspirations, and have programmes that address these needs.

Leadership support is crucial; at Cisco, we are committed and focused on building extraordinary leaders across the full spectrum of diversity in every function and in every region. We drive leadership development programmes, including global programmes like JUMP and DARE Women’s Development Programme, that empower women to create bold career visions, think strategically and reach their career goals.

In ASEAN we are currently piloting a six-month mentorship programme with Tigerhall, a mentor media platform connecting a select group of women employees with leading business leaders who share actionable insights and personalised interactive experiences in bite-sized, digital on-demand formats. Through this experience they have an additional opportunity to learn and be supported in their journey to become future leaders.

A virtuous cycle of empowerment

Technology companies can play a critical role in engaging the youth, career seekers and employees to motivate and enable more women to contribute to and lead the industry. In so doing, we can also empower women to in turn empower other women.

Our Women in Cisco community is a great example of how women can band together to support each other. What started in 1997 as an Employee Resource Organisation with only a few members has grown into a network of more than 4,000 Cisco employees who participate in mentoring, networking events, and community give-backs in nearly 40 countries.

The rise of communities like these, coupled with support from business leaders and governments, will surely pave the way for a more gender diverse and inclusive future for our industry.

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