The IT revolution has redefined the boundaries of business by ushering in an era of rapid change and innovation in a global market place. Yet within the sector itself, progress in tackling one of the business world’s oldest and most stubborn prejudices has been sluggish at best. Even in the world’s wealthiest nations women are sorely under-represented in the technology sector both at the development level and in the boardroom. In some countries, including the U.S., women’s participation in technology and science is actually declining.
However, among the new generation of tech companies are those committed to tearing down the barriers to greater participation for women, convinced that the way forward from both a social and a business perspective is greater diversity.
One company that goes further than most is software developers ThoughtWorks, which has placed diversity at the core of its hiring policy. For ThoughtWorks, diversity is a key aspect of its three pillars – championing social and economic justice. “We take seriously this idea of being a role model for a humane corporation,” said ThoughtWorks’ Head of Recruiting Suzi Edwards-Alexander. “And you can’t begin to say that you are doing that if you’re not building great diversity and inclusivity programs into your business.”
For ThoughtWorks, this commitment ranks as a higher priority than short term growth and revenues. “We have chosen a path of growth that’s have been metered because we want to make sure we hire the right people for all the right reasons,” said Sidney Pinney, a ThoughtWorks director. “We have walked away from substantial revenue opportunities because we haven’t been able to hire the right personnel quickly enough, and we are okay with that.”
Research Reports Favor Women Participation
However, an ever-growing body of research shows that better representation of women and a more diverse working environment not only brings broader social benefits but also make sense from a cold, hard business perspective. Increased diversity, the research suggests, not only generates better results in innovation, organization and eventually revenues but could also become essential for businesses looking to adapt to the demands of an ever-changing business environment.
Some of the benefits to a more diverse workplace, such as better representation of end users within a company, are self-evident if rarely discussed. “Given they represent a significant proportion of the ultimate market, it is imperative that companies ensure that they leverage women engineers in their technology efforts,” said Karin Nauth-Shelley, who since becoming Global Marketing Vice President of Argentina-based ITO company Belatrix, has witnessed first-hand the benefits of working in a software company where over 40% of engineers and around 50% of management are women.
Outside of these obvious benefits, it has become popular to highlight the business benefits of supposedly inherent female characteristics, such as being more being more empathic and caring.
However, those at the sharp end of the push for diversity warn against reading too much into such generalizations. “One of the things that frustrated me was that even some of the most passionate advocates for diversity would talk about things like how women are better communicators, or they make things fluffy and happy,” said Edwards-Alexander.
Women and Business
A study carried out by Lehman Brothers Center for Women in Businesses supports the idea that it is little more than a myth that women bring inherently feminine traits to a business. In Innovative Potential: Men and Women in Teams, researchers analyzed differences between women and men’s attitudes in a broad range of areas including sensitivity, inclusiveness and approach to work and careers.
Although the findings showed a marked difference in areas related to work-life balance, there was no notable difference in other areas. “Men and women do not inhabit different planets at work. In fact they inhabit the same planet – planet Earth,” the report concludes.
Instead, value is generated simply from creating a diverse environment. Researchers analyzed the influence of diversity on several critical drivers of innovation such as boundary spanning, knowledge transfer and experimentation. The results showed that the optimal gender balance was a 50/50 split in all areas except self-confidence, where the optimal level was 60% women.
The findings reflect the experiences of those working in companies that have taken up this approach. “Diversity adds great value to the work that we do with clients,” said Nauth-Shelley. “As engineers who are helping clients develop software products there is a much more balanced perspective that a diverse workforce brings to the table. I think that gets built into the collaboration that takes place within the team and that gets built into the end product.”
Diversity: Need of The Hour
Better diversity also improves employee performance and satisfaction according to the study, which highlighted how both men and women suffered equally when in a minority. “Those in a gender minority tend to report lower life satisfaction, more negative moods and lower commitment to the organization,” it states.
Edwards-Alexander agrees that being in a minority can have a severe psychological impact, highlighting it as one of the reasons for the poor retention of women who begin careers in IT. “It’s really hard when you don’t see anyone who is like you,” she said. “It makes you question whether you can be successful.”
While the Lehman Brothers study focused on the impact of diversity on innovation on a team level, other research suggests improving the representation of women at a managerial level can also have a significant impact on a company’s performance.
Research by management consultants McKinsey shows a strong correlation between the presence of women in corporate management teams and companies’ organizational and financial performance.
McKinsey researchers analyzed gender differences in nine managerial leadership behaviors identified as improving organizational performance, such as being a role model, control and corrective action and efficient communication. In contrast to the parity in the Lehman Brothers report, the results found significant differences between the sexes, with women found to apply five of the behaviors more frequently than men, compared to two from men.
The study then examined long-term global trends affecting the corporate landscape and asked experts which of the leadership behaviors would be most effective in meeting coming challenges. Of the four values that consistently topped the list – intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision making, and expectations and rewards – all except the first are characteristics more likely to be demonstrated by women.
Like ThoughtWorks, businesses that have already begun the long process of the cultural change required to instill the values of diversity have often done so out of social awareness. However, as this research shows, these companies are now likely to have a competitive advantage over companies stuck with early 20th century attitudes in a 21st century sector.