When people call the dean’s office of Campbell University’s engineering department, Jenna Carpenter might pick up the phone. When they tell her they’d like to speak with the dean, they’re often surprised to learn they’re already speaking with her.
“They’re calling the engineering dean and they assume the engineering dean is a man,” Carpenter said. “So when they hear a woman’s voice, they assume I’m the secretary. I’ll tell you, this happens to me on a near-daily basis.”
It’s an example of the kind of implicit bias that many people carry without even realizing it, she told attendees of Cisco Live 2018. It can inevitably wend its way into the cultures of even well-meaning companies, especially in the male-dominated technology fields, creating atmospheres where women don’t feel supported — and don’t stick around.
Recruiting and retaining women is a problem for talent-starved technology departments in companies of every size, and it’s likely to get bigger as the professional workforce changes over time. For companies to compete, building a more diverse technology workforce is not just the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative, Carpenter said.
The Demographics of the Workforce Are Changing Fast
The reason is demographics. After 20 years of steady increase in the number of Americans graduating high school, that number has begun declining as millennials enter the workforce.
Over the next few years, the pool of newly graduated candidates ready to enter tech jobs will become shallower. Also, a much higher percentage of those candidates will be women, as they increasingly outpace men in both entering and graduating from college.
Talent is a numbers game, Carpenter said, and the numbers don’t favor companies whose technology departments can’t find ways to attract and retain women.
Women hold only 24 percent of all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States, even though they comprise 47 percent of the overall workforce, according to the Commerce Department. Women also make up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree-holders and are less likely than male STEM degree-holders to get a job in the field.
Carpenter said research into women who hold STEM degrees, but didn’t enter the field, found that a full 33 percent said that their exposure to the industry led them to conclude the culture is inflexible or unsupportive of women.
Among women who did enter a STEM-related job but left, half cited working conditions that were too grueling or offered little advancement opportunity, while one-third cited workplace cultures that were hostile or unsupportive.
“All that Silicon Valley ‘bro’ culture, that just drives women away,” she said.
How to Attract and Retain Women in Technology
Carpenter noted that companies seeking to attract more women to their technology workforces need to pay careful attention to the unique expectations of millennials. That’s because millennials comprise about half the workforce already and will make up about 75 percent by 2025. Women also represent a higher percentage of professional millennials.
Millennials are demanding a much different kind of working experience than their parents and grandparents encountered. They place greater value on work-life balance, and they insist on having a job where they feel like they’re making an impact — and quickly.
“Millennials aren’t willing to spend five years working somewhere to prove themselves to some baby boomer in order to do something important,” Carpenter said. “They will leave. They’re willing to say sayonara to that six-figure income if they don’t like the culture. I’m a child of Depression-era parents. That makes no sense to me. But it’s how they feel.”
They’re also deeply committed to working for companies that share their values. When word got out that Google had signed a contract with the Defense Department to conduct artificial intelligence work, about 4,000 employees signed a petition denouncing the deal, and Google agreed not to renew it.
Carpenter also advised that companies broaden their recruiting efforts by reaching out to professional societies catering to women and other underrepresented groups and by visiting a wider array of universities, including small schools.
“You don’t have to go to a big school to find great talent,” she said. “There are lots of resources for talent. If you keep looking in the same places, you’re gonna keep finding the same thing.”
Read articles and check out videos from BizTech coverage of Cisco Live 2018 here.