How can we stop women from leaving the tech industry?

How do we connect, empower and inspire more women to pursue and grow a career in tech? Hold a conference for them of course. 

The Girls in Tech Conference is an annual affair of connection and empowerment, bringing women and allies in the tech community together, for a day of camaraderie. The conference, in its 5th year, catalyses conversations promoting women in STEM, stirring inspiration. With a suite of keynote speakers, it was evident there was no shortage of passion fuelling women working in the tech industry. 

This year, DiUS hosted a workshop to highlight the sticky issue of women being under-represented in the technology industry. Did you know, women make up 29% of the tech workforce in Australia, compared to 47% in similar occupations in the professional, scientific and technical services industry (according to a report by the Australian Computer Society). 

So we asked – How can we stop women from leaving the tech industry? 

We were joined by a passionate panel; Nicole Tzavaras, Head of People Experience at DiUS, Sara ‘Moose’ van de Moosdijk, Senior AI/ML Partner Solutions Architect at AWS, and Paula Burton, CEO and Co-Founder at Mass Dynamics. 

We opened by asking the audience how long they had been in the industry, as a sort of “temperature check” of the industry. We were delighted (and surprised) to see a swarm of hands in the air when we asked if anyone had been in the industry for over 10 years – as palms shot proudly to the sky – a resounding support that women in tech are very much here to stay. 

What followed was an hour of vulnerability and celebration between our audience and panel, both sharing their experiences in the tech industry from imposter syndrome to salary negotiations, as questions slid in thick and fast. 

Our curious audience asked us 30 questions and while we tried to answer all in the moment, there were many more to unpack. To continue the conversation, we asked our panel to share their thoughts and tangible advice.

What steps do you believe organisations can take to address unconscious bias and gender assumptions to create a more inclusive work environment for women in tech?

Moose: Investing in unconscious bias training and making it mandatory for everyone in the organisation can make a big difference. Most people (of any gender) don’t realise how much unconscious bias they have, and well-designed training can help them identify their own bias. If an organisation is not ready to invest in training created by third-party vendors, then they could still organise internal training through honest conversation. Give women the opportunity to speak or write about their experience, anonymously if necessary. Encourage men to listen/read and ask questions.   

Nicole: It all starts with awareness and conversation. You could roll out unconscious bias training as Moose suggested, however there is also a lot of free resources and material available online so regardless of size of organisation or budget, there are actions that can be taken. The most tangible steps are having conversations with your team on what unconscious bias is, creating safe spaces for women to talk about the bias they experience and creating permission to call it out when it’s seen. The key here is encouraging men to understand how their actions and behaviour may actually be causing a negative experience, and gain their interest in wanting to change for the better.

Why do you think women need to differentiate themselves in the tech industry? Is our quality of work not sufficient? 

Nicole: Women’s quality of work is just as amazing as the quality of work from anyone else. I think women have responded to the cultural challenges and bias in the tech industry by trying to differentiate themselves e.g. by trying to act like one of the guys or show more “masculine” traits. Ultimately, if we were more accepting of the different ways people get the job done, there wouldn’t be a need to differentiate at all. The focus needs to be on inclusivity and outcomes. 

As one of very few females in a small male-dominated company who has tried to give feedback on the importance of gender and also cultural diversity, what advice would you give someone who is trying to affect positive change from the ground up?

Moose: I would recommend finding like-minded colleagues to help you, of any gender. It is difficult to affect change when you are the only person raising your voice. See if you can identify colleagues who share the same opinion and would be willing to back you up and provide feedback alongside you. 

Nicole: Keep trying, don’t be discouraged and don’t give up. Consider finding some people that understand where you’re coming from and can help with the cause – are there HR type people there you can also chat to? Your leverage needs to be with someone who you have a relationship with – someone who knows you, respects you, values what you have to say. Ideally you have this relationship with your manager. Is there feedback that can be shared anonymously e.g. an All Hands, an engagement survey? 

Is there a specific vertical/industry you recommend to explore for someone who’s interested in tech, but also wanting something more creative ie. fashion/retail?

Moose: I believe you can be creative in any role or vertical/industry. However, industries like gaming, sports, retail, professional services, education, and tourism might be more open to creativity than highly regulated industries like finance. 

Nicole: Any creative industry will have tech teams so you could literally work in any industry you like. If you’re looking for creativity in your work, you could consider professional services (consulting) or exploring web design / UI.

What are the best platforms/ways to research company cultures and their people policies? 

Nicole: You could start by looking at the ‘best of’ lists which require companies to survey staff and answer cultural questions in order to achieve a ranking – Great Place To Work, Work 180, AFR Boss are a few good ones. If you’re researching a specific company, you should check what information they are sharing on their socials as this can also be a good indication of what’s important to them (e.g. LinkedIn pages, Instagram, Twitter) and you should also check Glassdoor for anonymous reviews. Be mindful that not every company will have great marketing teams that share good content or budget to get on one of the ‘best of’ lists, so connecting with people who work at that organisation or asking your questions during an interview process is also really beneficial.

If your manager told you months ago about a pay rise, when and how do you follow up? 

Nicole: Follow up ASAP. Personally, I would send an email or message first so they have time to prepare for it in your next one/one, reference the previous conversation and that you’d like to discuss it further. If you don’t have a regular one/one with your manager coming up, schedule it in. 

Moose: Bring it up as soon as possible. Ask your manager to provide a timeline for the pay rise. Next time, I would ask for the timeline as soon as your manager agrees to a pay rise. 

You mentioned that we should ask for a salary that is worth our worth. What is a good way to find out how much you are worth? It feels like the scale is very wide and depends on a lot of factors.

Nicole: This one is very tricky as it does depend on a lot of factors – product vs consulting, startup vs large corporate. Each company will have their own salary bands & budgets too. Plus, salaries in the Australian tech industry have had a massive inflation in the last 18 months so current salaries aren’t sustainable and I anticipate they will dip in the coming year. My advice would be to connect with 2-3 good recruiters – the ones that make you feel like you aren’t just another person helping hit their targets, the ones that care to learn about who you are, what you are looking for, and help place you in an organisation that suits you. Ask those recruiters for a salary range based on your skills & experience, and that should be a good starting point.

I’ve considered leaving the tech industry due to its overly “fun” or casual culture that clashes with my busy life as a mum with a young child. Any advice on this?

Nicole: You don’t need a new industry, you need a new organisation. One that is more inclusive and accepts that everyone has different needs and not all of them can do fun, casual, after work related activities. There’s plenty of them out there that are happy enough for you to do an amazing job and then log off to live your life!

A huge issue I’ve seen is women being promoted into leadership roles and then being micromanaged or expected to operate like a man. Any experiences here?

Nicole: There is a different way of operating as an individual contributor to a leader, and one of the first lessons is to clearly understand what is required not just of you as a new leader, but also the team you are leading. What are the key goals for you and the team, what does your manager want you to achieve in the coming 3-12 months, what does success look like? You may need to take control of this narrative to get these answers, but once you have clarity and begin delivering, my experience is that the micro-management will lessen, and there won’t be expectation for you to work in any other way besides your own. Even if there are expectations on how you should act, it’s ultimately on you to show up the way you want. Just make sure you know what you’re doing, there is alignment around that with your manager, and you’re delivering on what’s being asked. With that comes trust, and the freedom to do what needs to be done.

I’m just starting in tech and would love to know what the salaries are like (number ranges) in different levels in tech? 

Nicole: There aren’t set salaries to share unfortunately as this depends on so many different factors. This one will need you to do some work and research – connect with a few recruiters and/or a few HR folks for a conversation – happy to chat one/one.

Do you think having more relaxed maternity leave policies at times makes smaller organisations wary of hiring young females?

Nicole: In my experience, I haven’t seen this kind of hesitation in a long time for a couple of reasons: 1 – In the tech industry, most organisations are looking to hire more women to help diversify their teams so they have learned this isn’t as big of an issue as they originally thought, and 2 – We are seeing more men take up parental leave as a primary carer, so it’s no longer about the risk of hiring a woman who might then be away for 12 months. Women may only be away for a few months and their partner may take more time away – depending on the personal and financial situations of each family.  

We have also come a long way in understanding discrimination and most leaders know now this is not only illegal, it also doesn’t make good business sense, and they will lose good candidates able to perform the role if they only want to hire men. If anything, my experience is that both men and women are wary of organisations that don’t have parental leave policies in place, although there are quite a few of them – WGEA reported in 2022 that only 60% of companies provided parental leave policies. 

Thoughts on why people hiring for tech roles bring in men who are used to hiring men – what can we do to change this? 

Nicole: I think this is a pipeline issue – there aren’t a lot of senior women in tech so more often than not it’ll be senior men who are hiring and this is where affinity bias creeps in – we gravitate to people who are similar to ourselves, who we “like” or “connect” with. This is one of the reasons why there should be more diversity in the people making the selection decisions – not just women but people with different backgrounds and experiences too.

Moose: I believe every candidate should be interviewed by a diverse panel. This should be part of the hiring guidelines and an organisation should make every effort to include interviewers of different gender, age, and role. Unfortunately this requires conscious effort, so if possible, bring it up in your organisation and try to affect change. 

Given the return-to-work directives can disadvantage women significantly more than men, what can organisations do to retain female talent?

Moose: I think organisations need to be flexible. Return-to-work mandates will likely result in a loss of workforce talent these days. Have a conversation with your employees and compromise. Discuss which days would work well for both parties and make the office an attractive place to be. 

Nicole: Research is showing that the purpose, connection or belonging are the key benefits for working together in an office, offsite etc – e.g. your brain actually works better creatively when you are working alongside an individual, in a workshop, brainstorming session, whiteboard session etc. So organisations need to help people understand why they want people in the office, and ensure that if people are going to the trouble then it is a valuable experience for them. Be flexible with allowing employees to choose days that work for their life schedule, unless there is a specific need – e.g. a team strategy day or project workshop. Or create opportunities for people to connect – meeting new colleagues, morning tea, team lunches, social club activities, team bonding activities etc.

Do you think women are held to a higher standard than men in the workplace? If yes, what can we do about it?

Nicole: I don’t think women are held to a higher standard, but I do think that women need to talk themselves up more. Research shows that women are typically more head down and expect rewards (salary, promotion) for being hard working and don’t make a song and dance about how good we are. We need to make more of a song and dance, and make people pay attention to the high standards of work we are already producing.

Do you think the next generation of workers are better equipped to solve the gender gap in tech?

Nicole: I think the next generation of workers will be more motivated to resolve the gender pay gap – there is a lot more acceptance than 30 years ago across so many different facets, and I think they will be a much more inclusive bunch. 

Moose: Awareness of inclusion and diversity has increased and more companies are having conversations about it. In my experience, colleagues from all generations have actively participated in driving this change.

Do you think women get stereotyped more? One incompetent/struggling woman builds a reputation that then takes several others to undo? While a man being incompetent is an individual issue?

Nicole: Unfortunately I think this does still happen, and this is very much what unconscious bias is about, and the various types of bias that women experience. It’s about creating awareness and not making assumptions about any individual. 

Which is more effective? Leadership addressing the issue of ‘women leaving tech’ or the entire organisation trying to address the issue? 

Nicole: Both angles are important for different reasons. Leadership needs to set the tone for what’s expected, model the behaviour and support the efforts of the collective. But inclusivity needs to happen at all levels in order to achieve genuine equality – particularly in large organisations with many layers. If everyone in the organisation focuses on awareness, inclusion and has an openness to learn new ways of working, this will go a long way.

Moose: Ideally, leadership should set an example for everyone else. Realistically, they sometimes need a push in the right direction. The entire organisation should make it clear that diversity is an issue they care about. If enough people raise their voice, leadership will usually provide support.

How do women become part of the conversation? In meetings it can be the male dominating the conversation. How can we enter the conversation and be heard and our opinion valued? 

Nicole: Have a think about what’s holding you back on getting involved in the conversation – are you the type of person that likes to digest information and internalise it before sharing your opinion? If that’s the case, you need to find a way to insert it afterwards e.g. in a follow up call or summary. Perhaps you need to start with your manager so they know you are keen to increase your presence and insert your voice, and they may need to help with that – e.g. prompting your contribution in the call. If people aren’t expecting it from you, it’s hard to start – but once you do, it’s like a habit and people will seek it out. If you want your voice to be heard, you need to speak up, and be thoughtful about what you need/want to say.

Moose: There are a couple of things you can try. If there is a natural pause in the conversation, clear your throat or start saying something. Hopefully the other people in the conversation are polite enough to notice and circle back to you even if they interrupted you at first. If this doesn’t work and you are in a virtual meeting, see if the software has a hand raising function. Sometimes I will even physically raise my hand on video or when we’re sitting in the same room. You are not interrupting anyone by doing so, but you are making it clear that you want to speak. If you feel uncomfortable raising your hand, find a colleague you trust and ask them to make an effort to include you. 

A strong minded woman or strong women with an opinion/opposing opinions when voiced can be viewed as controlling or difficult to work with. How do we handle this? 

Nicole: Take a step back and think about how you’re coming across, and how you want to come across. In my experience, this can sometimes happen when women are trying to act like men to have their voice heard, and you may find you’re overusing some masculine traits. If it’s not an over-use of a masculine trait, you need to think about who you are conversing with and the different communication tactics to use so you are heard and there is effective communication happening on both sides.

What have been great initiatives that you’ve heard of that promote, provide and advocate inclusivity for women in tech? 

Nicole: From an external perspective, I have recently come across a leadership development program called Women Rising Program backed by Microsoft, it’s a combination of modular learning, coaching calls and reflective homework. 

At a more tangible and internal perspective, one of the most valuable initiatives I have seen is a women sponsorship & advocacy program – each senior leader is paired with a woman for either mentoring or sponsorship – there is dedicated time each month for career conversations, goal alignment, talk through challenges, general mentorship etc. And the senior leader represents them in discussions regarding internal role movements, promotions, succession planning etc.

Moose: I like the SheDares program because it provides information about different roles in the tech industry (not just “techy” roles) and encourages women to consider how their existing skills can be applied in tech. I have also seen various external and internal mentorship programs be effective at encouraging women to join or stay in tech. 

As a female professional in the tech industry, we sometimes face male chauvinism. If you have ever faced that, how would you approach it? To what extent can it be confronted? 

Nicole: Unfortunately I have faced this one too, and you need to find your way of confronting this kind of behaviour depending on who it is and what kind of relationship you have with them. You can call it out when it happens publicly, or you can call it out privately to the individual, or you can call it out to that person’s manager privately if it is a serious issue or there are bigger implications. My personal approach is a private conversation or message – keep it objective and stick to the facts but let them know how you feel.

Does anyone else feel isolated, being the only female on an all male team? 

Moose: I have often been the only female on an all male team. My approach is to find the similarities and shared interests. I feel less isolated when I know that Brad also likes reading fantasy books, Josh also likes playing board games, and Ankur also loves dogs. When a new position opens up on your team, see if you have any women in your network whom you can refer. If possible, volunteer to help with the interviewing process. I have found that having one woman on the team can help attract more women to join. 

As you can see from the range of questions we received, it’s so very obvious this isn’t a ‘cupcake matter’ – nor is one day on the corporate calendar going to address the systemic issues facing women in tech. 

We hope these conversations can inspire organisational awareness and offer applicable advice to facilitate support for women working in the tech industry. 

As a proud sponsor of Girls in Tech Australia, we’re thankful for the opportunity to host these conversations and share our insights – and if you’re a woman in tech, we hope it’s inspired you to stay in this industry and we can’t wait to see what you innovate. 

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