What This Leadership Expert Learned About Retaining Women in Tech

JJ DiGeronimo

One doesn’t have to have worked in tech for very long to conclude the industry has a diversity problem. Whether it’s the lack of female faces at conferences or the abysmal diversity statistics released by tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, it’s quite clear to anyone with two eyes that tech workers are overwhelmingly white and male.

JJ DiGeronimo has witnessed this continuing trend first hand. After graduating with a computer information systems degree in 1995, she spent two decades in tech, half of which were in Silicon Valley. In 2008 she founded a group called Tech Savvy Women, and as she met with hundreds of women within the industry she began to truly understand the systemic barriers that make it not only difficult for women to embark in tech careers, but also to continue advancing up the corporate ladder. “I learned that these women’s groups serve a purpose by providing a safe haven and a place where they feel understood,” she said in an interview. “But I also realized that a lot of these women then go back to the same teams and the same leadership at their companies, and unfortunately there are dynamics that are different for men and women that end up getting in the way of their success.”

So in 2015, DiGeronimo decided to tackle the problem more directly, setting up a consultancy that would allow her to work with companies that want to get serious about recruiting, retaining, and advancing more female leaders. “I work with male executives about 50 percent of the time and the rest is spent working with women,” she explained. “We identify the business goal they’re looking to accomplish, and then we work on strategies that are rooted in research to help them facilitate conversations, activities, and projects that really foster the kind of culture that leads to more diverse organizations at all levels.”

Through her research, DiGeronimo has identified a number of strategies companies can adopt when trying to attract and promote female workers, as well approaches individual women can take to enhance their own careers. Here are three of them to get a sense of her work and impact:

How you word a job description matters

One of the biggest problems companies face is just getting enough female candidates to apply for an open position. What they don’t realize, however, is that how they’re advertising a job might prevent women from applying. “Women only apply for jobs when they’re 100 percent qualified because they don’t want to let people down,” DiGeronimo said, citing a study from HP. “Men apply if they’re 60 percent qualified. What happens is that if you post a three-page job description then you don’t get a diverse application pool, meaning no women.”

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So DiGeronimo works with clients to pare down their job descriptions to a single page and use more “comparative language.” “Basically we try to say something to the effect of, ‘If you’ve done this task at your job before then you’re qualified.’” She also tells them to avoid certain modifiers that are boastful and self-aggrandizing. “Women don’t boast about their skillsets,” she explained. “So if you use words like ‘high achiever’ and ‘rockstar,’ these are terms you should avoid when trying to attract female talent.”

Don’t assume doing a good job will get you promoted

DiGeronimo said that women often subscribe to the (wrong) assumption that if they do a job well then naturally they’ll be considered for promotion. But according to her research, women need to be more proactive in nurturing their careers if they want to advance. “They really need to work on bundling their value, and this means doing more than just the work they’re currently responsible for,” she said. “They have to do a good job in the work they do today, but they have to be relevant based on where they want to go tomorrow.”

To accomplish this, DiGeronimo recommends three approaches. The first is for women to work on nurturing their networks. “People that recommend and promote you are the ones who help you advance,” she said. “And so you can’t just network with the people you work with in your department; you have to find ways to get out and invest in your network. Women do a good job of networking across their level, while men do a good job of networking above their level.”

DiGeronimo’s second recommendation is that women gain a better understanding of the industry marketplace. “It’s about reading articles, joining relevant groups, and being in conversations that allow you to stretch your knowledge and access,” she said. “ Especially in areas where you want to expand your impact, you have to understand how you’re going to get there, who’s already there, what do they do, and how you’re going to increase your relevance in that area.”

The third approach is to find a sponsor. “Those are people in your network who will leverage their social capital to help you advance,” DiGeronimo said. “They’ll make a phone call on your behalf, they will send an email for you. They’ll get you at the right table.”

How you manage women matters

Of course a female employee can take every step to advance her career and it’ll still have little effect if the managers above her aren’t primed to train and engage her skills. According to Gallup, about 50 percent of employees have quit their job at some point to get away from their boss. “It’s absolutely critical to the process to make sure you have managers that are invested in the growth and impact of your diverse talent,” said DiGeronimo. “A lot of managers don’t get training on this. They’re great individual contributors and then they go into management and they don’t know how to manage people, and it’s important to have managers who are educated on differences between men and women at work and well versed in why women stay and why women leave.”

As an example of how a manager can better motivate a female employee, DiGeronimo suggests framing projects in reference to the impact they’ll have. “Women want to know why their work matters in the bigger picture,” she explained. “And if they do a good job, what will their opportunities be in 12 to 24 months? So you have active discussions with your key contributors to let them know there are opportunities beyond the role they’re in today. They have to know their jobs matters, that they’re not just creating an application, but that this application will somehow impact the world. They want to know there are values beyond just the individual project and there’s a path for advancement.”

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The diversity in tech issue is not one that will be solved overnight, but it’s one the industry is taking seriously. Every day we read about a company rolling out a major program to “fix” their diversity program, and some have seen success. But DiGeronimo stressed that a company doesn’t have to upend its entire culture to produce meaningful change. “It really doesn’t take a lot, you don’t have to revamp the entire program,” she said. “It’s the small things they can do in their organizations to engage, retain, and advance key talent.”

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