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Step It Up, Silicon Valley

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Working women in Silicon Valley are the hot topic of late. Yahoo recently axed its telecommuting option, raising questions of the impact on working moms.  Sheryl Sandberg is encouraging women to “lean in.”  Marissa Mayer worked throughout a short maternity leave – and emphasized it publicly. Women are gaining ground in the gaming community, despite widely acknowledged sexism.

Silicon Valley’s female leaders are making more headlines and headway than ever before and yet stepping up and successfully recruiting and retaining women remains a tremendous challenge.

Both male and female leaders in the Valley want the tech and scientific space to appeal to women, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because we really, really need them.

The research is clear: having women on your teams in meaningful roles makes you better:

  • Just “1.3 percent of privately-held companies have a female founder, 6.5 percent have a female CEO, and 20 percent or more have one or more female C-level executives.”  (“Women at the Wheel”)
  • 61 percent of startups with five or more female executives were successful and 39 percent failed (“Women at the Wheel”)
  • Companies with the highest representation of women on management teams generate a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher return to shareholders.  (National Center for Women & Information Technology)
Polly Wood, Director of the Special Projects team, oversees the management of Reputation.com’s most complex and sophisticated case work.  Her clients include politicians, Fortune 100 companies and their executives. Photo credit to Reputation.com

Polly Wood, Director of the Special Projects team, oversees the management of Reputation.com’s most complex and sophisticated client work. Her clients include politicians, Fortune 100 companies and their executives. Photo credit to Reputation.com

Yet women are leaving the tech industry in depressing droves – 56 percent of mid-level technical women quit, which is twice the rate of their male colleagues and despite the fact that 76 percent of technical women overall say they “love their work,” says the NCWIT.

Fixing this requires more than just flexible policies like telecommuting (though statistics show these are both retention and productivity boosters).  Here’s what needs to happen:

Change the conversation. Language is a lens – it creates the framework to view an issue.  When you use inclusive language, you create a culture where women and men are on equal footing.  For example, it’s not the plight of the working mom – it’s the pressures on working parents.  When dads are treated as an afterthought in the corporate conversation on flexibility, it minimizes the importance of a father’s contributions to his family.  At the same time, it elevates men’s status in the workplace, communicating subtly that women are less integral and perhaps more expendable when they have children.

Make your case and create a space. Talk openly to your staff – male and female – about the coming gap in the availability of skilled tech workers and strong scientists.  Make it clear that without women, it will be even more challenging to find the right staff to empower your organization. Create a space where it’s comfortable to give and receive feedback – and implement what’s feasible.  An open culture that embraces and implements reasonable feedback is going to be an attractive place to work for the long haul.

Hire women. Yes, it’s really that simple.  And as they approach that mid-level period when they may veer off the trajectory and quit, stay connected.  If you can, offer incentives – development courses, managerial and leadership programs, etc. – to ensure you’re supporting continued growth.

STEM the tide. It’s not new to anyone in science and tech that girls lose interest in math and science in middle school.  All tech, health care and science-driven organizations should be thinking about ways to “STEM” this tide; many established companies actively focus on outreach to young women.  And while startups are typically not in a position to initially do much when it comes to corporate social responsibility, there are ways to make a contribution.  Perhaps it’s creating a multi-stage “giving back” plan that ramps up as the company does.  Or maybe it’s as simple as joining forces with other startups to volunteer in the classroom, mentor young girls through existing nonprofits, or raise awareness through public platforms.

Many people correctly link Silicon Valley with professional progressiveness but it’s long past time we lived up to its promise.  We’re the place for the square pegs, the oddballs, the bendy minds, the innovative spirits and creative geniuses to come, play and stay.  We’re collectively in the business of “pioneering amazing” – revolutionizing the way people think, communicate, act and connect, and turning a profit while doing it.  Our culture needs to welcome women as drivers of that revolution.

Michael Fertik About the Author: Michael Fertik is the CEO and Founder of Reputation.com, a Silicon Valley-based startup that pioneered the online reputation management industry. Women comprise 30 percent of the company’s management team.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. sbsgroup 2:32 am 04/2/2013

    Nice Post. In fact I think women are more hard working then man. They do work more systematically. Whether they are in service or they won their business.

    Link to this

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