She was having a tough time at home. It had gotten so bad she hasn’t slept well in nearly a month. At work, though, no one noticed — or cared.
While the headlines are filled with stories of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior, a new report from Women In Communications & Technology (WCT) suggests that a lack of flexible policies, mentorship resources and effective measurement of diversity efforts is having a different kind of negative effect. Women are not only struggling to advance into more senior roles in technology companies; they’re also often feeling isolated and lonely in the roles they already have.
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The report, called Closing The Gender Gap, was based on roundtable interviews that involved more than 250 business leaders. WCT, which represents female technology professionals in Canada, held the events across seven cities and unveiled the findings at an event in Toronto on Tuesday.
The story of the exhausted woman on the job is made worse by workplace environments where other employees roll their eyes or make comments when their female colleagues need to leave the office early. In fact, much of the report’s biggest takeaways were qualitative in nature, with direct feedback from the roundtables that paint a worrying picture about it’s like to be female in organizations that are supposedly focused on innovation.
“When the diversity and inclusion officer repots to the CEO, that’s when it impacts on culture,” was one of the comments read aloud at the event. “I don’t know how we can expect change without organizational goal-setting,” was another. The role of technology was also called out as a potential way to free up women from being unnecessarily chained to their desks.
Among other things, the report recommends diversity programs that are centralized at head offices in major cities like Toronto work harder to address regional needs. Other ideas included committing to more meaningful objectives around promoting women into leadership roles, though the idea of “quotas” still triggers controversy.
According to Barbara Williams, the COO of Corus Entertainment where the WCT event took place, changes in hiring practices sometimes break down over debates about whether a woman is truly qualified for a particular role. The reality, she said, is that merit and qualifications tend to be subjective, and that historically men who were a stretch for a role might be given a chance anyway.
“Fixing this is easy — hire more women. That’s it! And people say they’re behind it, but they don’t do it,” she said, adding that adding a single woman to an all-male team isn’t the answer, either. “You don’t ever have just one who’s struggling to fit, you have lots. Maybe everybody is learning that business doesn’t have to get done on the golf course.”
Paul Vallee, president and CEO of enterprise IT consulting firm Pythian, suggested that rather than look at quotas, employers should strive for a blended team that makes the most sense for the business — and this includes not only women but other races and sexual orientations.
A few years ago, Pythian actually opened up about the lack of diversity in its own ranks, which was the first step in making real changes, he said.
“Holding yourself accountable means (using) a scoreboard,” he said. “It makes goals real, and if you do backslide — and sometimes you will — it will make you pay attention to where you have problem.”
What may be less obvious are the cultural cues that leave some women on the sidelines. Jules Andrew, a senior vice-president at RBC, talked about moving to Canada after working in several other countries and quickly learning that she needed to brush up on her knowledge of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I grew up in Florida, so I arrived and I was calling it ‘ice hockey,’” she recalled with a laugh. Now she checks for the latest scores on the local news before heading into the office. “You need to follow it, or you’re not going to be involved in that beginning part of the meeting where it’s what everyone else is talking about.”
Williams said that, in addition to finding more opportunity for women in tech firms, leaders should be careful about how they discuss issues around childcare. In some cases an organization might talk about supporting “motherhood,” but it’s really about parenthood, she said.
“The language here is really key . . . The words mean a lot, I think,” she said. “There are no girls who work on my team — there are women.”
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