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Why Good Intentions + WIT + D&I = FAIL

In two hours I am honored to be the guest of the CSME Women’s Book Club event at Microsoft to discuss my book, “Crushing the IT Gender Bias.”  In celebration of this, I want to discuss the importance of Women in Technology, (WIT) initiatives and the mistake many groups continue to make these days consolidating them into Diversity and Inclusion, (D&I) groups.

A few years ago, when Women in Technology, (WIT) initiatives were the newest, coolest thing for business to be a part of, I was awarded an annual WIT award from the state’s tech organization.  I was quite humbled to receive this award, anxious to attend the awards ceremony with fellow recipients specializing in other recognized areas.  The event was a well -attended gala by over 1000 people.

The Change

The state organization’s WIT group was quite large at this time and scheduled activities were well received, involving all tiers of technical abilities.  After I’d received the award, it was announced some months later that it would be the last year for the WIT award, as focus had evolved to have diversity and inclusion initiatives.  The change was made with incredibly good intentions.  Many of us were thrilled by the prospect of needed representation and priority for D&I to finally receive some much needed attention.  We also were highly concerned that instead of creating its own group, as they’d done for so many other areas, it was being folded into the WIT group.

In the next two months, I noticed that the dynamic of the WIT activities changed.  As the group started to “fold in” diversity and inclusion, no longer did the deeper technical women attend.  I reached out to those women who were close to me in the WIT groups and discovered that most of them had left the original WIT group once it became a D&I group to join Women Who Code, Girl’s Develop It and Girl Geek Dinners.  When I asked why, they highlighted the loss of focus on WIT challenges and began to refer to the state lead WIT group as the “happy/shiny people.”  This was due to a perception around a need to check off boxes on a checklist, the lack of deeper technical folks being involved and a lack of discussion around solving the challenges groups were facing in the industry.  As I had experienced similar since the update in the state organization group, I ended up investing in the local Girl Geek Dinners as the organizer and partnered up to cosponsor more technical events and discussions centered around WIT issues between us, Women who Code and Girls Develop It.

2020 Numbers

As of 2020, women in technology make up less than 25% of the workforce and a considerable challenge around that percentage as it includes roles such as recruiters and project managers that may not actually perform technical duties.  Currently for GAFAM, (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) the WIT percentage sits at 25%.  The numbers for Microsoft for women in their workforce is at 20%, which always surprises me with the amount of focus we have on ensuring women in tech have an evolved working experience.  I’ve never felt more accepted in any position in my 25 years in technology at any other company.  What this tells us, if a company like Microsoft is having a challenge with all the work they’ve done, then this tells us women in technology is not self-sustaining.  If we think we don’t still need a focused effort in this area, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

Data shows that even though over half of college students are women, only 20% are headed for CS degrees.  Forty years ago, this number was 40% and the loss of role models and the way we view technical careers is part of the reason.

The cultural challenges still exist.  Girls are still raised with huge limitations between them and leading into a technical career.  71% of grown women in the industry still state they’ve worked in tech companies with a strong “bro culture”.   I’m in a group of deeply technical individuals and we, just as with other engineering groups, on average, consist of a 5:1 ratio of men to women.  As some are trying to “coat” the numbers by including less technical roles to soothe us is not the answer.  Giving the focus that each specialized group deserves is important to its success, otherwise your group or company only appears to be “checking the box”.

The Fix

In the years since the state’s organization new initiative for D&I was announced, it didn’t become the large win they’d hoped for and they chose to learn from their mistake.  In the end, this group re-embraced WIT as an individual group within their organization.  They discovered that consolidating specialized groups with unique struggles isn’t a formula for success and each deserves focus.  When they have consolidated, this results in members less likely to invest when they don’t receive the investment in their interest shown.  Now that they have re-engaged their WIT group, the events, conferences and such are once more well attended. I’m thrilled to see this renewed success into the WIT community and the response to reversing the change appears to be quite successful.

I’m now seeing more organizations disbanding very successful WIT groups with strong involvement, only to roll them up into D&I groups.  As in the experience I’ve just shared, consolidating specialized groups into one, becomes akin to choosing to do a “Black, Women and LBGTQ Lives Matter” protest.  Most won’t be happy and no one will be able to address the varied and important topics each group requires a priority on.

In regards to the D&I groups I’ve been part of, there was limited success in making the most of limited resources and it alienates many important members of originally focused groups. The ending “consolidated” topics resulted priorities unresolved in exchange for a broader range of coverage.  The organizations no longer appeared to be addressing the problems which were a priority to each focus group and those members of the group who really drive change or increase involvement by others simply left.

My hope is, by sharing this lesson learned by the state organization, it will help guide others to not make the same mistake down the road with other WIT groups.  Create new D&I groups- create them with passion for diversity and lead them to take on the challenges uniquely faced by passionate folks who are focused on D&I.  Yes, there will be some overlap with WIT, but these two groups should not be consolidated.  Both are the future of technology and consolidation will only deprive us all of success.

Have a great Monday, everyone!

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