As a chief executive in the tech industry, I know firsthand the challenges our industry faces when it comes to increasing diversity. Tech Republic reported recently on the "massive gender gap" in technology jobs--the most recent stats from the National Center for Women & Information Technology show that women comprise only around a quarter (26 percent) of the computing workforce. This is true even though more women than men enroll in--and graduate from--college.

This gender-ratio imbalance can be particularly skewed within engineering teams, as Benn Parr noted writing for CNET. A few years back, Bloomberg Businessweek dubbed this "The Rise of the 'Brogrammer,'" noting that a culture based on "broing down" and "crushing code" is not going to attract more women to the industry. In fact, creating a culture that feels more testosterone-fueled than inclusive can deter women from joining, rather than increasing their ranks in an industry that desperately needs them.

Technology isn't the only field that suffers from too few women; all of the STEM fields have been found to create environmental and social barriers that result in blocking women's participation at greater levels, according to AAUW. Beyond STEM, many other industries have also been found to lack women, particularly at the upper levels, including energy, mining, construction, toys, law enforcement, politics, and news broadcasting. In fact, a recent story in Ad Week declared that "most major industries" lack female leaders.

Why is it so important to get closer to a 50-50 blend of men and women in any industry? Research has proven repeatedly that having more women leaders isn't just something that's nice to do--it actually creates better business results. In one of the latest and most comprehensive of these studies, DDI found that companies with the top 20 percent of financial performance have close to 30 percent female leaders, while the poorest financial performers have under 20 percent women in leadership roles.

What's more, according to Whitney Johnson, co-founder and managing director of Springboard Fund, a $50 million fund investing in women-led high growth businesses, research out of Dow Jones shows that successful venture-backed companies have twice the number of women in the highest ranks. "These companies are more likely to go public, turn a profit, or be sold for more money than they raised," says Johnson. "If you want to raise the odds that you'll be successful, hire women and men in your senior ranks."

Johnson adds that despite rafts of compelling data points, less than 10 percent of all venture funding is going to women. "In part this is because there are relatively few women-led firms, and women-led firms are 70 percent more likely to back a female entrepreneur," explains Johnson. "All this is to say, for investors seeking outsize returns, we are at the tipping point of a huge opportunity. And we fully intend to take advantage of this."

This all makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. When women are underrepresented, companies miss out on their diverse perspectives. As Brande Stellings, vice-president of Corporate Board Services for Catalyst, Inc., said in a recent interview: "Just having different viewpoints around the table helps disrupt 'group-think.' You don't want to build a team with only half the room.

So if you're in a company or industry that needs more women, you need to stop asking why, and start helping to create the kind of cultural changes that will entice more women to join your organization. Here are a few starting points to facilitate a female-friendly corporate culture:

  • Monitor your recruitment policies. Getting more women on board begins at the recruiting stage. You must go beyond expressing a commitment to gender diversity in position announcements, though this is an important first step. You must also ensure that both women and men are on search committees and participate in interview panels--and that management shows true commitment by holding people accountable for building a gender-diverse staff. By ensuring equality in how you recruit employees, you'll begin to create a trickle-down effect that permeates the culture once you have talent of both genders in the door.
  • Be sensitive to informal systems and behaviors. The "brogrammer" culture mentioned above is a good example of what not to do if you're trying to create an inclusive work environment. At Pluralsight, we work hard to do the opposite by creating a no-fear culture where everyone feels welcome; people can't feel like entrepreneurs, which is one of our core values, if they spend their day watching their back. We ask all of our leaders to imagine themselves in their team members' shoes on a regular basis--and this includes thinking about gender issues. With this perspective in mind, we ask everyone to identify and then eliminate sources of fear that others might be experiencing, substituting effective leadership.
  • Rethink your benefits and incentives. Fast Company suggests that what's needed to attract and retain more female workers is to think in terms of policies and benefits packages that can help your entire workforce. The point is that what women are increasingly demanding from their employers often aligns with what men want too: a chance for better work-life balance and greater flexibility. When people are free to take care of their priorities outside the office, it creates a culture of engagement in-house. Pluralsight is part of a growing movement of companies that provide all employees with unlimited vacation time. Both women and men need more time to attend to family and personal matters than is typically afforded by the standard two-week-a-year vacation. We've found that not only does our open-ended PTO policy make people of both genders more productive at work, but it makes them happier in the office, too. Remember to also carefully consider offering other benefits that will help working parents succeed both at work and at home, such as flexible schedules, daycare services, and a private mothers' lounge.

Clearly, these three steps represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating a workplace culture that will attract more women, but they're an excellent launching pad. In addition, don't forget the importance of setting up mentorship and sponsorship opportunities--both formal and informal--to help grease the wheels for more women to reach upper management positions and help with retention down the road. Whitney Johnson also notes that women can help create the kind of culture they'd like to join by starting to speak out more or better yet, by starting their own companies. Most importantly, I encourage you to keep in mind a key point from Pluralsight's culture guide: always hire people who can do better than you can. From my own experience, I've found that person often is a woman.

Published on: Feb 19, 2015