This article was published in the Sunday Star Times and posted on stuff.co.nz 7th August 2016

Companies can change their behaviours to strike a better balance for women, writes Victoria MacLennan.

Vic_15 July crop copyI don’t think there’s any doubt we have a problem with the number of girls taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes at school. It’s just that now, we’re beginning to understand the implications of that gap, and the flow on effect of creating a gender imbalance in such areas as the digital and technology industry.

Research by Girl Scouts of America found only 13 per cent of female teens held any interest in STEM related careers.

It demonstrates just how unattractive these industries have become for females, and we need to expose more women to the possibilities and the future that a career in digital and technology can bring.

If we consider digital and technology to be the lingua franca of future economic success, lifting the productivity and potential of every industry, our focus should be on creating a funnel of digitally literate employees, men and women alike.

Businesses are finding it difficult to attract those women who have followed a variety of paths into the industry. There have been plenty of reports recently that none, or very few women, apply for vacancies and employers are left wondering what they can do to redress that issue.

Biases both conscious and unconscious are ingrained and it is difficult to unlearn and relearn. With the best of intentions bias can creep into language and culture in ways women and other workplace minority groups often find unattractive.

The male dominated leadership era we have been experiencing has left many organisations without diversity of thinking, limiting the role models that females can aspire to and often ingrained a “bro culture” many women find unattractive.

The good news is there are many ways organisations can position themselves, and their vacant roles, as more attractive for female candidates. This will also make them more attractive to diversity beyond gender. I have a shortlist of three options to address: Language, Role Description and Organisational Culture.

Language often gets us all into trouble. Poorly chosen words at the wrong time can be disastrous.

Women don’t identify with many words and phrases companies use to describe themselves or their vacancies, such as work hard/play hard, competitive (often coupled with salary), ninja, geek, nerd, assertive, high performance culture, risk taker – are all just a few I have read recently in job advertisements.

Let’s take “high performance culture” as an example of a phrase women don’t find engaging. These words suggest a culture that is competitive and measurement based. I suggest describing a collaborative or supportive culture. Job descriptions for women should include inclusive words, such as creative, resilient, collaborative, and supportive.

Something a wise man once taught me was when a man reads a role description with 15 characteristics required for the role, he will read 15, claim expertise in 5, know something about 5 others and dismiss the rest – applying for the role and promoting himself as an excellent fit.

A woman will read the 15 characteristics and knowing she is not an expert in all of them not apply for the role even though she is capable of mastering it. I know this is a generalised perspective but you get the gist – women will discount themselves as potential candidates from the role description advertised, men are not daunted by the position description to the same extent.

As a woman I identify most strongly with this. We are conditioned to not promote ourselves and not oversell our capabilities. As an employer you can avoid advertising a list of expertise required, instead describe the type of person and emphasise their aptitude versus existing expertise.

If a formal position description is more your style, you could highlight more soft skills and be very clear you are looking for some, but not all of these requirements.

Finally, there is organisational culture, often the biggest hurdle to attracting women into your company.

Creating a collaborative, flexible, inclusive working environment takes time that many employers are not prepared to undertake. I strongly encourage you to step up and do the work here. Encourage flexibility of hours, part-time or job sharing opportunities. Showcase the women already in your organisation as the happy employees they surely are. Model their experience as one your company can offer.

The simple bottom line is that organisations with more inclusive cultures, who offer flexible employment options find it easier to attract excellent, motivated staff.

Victoria MacLennan is the co-chair of NZ Rise, an industry body that represent the interests of NZ-owned digital technology businesses. She also recently won New Zealand IT Professional of the Year at the ITx Awards.

 – Sunday Star Times