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An examination of what it means to be a woman in tech

What does it mean to be a woman in tech and how can companies help their female workers? Learn how companies can offer support.

Being a woman in tech is filled with challenges.

One of the most frequently discussed challenges is the lack of women in the tech industry. And those who do work at those types of companies might gravitate toward certain departments while avoiding others.

Meanwhile, women in tech also face the same work-life balance challenges as those in other industries, including child care and handling household tasks in addition to working a full-time job. Burnout also remains a major concern at tech companies for everyone.

Here, Karen Worstell, senior cybersecurity strategist at cloud computing company VMware, shares why she believes statistics about women working in tech can be misleading, how she has seen support for working mothers change over her years in the tech industry and what companies should be doing to help their employees avoid burnout.

There are still too few women in tech. For example, a 2022 study by Zippia found that women comprise 28% of the tech industry workforce in the U.S. Where are you still seeing gaps in progress?

Karen Worstell: That [number also] means you count all the women who are working in tech including admins, HR and everything. So, the number of women in tech roles, where they're actually doing engineering or architecture, design, coding -- that still is at the lower [percentages]. I would say it's probably closer to about 15% to 18%. And I just don't see the numbers dramatically bumping up.

We can see lots of improvement [in developing] the pipeline. We've got all these initiatives to help get women into the market and into the industry. What we know is they don't make it into their first-level management job -- that first rung on the ladder. And we know that there is a really hard ceiling [around] the senior director level. So, they're not making it.

One time, I [looked at] 50 companies and went to their webpage [to see] what roles do women have in senior leadership on their leadership team? And it's almost invariably marketing, legal and HR. So, very rarely do you see women leading the engineering team, leading the product team. It's the difference between the support roles and the line roles. It's the same in cybersecurity. You see fewer women leading security architecture, network engineering, or incident detection and response teams.

We have an increasingly healthy [talent] pipeline and a really leaky faucet. We're not keeping the [women] that come in.
Karen WorstellSenior cybersecurity strategist, VMware

How does an increasing number of women choosing to leave the workforce play into all this?

Worstell: We have an increasingly healthy [talent] pipeline and a really leaky faucet. We're not keeping the people that come in.

Since the pandemic, the tech sector lost a gigantic number of women because they still bear the lion's share of responsibilities in the home, especially if they have a family. When women either need to or want to work and have a family also, we lose out in the tech sector by not making that an easier thing for them to do. [Working mothers hit a wall where they say,] 'I'm shortchanging my family to such a degree that I have to leave and find a different job.'

I was a general manager and a partner at Microsoft. That meant I had a compensation package that made it possible for me to outsource the rest of my life, if I needed to. And I did. It got to a point where I didn't clean my house, I didn't shop for my groceries. Somebody took care of everything so that I could focus on my job. But I had enough resources by that point in my career to make the choice of, is this something I'm going to do myself or am I going to hire somebody to do it for me because I can? What's trapping women is the in-between stage where they don't feel that they have the resources to make that kind of a choice to enable them to work.

What are some policies that companies can put into place to make it easier for women to be able to continue with full-time work and raise a family?

Worstell: One of the things that they do [at VMware] that I appreciate even at this stage of my life -- and I can certainly see how it would have made an enormous impact for me as a parent -- is this flexibility in terms of choosing days off. In the days when I was [a working parent], the contrast is stark, because we had no family medical leave and we had no parental leave. And so, if you wanted to take care of your kids when they got chickenpox -- which mine did -- you end up taking off all your vacation and all your own personal sick leave, and then working when you're sick.

So, [we need] discretionary time off. No questions asked. The flexibility to get your work done on a flexible schedule. Being able to work from home if you choose to. Being able to work in the office if you'd rather. If you do have a back-to-office policy, then make sure that there's [company-based] backup day care. Backup child care options are important so that parents can feel really good about bringing their kids to the office and having a place where they are cared for.

We need to start thinking about our employees as 'whole life' people as opposed to saying, 'We have you for this much time, and we have your undivided attention, and you're not going to be doing family stuff while you're working for us.' It involves adjusting a lot of traditional perspectives about the way we approach work and home life.

How did the pandemic influence the conversation around employee burnout?

Worstell: I don't know that the pandemic necessarily changed the number [of tech employees who self-identify as burned out]. I think one of the things that it has done is it's made us way more willing to talk about it.

I think there's an expectation now, since the pandemic, that we have to think about work differently. So, people are able to come out and say, 'I can't deal with my level of stress or my level of fatigue. I need some help talking about that and figuring out how I'm going to handle it.' I see that as the major change, that people are more willing to open up a conversation.

What are some strategies that companies can put into place to reduce employee burnout that you're not seeing happen very often or at all?

Worstell: I think it goes along with people being more open to talking about it. But here's the rub: Who do you go talk to? The first person somebody ought to be able to talk to about how they're managing their job stress is their manager. That's a terrifying prospect for managers, because we talk about performance management, but what we don't do is, how do you be empathetic? [People need to feel they can] come in and have a conversation about how things are going [and know] there are no repercussions -- you're not going to be talked about, you're not going to be the person who can't measure up.

Having managers be that first line of defense is a really important strategy that most companies are not doing right now. They're doing a lot of other things which are great, [such as] wellness programs, getting a wellness allowance.

When somebody needs another person in the room to be present for them when they're struggling, what they're more likely to get is a referral [for] employee assistance. And that may be the right answer. But in most cases, I think it could be handled by a person having a listening ear, such as their manager, before it goes to full-blown outsourcing therapy.

Editor's note: Responses were edited for length and clarity.

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