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Tech CEOs: The Time is Now to Bridge the Gender Gap

CEO Tony DiBenedetto co-founded Tribridge and leads our strategic direction, growth and development. Read More

Article originally published on Inc.com Dec 7, 2015

Earlier this year I had the harsh realization that the company I spent years building may have failed some of our women team members. As the CEO, I am holding myself accountable to owning the mistakes of the past and, more importantly, helping to drive much-needed change.

During my 30-year career I always believed I treated women and men equally. I have personally promoted, mentored and supported countless women in their respective career journeys. And I am lucky to have been mentored by some great female leaders. But earlier this year I had the harsh realization that the company I spent years building may have failed some of our women team members. I was so focused on growing the business that I didn't recognize some gender inequity building inside the organization while it was happening. As the CEO, I am holding myself accountable to owning the mistakes of the past and, more importantly, helping to drive much-needed change.

The Good

By now we have all seen the abysmal statistic that the national average for women employed in technology services is about 25 percent. The spotlight has been on the tech giants like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Salesforce and Microsoft, but what about us smaller to mid-size employers who make up a bulk of the U.S. employment market? How do we fare on gender diversity?

My first instinct was that we are doing pretty well around gender diversity. At the urging of some colleagues (both male and female), we decided to run the data in January. My hunch was right: our firm consists of more than 40 percent women. We are ahead of the national trend, which I believe is a direct correlation to our strong values and open culture focused on communications, team and trust. Our innovation as a company is built on the differences of opinions and experiences we individually bring to the table. We attract and retain really good, strong people, a growing number of whom are female.

The Bad and The Ugly

My pride in beating the national average was quickly deflated by a feeling of uneasiness. As we dug deeper into the data, I was surprised to see the gender discrepancies in our own organization. There is a disconnect between the number of people in the company and the percentage of women in senior leadership roles, particularly in the technical delivery side of the business. Our numbers reflect the skewed landscape of the tech industry: the more senior the leadership position, the more likely a man is to fill that role.

I knew it was time to take action, starting with publicly acknowledging the elephant in the room. During our company retreat later in January I stood before our entire team and shared the "40% and growing" statistic. It was met with a moderate round of applause. I then announced a new initiative to evaluate how we can do a better job of developing women leaders. The room erupted in cheers. It was the first small step in a journey that has already greatly impacted our culture.

7 Impactful Changes in Just 7 Months

A small group of women spent the next couple months confidentially interviewing other female team members representing a cross-section of recent campus hires, middle management and senior leadership roles across various parts of our business. Our executive team also researched the latest HR trends and practices as well as what other tech companies are doing to attract and retain women employees.

Based on feedback and recommendations, we instituted some immediate changes and set the wheels in motion for driving longer-term satisfaction and business impact. Just seven months later, the renewed energy across the company is palpable.

1. Formalized Women's Network

Before this year, I believed that because our culture encourages open dialogue, female team members would be more vocal about their observations and challenges. That was generally not the case. We didn't have a formal platform that supported women sharing their ideas, insights and struggles. That has changed. Led by our vice president of HR, a core team of women created the network with a three-pronged mission to recruit, retain and develop women through a variety of programming. The network is also engaging in community outreach with organizations that support women in the workforce as well as our corporate philanthropy partner, Boys & Girls Clubs, to help school-aged girls explore careers in technology.

2. Unlimited PTO and 12 Weeks of Paid Maternity and Paternity Leave

This is one of the most exciting and tangible organizational transformations we made this year. Large employers like LinkedIn and Yahoo have recently shifted to unlimited PTO and increased their maternity and paternity leave. When our women team members gave consistent feedback that a similar work model would make a big difference, we took it to heart. Why is this important? It's a departure from traditional benefits packages, especially for a company of our size, but we found a way to make it work. We've always had a flexible work environment, but it's our goal to continue building a culture that helps every team member lead a well-balanced life.

3. Equalizing the Board of Directors and Leadership Team

A 360-view of gender equity across an organization isn't complete without evaluating how financial and strategic decisions are being made at the board level. Considering women comprise nearly half of our employee base, the lack of representation on our board was glaring. When board seats opened up, we sought female executives with exceptional credentials to fill the positions. I am excited that we are headed into a new year with female representation on our board that reflects our percentage of women team members, which means more diverse points of view, perspectives and experiences at the helm of our company. I am committed to developing and recruiting women to our leadership team with the same sense of urgency and importance.

4. Representation in Recruitment

Our hiring process includes interviews with multiple team members and a group consensus on selecting the job candidate. We now require that at least one woman be on every interview team. This gives prospective employees a true sense of our team's makeup and adds diversity of perspectives in hiring decisions. We are also participating in women's professional development and networking groups, like Women in Technology International (WITI), to increase the number of female job candidates--particularly for technical positions.

5. Changing the Career Path Conversation

One of the most disappointing pieces of feedback we received is that some women, despite high individual performance, believed they had been overlooked for a promotion (or observed the same in a female colleague). We recognized that women in general aren't as likely to highlight their own achievements or ask for a promotion. By training our managers to better align communication styles, regardless of gender, to the performance review process and encouraging meaningful one-on-one conversations about professional aspirations, we are working toward quickly removing the barriers to success at every level of the career path for all team members.

6. Professional Development

Unfortunately there aren't as many female mentors as there are women wanting to be mentored. The new women's network is changing that dynamic by connecting campus hires with experienced team members and making introductions across women leaders in different areas of the business. The group also launched a quarterly professional development series that provides leadership training developed for women by women. Topics like financial leadership are designed to give female team members better visibility into company P&L and how their respective roles impact firm growth and the bottom line.

7. Communications Training

And not just for women. Every female team member interviewed suggested education for all team members on differences in communications styles. With men historically making up the majority of our firm, it's easy to see how more masculine communications traits have been accepted as the norm. But we can't support an environment that tolerates bias or double standards based on gender or any other factor. In addition to utilizing the Real Colors tool that identifies temperament and behavior based on four colors, we are rolling out additional training to improve communications effectiveness, sensitivity and collaboration across all team members.

Change Begins with Accountability

A recent study published by LeanIn.org and McKinsey on Women in the Workplace revealed that, despite good intentions by the C-suite, gender equality is a long way off from being a reality. Three-quarters of the 118 major companies surveyed named gender diversity as a priority of the CEO, but fewer than half of the 30,000 men and women surveyed said it was high on their own CEO's priority list.

This speaks to a lack of trust and accountability. As a CEO, I can no longer afford to take my eye off the ball. Embracing the realities of gender inequity was just the first step. I am becoming more conscious of how I communicate on an individual basis. In meetings I am working to ensure women feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their opinions. Most importantly, I am listening more and learning a lot. I am proud of the progress we've made as an organization in a short amount of time. But we, like most companies, have a long way to go in bridging the gender gap, and we are just getting started.

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