International Women’s Day: Choosing Change

International Women’s Day: Choosing Change featured image
Editor’s note: International Women’s Day theme for 2021 is Choose to Challenge. We asked our leaders to present their personal views and share stories of challenges they have undertaken. Meet Kimberly Sharp, Senior Consulting Manager for Rizing’s Consumer Industries. These are Kimberly’s personal observations. 

Understanding our biases, challenging our beliefs, and creating new norms for women in technology 

For most of my career, I’ve been the “only” – the only woman among men and often the only representation of a divergent point of view – in more meetings than I care to count. Sure, we’ve come to learn that diversity and inclusion aren’t only what you see. And, yes, there is often diversity in life and career experience among my male counterparts but each business opportunity and each challenge are all too often still viewed through a single lens devoid of differences in race, gender, religion, and ethnicity.

Understanding Social Bias

When I read Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High  a few years ago, I learned about the “shared pool of meaning.”  The basic premise that when a safe and supportive space is created for sharing ideas, the collective knowledge of the group improves and drives better decision making. This is because each person has freely contributed different knowledge, experiences, and opinions without pre-judgment.  Arriving at the best possible outcomes means not limiting contributions into a shared pool but instead increasing diversity to grow it.

For this and many other reasons, I am a champion of promoting women in IT.  I feel called to make an impact on women in all aspects of their careers the way others have done for me.  I chose to take action by joining organizations like ASUG Women Connect, creating Rizing’s first employee resource group, Women in Technology, and by becoming a mentor to young, professional women just beginning their careers.

I recently completed Harvard University’s Gender-Career IAT (Implicit Association Test), a test designed to measure the unconscious attitudes and beliefs commonly unrecognized in day-to-day life.  Today Project Implicit offers the IAT online for people, “…wanting to gain greater awareness about their own unconscious preferences and beliefs.” So after years of working with women and on issues impacting women in the workplace imagine my surprise when I received this result, “Your responses suggest a moderate automatic association for male with science and female with liberal arts.”  How could I, a champion of women in my profession, have a moderate unconscious bias?

Unfortunately, I am not alone – 80% of the nearly 630,000 respondents from 2003 to 2015 of the Gender-Career IAT had a slight to strong automatic association for males with science. The results demonstrate just how ingrained these antiquated gender norms are in our society.  Progress cannot be taken for granted, especially in light of the UN report released last year sighting 90% of people – both men and women – display prejudiced statements toward women.  This is especially concerning since the numbers today are worse than the results of the same report released in 2004.  These implicit preferences, more than anything else, are what drives discrimination in hiring and promotions in our workplaces.

While we may not be able to change our unconscious biases overnight, we can take very deliberate action to improve gender equality. One way to do this is by supporting the 2021 International Women’s Day campaign, #ChooseToChallenge – a campaign that is so critical to our future.  The notion that gender equality, inclusion and diversity play an important role in achieving successful business outcomes is the foundation of why we must continue to strive for progress. Data of these outcomes is our proof and therefore cannot be ignored. For example, according to The Petersen Institute for International Economics, when women make up just 30% of a company’s leadership team, those companies experience a 15% boost in profitability.

Women make up 47% of today’s workforce, however, that is not the story of women in technology.  Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, the fastest-growing college major for women was computer science.  We witnessed women peaking in 1984 when they made up 37% of the graduates in the field and 38% of the workforce.  Today, our technology workforce looks very different – based on information from theNational Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), only 14% of software engineers and 25% of computer science-related jobs are held by women.  Looking deeper into the numbers shows even more alarming statistics regarding women of color in technology.  The computer science field consists of 5% Asian women, 3% black women, and 1% Hispanic women. Understanding the facts is only the first step; discovering the root cause and taking corrective action is an entirely different conversation and one we must have.

The Decline of Women in Technology and How We Can Impact the Trend

I believe there are 3 key contributors to the decline of women in technology – culture, perfectionism, and investment.

  1. Culture – It is difficult to believe you have what it takes to enter a field when so few of your potential colleagues look like you.  Many companies do not focus on creating a culture of belonging; therefore, we must elevate female role models, especially women of color. by celebrating their successes and supporting them in reaching out to young women in our communities. Actively assisting girls in exploring STEM careers as an option is so much more powerful when a female role model provides the encouragement.
  2. Perfectionism – At an early stage we see girls showing an aptitude for the talents and skills required to successfully pursue a career in technology.  However, during their most formative years, girls are taught to be perfect over courageous.  Societal norms based on our well-engrained unconscious biases significantly contribute to the praise of girls who demonstrate traits of perfectionism, while boys are often praised for taking risks, problem-solving, and building resilience by overcoming failure: just the skills most important in the fast-paced, agile and innovation-driven technology industry.
  3. Investment – Making a conscious effort and committing resources today is the only option if we hope to see today’s girls grow into tomorrow’s technologists.  We must invest our time and financial resources by partnering with schools and non-profits to support STEM afterschool programs, sponsor programs such as Girls Who Code and provide ongoing mentorship of girls in our communities. We must also invest in our own employees by offering developmental programs that lead to career sponsorship while educating ourselves on the unconscious bias that exists, and the benefits of making a concerted effort to reach gender equality at work.

Choosing to Challenge

I am proud that Rizing accepted the challenge by supporting the employees who founded our Women in Technology (WIT) employee resource group;  a group whose mission is to cultivate an inclusive environment that supports and encourages women to develop and achieve their personal and professional purpose. In an effort to address the root causes discussed above, WIT has 3 defined areas of focus – professional development, mentoring, and community outreach.

When asked why we launched WIT at Rizing, the answer was simple.  I was a child of the “think globally, act locally” environmental movement. The idea that small, seemingly insignificant acts carried out each day by many individuals can have a great impact on moving us forward – that is a powerful and inspiring thought.  That same concept rings true to me today when thinking about how I can personally make a difference in tackling gender inequality.

At the end of the day, successful women working in technology, the ones making it into C-suites and board rooms, must champion and sponsor future female leaders. But it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only ones that need to act. We each play a role and can lead from the middle, by joining and supporting employee resource groups and professional associations that strive to challenge the status quo and give us a collective voice.

The 2020 Global Gender Gap Report reveals gender parity will not be attained for 99 years, which is 98 years too long and frankly the reason why we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day each March.  Our efforts cannot begin and end on the eighth of March this year but rather must become part of how we live our lives each day.

To learn more about this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD21) campaign #ChoosetoChallenge visit internationalwomensday.com.

About the Author

As a Senior Consulting Manager with Rizing Consumer Industries, Kimberly is the data practice lead working with companies as they embark on their own data journeys.  Kimberly provides executive education and mentoring to new data leaders by imparting the lessons she learned along the way and she does it with the singular purpose of unlocking data’s value as a strategic asset. In addition to her advisory work with Rizing, Kimberly is actively engaged with the data community.  She is highly regarded as a thought leader – publishing articles and speaking at various industry events. Kimberly is a member of the Society of Information Management and ASUG’s Enterprise Information Management Think Tank.

Passionate about increasing the opportunities for women in IT and Retail, Kimberly founded Rizing’s first employee resource group, WIT (Women in Technology) whose vision is to, “accelerate the leadership path for Rizing women so that they can reach their full potential in an inclusive workplace.” She is also an active member of the Network of Executive Women.

Rizing’s International Women’s Day 2021 Series: