Diversity begets innovation Choreograph / iStock / Thinkstock

Silicon Valley’s Diversity Problem Is an Innovation Problem

Diverse companies tend to be more innovative and profitable, but the tech and industrial fields have problems both attracting and retaining female professionals, says GE's vice president of data and analytics.

A few years ago, Beena Ammanath was speaking at a Big Data technology conference in San Francisco and noticed that she was the only female speaker lined up for the whole day. The vice president of data and analytics at GE, Ammanath thought to herself: “This is impossible. How can there not be more women speaking?” After she had given her presentation, she was greeted by a line of women waiting to speak with her. “They told me it was so refreshing to see a female keynote speaker,” says Ammanath, who is also the board director at ChickTech, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing and retaining diversity in tech. “That’s when I decided to get more active in helping women in technology.”

A Problem Across the Board

Even though the lack of diversity in the high-tech field has won considerable attention, the problem persists. The number of women working in the U.S. computing field is poised to decline from 24 to 22 percent by 2025, according to data from Accenture and Girls Who Code. And then last year, Glassdoor found that the adjusted pay gap for female computer programmers was 28.3%.

This problem isn’t just limited to coders―it extends across the tech eld. “I think this is a problem across the board ― in IoT, data science, engineering, machine learning, and so on,” Ammanath says. “The ratios are pretty dismal in all of those sectors.”

The fact that the numbers are so uneven serves to perpetuate the status quo. For one thing, there are relatively few female role models. “And I have heard senior leaders say, if we meet the industry standard for diversity numbers, we are OK,” Ammanath says. But that response is just a rationalization rather than a solution. “Would you treat your sales numbers the same way? Would you say: oh, we meet the industry standard for sales, so we are okay. And in this case, the industry standard is really low,” Ammanath says. “Companies should be competing to say: ‘I am going to beat this other company’s diversity numbers.' That’s what you do with sales numbers. You have to start taking action.”

Better Diversity, Better Performance

There is a growing amount of evidence that encouraging diversity is not just the morally correct thing to do, but that it can help foster innovation. Ron Burt, PhD of the University of Chicago has found that diverse teams consistently generate better ideas than more-homogenous teams. A 2013 Harvard Business Review article, for instance, found that diverse companies are 45% more likely to have positive market share growth and 70% more likely to tap into new markets. And then a study from Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY that tracked nearly 22,000 organizations internationally found that companies with women leaders tend to be more profitable.

And yet the problem persists, even though many girls express interest in technical subjects. Seventy-four percent of high school girls in the United States are interested in studying STEM, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Only about a quarter of computing jobs, for instance, are held by women. The figures tend to be lower for engineering but higher in statistics, where women get 40% of degrees, according to a 2014 Washington Post article.

While the pipeline is a problem, another challenge is the struggle of retaining women in high tech fields. “It’s a chicken and egg kind of situation,” Ammanath says. “The higher you rise in your career, the fewer women you tend to see. So we don’t have enough female role models for the younger generation of women to follow.”

Tech companies should offer more support and programs to women who might have to take a break from their career to deal with life events, Ammanath says. “Women take time off to be with their children or an elderly parent, which is very important, but most companies don’t have enough programs to help the women come back to the workforce,” she explains. “They often have to start from scratch.”

Ammanath also encourages women who are in the tech field to make the time to be more visible. “We need to put ourselves out there a little bit more,” she says. “We can’t tackle the diversity problem with a heads-down approach. You have to make it easier for the future generation to envision a career in tech. Be proud of your diversity and the unique value you bring to your organization.”

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