Seven ways to retain your female tech talent

Woman coding

We constantly hear that there's not enough women in technology roles, and most statistics suggest it's absolutely true.

While women form half of the global workforce, that drops to under a third in IT, according to Gartner, and women fill just 22% of tech leadership roles.

But while there's plenty of advice on getting more women into the tech industry, there's not so much guidance on how to keep them there. This is surprising given the financial incentives - there's a proven link between having a more diverse workforce and earning more money, with McKinsey research pointing to higher profitability as a result.

So IT Pro spoke to Tech Talent Charter co-founder Debbie Forster, and Forrester's security and risk research director, Stephanie Balaouras, to discover their biggest tips on how to retain female tech talent. Here's what they told us.

Examine your culture and avoid 'brotopia'

As Uber discovered, a toxic workplace culture can drive women away and even prove catastrophic for your business in the long-term, making it a priority to get right.

Forster says: "Companies must ensure they understand what their culture is and that's not just what they say it is on the website. It's actually talking to people and understanding what's going on."

She warns against "brotopia" - a borrowed phrase - but adds that change can't simply come from the top down.

"It's about starting those conversations through line management, through department meetings," she explains.

"You need to empower people to ask questions. I don't think there's a point in encouraging confrontational behaviour but I do think it's worth being able to draw attention to things and helping people see ways they can constructively raise attention when they see ways things are going wrong."

The most important thing is to involve everyone in your company, Forster adds. "Getting it wrong brings risk and threat, but getting it right brings opportunity and bottom line profit."

Track your hiring data

Any tech employee worth their salt knows the value of data, and Forrester recommends bringing it to bear on your workforce too.

"Data is critical in two ways," explains analyst Balaouras. Historical data about applicants, hiring, retention rates, promotions, performance reviews and more can expose conscious or unconscious hiring biases, for one thing, she says, but it also helps provide a baseline overview of where you're at, and help you learn from it and set targets you can progress to.

Offer flexible working and encourage normal working hours

We've written a lot about the benefits of flexible working here at IT Pro, and it's no surprise that letting employees work from home now and again is a good way to generate goodwill and loyalty, whatever their gender.

"Long hours is something that drives women and some men out of great tech jobs," Tech Talent Charter's Forster says. "We sometimes find that doing long hours doesn't necessarily mean we're doing better work, we're not necessarily more productive."

"Really working towards genuine flexibility on both sides is a benefit for everyone," explains Forster. It's also a way to ensure that if people are working late, at least they don't then have a long commute home.

By encouraging people to make use of these benefits, "you not only retain great talent but you'll get better work from your talent", Forster argues. "Whenever I gave that flexibility [to work from home] I spent more time checking on my staff and saying to people, 'okay, it's 10pm, you need to sign off soon'."

Get mentoring right

Mentorship and good management are important for all employees, but Forster and Balaouras tell us that providing encouragement and role models is especially vital for female staff.

Balaouras says: "If security teams can formalise or strongly encourage leaders to mentor women, this is important in and of itself because so many women we interviewed said that having mentors inside and outside the organisation was key to their success and their longevity in the industry."

It's important to differentiate mentoring from line management, too, adds Forster: "Line managers are most often focused on what's happening now and what needs to happen next," she says. "A mentor can think more broadly about what might happen in the long-term, what are the possibilities [for your career] and what might be the bigger next step. They help give a wider perspective in terms of reframing situation opportunities to help women see where their assets and strengths are."

Forming good relationships to feel able to provide honest and clear feedback is key for mentors here, as Forster warns that many women have left jobs where they've been passed over for promotion, all because somebody hasn't been straight with them on how to improve, whereas they have with male staff.

"Once relationships are established, providing guidance on career and professional development, encouraging women to apply for new roles and promotion, helping women increase their network throughout the industry et cetera are all very helpful," continues Balaouras.

Rethink your maternity leave support

In a mad rush to finish their tasks and perform handovers in the months before giving birth, one danger is companies can focus too much on a seamless passing of the baton when a member of staff goes on maternity leave, rather than on how best to support that person.

Forster advises more planning before maternity leave begins, and gaining an understanding of how staff want to stay in the loop. There's three official 'keep in touch' days over the course of maternity leave, but some women will want more or less interaction, or to stay in touch in different ways.

"[You have to ask] what would the woman like to see happening in a perfect world, and try and plan that out and see how can you help her keep up to speed on these things in a manageable way," she says. "Whatever you discuss before they leave, give them that flexibility [to change their mind] because we never know what happens when we have a child."

Coming back from maternity leave is just as crucial to get right, and Forster recommends spending the same time and effort on doing it properly as you would on inducting a new member of staff.

Providing bootcamps to upskill women in code bases that have changed, or new technical skills they should learn since their maternity leave, show you remain invested in their development.

Be relentless about professional development

For women re-entering the workforce after childbirth, or women just looking for the next step in their career, professional development is crucial, and can help avoid costly recruitment when you have the right staff already working for you.

"Internal candidates are an excellent funnel for new security talent and a great way to recruit women to the security team," states Balaouras. "The institutional knowledge and influence internal candidates have about the organisation and throughout the organisation are invaluable to security teams - especially teams that struggle with business alignment, engagement and effective communication."

For women coming back from maternity leave, it's worth seeing where they want to take their careers, adds Forster. Those seeking an alternative route might be a better fit for that vacancy you're struggling to fill because they already know your company inside out, and you know the value they can bring already.

Contribute to wider change in the tech industry

The RSA conference, the biggest security event of the year, used to be fine with vendors hiring scantily-clad women for their stands, Balaouras points out (and is now under fire for the lack of women headlining this year's event), but that doesn't mean vendors have to follow suit.

"If every enterprise and vendor made a commitment to promoting a positive, inclusive culture for women at all security events, I really believe the collective effort would make a difference," she says.

Another step is to bring more of your own female tech workers to these events to take an active part in improving the culture.

"Many times I'll find that at the vendor's booth, most of the women are from the event staff, they're not necessarily solution architects and engineers conducting demos and answering attendee's questions," the Forrester analyst states.